HP reveals more details about The Machine: Linux++ OS coming 2015, prototype in 2016

HP memristor die/wafer shot

Back in June, HP announced that it would be plowing almost all of its R&D efforts into a brand new type of computer called The Machine. Slightly odd and ominous name notwithstanding, The Machine is meant to provide a novel architecture for computation that is completely unlike a standard x86 PC or server. At the time, HP provided very few details — but now we have a rough timeline for the first working prototype of The Machine (2016), and news that the operating system for The Machine, called Linux++, will be released as early as June 2015, so that developers can begin the interesting task of getting their heads around the new and fantastical architecture.

The purpose behind The Machine is to create a new kind of computer that isn’t beholden to the rules and limitations that dictate the performance, power consumption, and form factor of current computers. While no one’s arguing that Intel hasn’t done some amazing work in keeping Moore’s law alive and kicking, it’s clear that the current computing paradigm of transistor-transistor logic, RAM, and miles of copper wire is drawing ever closer to a conclusion. HP hopes that by leveraging new technologies, such as memristors (pictured top) and silicon photonics (optical transistors and wiring), we can essentially hit a big Reset button, giving us another attempt at building computers that are super-fast but still very energy efficient.


It might not seem obvious, but by far the biggest hurdle that HP will have to vault is software. Yes, the hardware side of The Machine won’t be easy, but unless the software — the operating system, the libraries, the SDK, the developer toolchain — is in place, The Machine won’t be able to do anything. To that end, HP says it will be releasing Linux++ in June 2015. This will be a version of Linux that emulates the weird (memristor/photonic) hardware design of The Machine, so that developers can begin writing software for the new architecture. (Or at least begin the process of trying to get their heads around it, anyway.) Other tools will also be released alongside Linux++, though we have no further details at this point.

Read: IBM unveils new Power8 servers in last-gasp effort to battle Intel’s x86 dominion

Following on from Linux++, HP will be designing a brand new operating system for The Machine itself called Carbon. Kirk Bresniker, The Machine’s chief architect, tells Technology Review that the community’s experiments with Linux++ will “aid HP’s progress” with developing Carbon, and then hopefully a prototype of The Machine itself by 2016. It might be wise to take such schedules with a pinch of salt, though: Memristors have been The Next Big Thing at HP for years now. They were meant to be commercialized in partnership with Hynix with 2013 — but that never happened, and it’s now almost 2015.

Lots of servers, at Google's Douglas County data center. Blue LEDs mean the servers are healthy, apparently

A pretty data center. HP’s The Machine may look nothing like this. Maybe.

While it’s all well and good for HP to announce that it’s working on the next big thing in computing, there are two exceedingly large chasms that need to be crossed: First, from the drawing board to prototype, and then from prototype to commercial product. It is incredibly common for a company — especially a science or tech company — to say that it’s onto something amazing, and then not follow through with the goods. Even if HP does actually create The Machine, it will almost impossible to unseat incumbent technologies and ecosystems such as x86 and ARM. Almost impossible, that is, unless silicon photonics and memristors really are as awesome as HP says they are — but truly, we’ll just have to wait and see if that’s the case.

Now read: IBM cracks open a new era of computing with new brain-like chip: 4096 cores, 1 million neurons, 5.4 billion transistors

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