Hewlett Packard has announced plans to ship a commercial computer based around silicon photonics and memristor technologies, dubbed The Machine - even as its memristor commercialisation schedule continues to slip.
Announced at the HP Discover conference in Las Vegas, The Machine is described as a combination of traditional electronic computing for processing, photonic computing for communications, and memristor technology for storage - and is, the company claims, entirely representative of the future of computing.
Memristors, a portmanteau of 'memory' and 'resistor,' have been described as the fourth circuit element
. Postulated by Professor Leon Chua in 1971 and since proven in the lab, memristors offer the performance of dynamic memory but in a non-volatile form - think SSD-like NAND flash on speed. A machine equipped with enough memristor storage could, theoretically, do away with the distinction between dynamic and static storage - allowing the processor to operate on any stored data without the intermediate step of having to load it into dynamic memory.
In 2010, HP announced that it was to commercialise a variant of memristor technology under the name ReRAM
in partnership with SK Hynix. Since then, companies have produced prototype hardware but little in the way of retail-ready implementations - bar a tiny microcontroller featuring embedded ReRAM
from Panasonic in 2013.
For HP, memristor commercialisation has always been a couple of years away - for the last decade, the company has promised it is just around the corner. Speaking to Bloomberg
, HP Labs head Martin Fink admitted that the schedule has been extended somewhat: while the company is devoting around 75 per cent of its R&D staff to the project, a commercialised implementation of The Machine isn't scheduled to appear until some time between 2017 and 2020.
During this time, HP is said to be concentrating on scaling memristor technology down in terms of production costs and on developing small-scale high-speed optical interconnects based on silcon photonics - the use of optics for data communication between and even within chips, as well as externally. The Machine, HP added, will run a custom operating system based on Linux and released under an open source licence, tweaked to make better use of the unified high-speed memory-cum-storage infrastructure that will be at the heart of the system.