HP takes a crack at reinventing the computer

Hewlett-Packard talks about its project for reinventing a "stale, decades-old" computing paradigm at its Discover conference in Las Vegas.

Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
Brooke Crothers
3 min read

HP's CTO Martin Fink discusses the 'The Machine' -- the company's new computing architecture. Hewlett-Packard

Here's a tall order: Reinvent the computer, both hardware and software architecture. That's what Hewlett-Packard is trying to do.

Speaking at HP's Discover Conference in Las Vegas, CEO Meg Whitman kicked things off Wednesday by laying out the reasons that HP started a project to completely rethink the computer.

Rising data volumes from "cloud computing, the Internet of things, mobile networks, machine to machine computing" are generating unfathomable and unmanageable amounts of data and a new computing architecture is necessary to deal with it, Whitman said.

"We'vebeen using the same architecture and been doing it the same way for decades," said HP CTO Martin Fink, who also spoke at the conference.

'The Machine' concept. Hewlett-Packard

Ninety percent of what the operating system and processors are doing "is just shuffling data between different storage tiers," he said. For example, getting data from pokey hard drives to speedier memory.

HP's answer is The Machine -- a new compute design built from the ground up. Processors specialized for a particular task or "workload" connect to a fabric based on light for communication. In turn, all of this is connected to a large single pool of "universal memory," which obviates the need for separate memory and storage tiers.

To put it another way, HP is trying to combine the speed of DRAM and flash memory storage, "and make that one thing: the memristor," according to Fink.

"This will enable us to deal with massive, massive data sets. Ingest them, store them, and manipulate them, and do this at orders of magnitude less energy per bit or per compute," Fink said.

Meg Whitman speaks at HP's Discover conference. Hewlett-Packard

New operating systems will also be needed to handle the increased data speeds, Fink said.

The new OSes will be all open source and optimized for non-volatile memory systems, like Flash memory, which is typically much faster than standard magnetic storage for moving data.

"We'll start from a Linux environment and strip everything out you don't need," he said. And a version of Android optimized for non-volatile systems is also on the drawing board.

One of the biggest themes driving The Machine is energy consumption. As data centers grow, the demand they put on the electrical grid will be unsustainable with the current architectures. The Machine will be able to do more using "orders of magnitudes of less energy," according to Fink.

And what will all of this enable? "Imagine a dashboard capable of displaying every aspect of the your [corporate] enterprise operations in real time," Whitman said.

"Or have a doctor compare your symptoms and genomics with every other patient in the world instantly without language barriers and privacy breaches," she said.

Needless to say, it's a work in progress that's slated for wider availability at the end of the decade.

The first components of The Machine may appear in dribs and drabs, however, as it's not one monolithic design. "We'll deliver these technologies along the way," Fink said.

"Moonshot is our first instantiation of that...Creating system-on-a-chip packages that will combine all of the components -- the processor, the memory, and the connectivity."

Correction: corrects the spelling of the last name of HP CTO Martin Fink.