Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols: Does HP have a development pipeline or a pipe dream?

HP wants to blow your minds with what's in its development pipeline. The Machine, it says, will introduce a new kind of system architecture that will use memristors and silicon photonics to "replace a data center's worth of equipment with a single refrigerator-sized machine." It will be able to address 160 petabytes of data in 250 nanoseconds. It will pump up to 100 terabytes of storage into a single Android phone.

Whoa! Mind blown!

I mean, you have to admit that the Machine sounds like the best thing to hit technology since John Bardeen, Walter Brattain and William Shockley dreamed up the transistor. It will change everything.

If it ever materializes.

That's a very big, fat "if." For the Machine to deliver, it will need not one technology to make it from the lab to the production line, but two very different technologies to mature into world-beaters. First are those memristors. They are a kind of data- storage technology that, its proponents promise, will have RAM-like access speeds with storage density well beyond today's best NAND flash memory.

Memristors are not merely theoretical. We know they will work. But how well will they work? That's an entirely different question. And if they do work as well as HP hopes, can they be produced in large enough quantities with sufficiently high quality that we'll be able to put them in data centers -- never mind smartphones? I'm asking because HP's plan depends on these things happening.

The company may have its reasons to crank up the hype for the Machine, and I'll get to some of those in a bit. But not everyone at HP has drunk the Kool-Aid. CTO Martin Fink, who's quarterbacking the Machine efforts, admits that memristors may not even arrive in products this decade.

But let's say we do get memristors. That will be worth a hallelujah or two. It's a great thing to be able to put an entire HD video library in your pocket and for data centers to no longer have to deal with a hodgepodge of storage technologies. But getting memristors doesn't get us the Machine, since we will still need silicon photonics -- that is, I/O and networking with light instead of electrons.

Now, silicon photonics are a good deal closer to shipping than memristors. Indeed, Intel promises that it will ship an optical connector that can transmit up to 1.6 terabits of data per second later this year. But the Machine needs much more than silicon photonics to become a reality; it needs silicon photonics to be shrunk down to fit on a motherboard.

While HP's hardware teams are waiting around for memristors and silicon photonics to develop sufficiently to meet the needs of the Machine, its developers can keep busy, since HP says to make all this work it will need to create an entirely new operating system.

Having had some experience myself working on an operating system from the metal up, I can say that the development team just might welcome all the delays they can get in the development of memristors and silicon photonics. HP does have an alternative plan of building the Machine's operating system around Linux. Frankly, that makes a lot more sense. If Linux is good enough for supercomputers, it will be good enough for the Machine.

All right, then, let's do a reality check on HP's plans. It needs one major technology breakthrough, one major step forward in existing technology and a new operating system to boot. Even HP doesn't expect to see all of this working anytime within the next three years, but to think it can happen within that kind of time frame would be wildly optimistic.

I would say that same thing about the Machine no matter what company was promising it. But if this idea were coming from, say, Apple, IBM or Intel, I'd have to give them the benefit of the doubt. But HP? Sorry, no, it hasn't earned that kind of respect of late. I hate to put it this way, but with all the management trouble HP has been having over the last few years, with its announcements of one round of layoffs after another and with such notable technology flops as Moonshot, HP just isn't credible when it makes promises like this. In fact, promises like this come to sound like they are meant to be distractions from what is really going on inside the company.

I just find it very difficult to believe that a company that has cut 50,000 jobs in the last three years, that hasn't been any kind of technology leader for the last few years, and that -- sorry, Meg -- could have a different CEO next year is in a position to pull this off. The Machine is not a job for a company that has to keep cutting muscle to make the stockholders happy.

You know what I find easier to believe? HP disappearing entirely. Impossible, you say? I'm sure Sun executives felt the same way before Oracle bought that company out in 2009.

Read more about data center in Computerworld's Data Center Topic Center.

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