HP Removes Memristors from Its ‘Machine’ Roadmap Until Further Notice

By Tiffany Trader

June 11, 2015

One year after Hewlett-Packard launched its ambitious “this will change everything” project called “The Machine,” the company is making some concessions to its initial vision, something it says is necessary in order to deliver a working prototype by next year.

Announced with great fanfare at last year’s HP Discovery event, the Machine was to be a reinvention of computing for the data era. It was to be special in every way — specialized cores, a purpose-built open source operating system optimized for non-volatile systems, and the centerpiece: memristor non-volatile memory, a special kind of resistor circuit that functions as both storage and memory.

Now some of that specialness is being put on hold in favor of a more conventional approach. The memristor is the main sticking point; the technology has come a long way under HP’s research arm, but still isn’t economically viable for volume production.

“We way over-associated this with the memristor,” Mr. Fink said in an interview with New York Times writer Quentin Hardy. “We’re doing what we can to keep it working within existing technology.”

In that vein, HP will use DRAM memory for its prototype, and will convert the shared memory pool to non-volatile memory, for example phase change memory, in future versions.

Memristors are still on the table and HP is aiming to have them inside the system when it makes its market debut five years from now.

HP the Machine one-node mechanical mockup 2015

A mechanical mockup of the prototype was on display at last week’s Discovery conference in Las Vegas. Next year, HP expects to reveal a working rack with 320 TB of “main memory” (240 TB shared memory plus 80 TB local to the compute node), 2,500 CPU cores, and an optical backplane. It will run a version of Linux rather than a customized operating system.

According to Moor Insights’ Paul Teich, the compute node for the proof-of-concept will employ an off-the-shelf ARMv8-based SoC, while future prototypes will support other processor types.

Specialized processing was one of the hallmarks of the original announcement. The right compute for the right workload would make it possible to achieve a factor of six times performance increase using 80 times less energy, HP said a year ago. Since repositioning the Machine as a “memory-driven computer architecture” last week, the messaging has focused more on the democratization of fast memory and less on processing power. While power-efficient memory is crucial for reaching computing milestones, such as exascale, it was the combining of component technologies into a single project that made the Machine such a radical departure from the status quo.

“A revolutionary new computer architecture…this changes everything,” was how company CEO Meg Whitman characterized this confluence.

Despite the scaled-down plans, HP Labs Deputy Director Andrew Wheeler insists “it’s been a great first year” full of “significant progress on all fronts.”

“The primary objective for next year is to deliver that initial working prototype of the Machine. This is important to us so we can use that platform to continue our research as well as to enable internal development teams and partners so they can advance our memory-driven computing architecture,” said Wheeler.

HP Machine stack visual 2015

Speaking at Discover 2015, Sarah Anthony, systems research project manager at HP, addressed the Machine’s flattened memory architecture as she pointed to the mechanical mockup. “Here in this one node volume, we have terabytes of memory and we have hundreds of gigabits per second of bandwidth off the node, and that’s really important because we’ve changed what I/O is. It’s not I/O, it’s a memory pipe,” she said.

“It’s going to provide a great foundation for ultra-scale analytics, but it has a significant impact on the system software. If you think about it, the essential characteristics of the Machine are that you have this massive capacity in terms of memory, tremendous bandwidth and very low latency. This is going to cause us to make modifications in the operating system and the software system on top of that,” continued Rich Friedrich, director of Systems Software for the Machine at HP.

For lots more on HP’s design plans, check out the Discovery 2015 panel presentation “HP Labs presents a peek under the hood of the Machine, the future of computing,” available in full below:

In another HP Labs presentation titled “Reimagining systems and application software for The Machine,” Principal Researcher at HP Kimberly Keeton covers the defining features of the Machine and explores the implications for systems software, programming models and applications. Also included is an overview of the Machine’s “shared something” approach, which represents a middle ground between shared everything and shared nothing models.

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