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December 15th, 2014

HP’s ‘The Machine’ & the Future of Linux

If all goes according to plan, in June of 2015 HP plans to release a new operating system they’re calling Linux++. Before we start jumping up and down and putting on our party hats, we should know that this is not a new Linux distro being designed by HP to be featured on a new line of laptops. Although based on Linux and Android, this won’t even be an operating system at all in the sense that mortals such as I generally use the term. Most of us won’t be downloading and installing it. If we do, we won’t be using it as a drop-in replacement for Mint, Fedora or any of our other favorite desktop distros.

Memristor

An array of 17 purpose-built oxygen-depleted titanium dioxide memristors built at HP Labs, imaged by an atomic force microscope.

Linux++ will mainly be used by developers who want to get their software projects ready for The Machine, a completely new type of computer which HP hopes to introduce to the large scale server market sometime in 2018. This computer will have such a radically new design that, in many ways, it’ll be a completely different animal from the machines we’ve been using since days when the word “computer” pretty much meant “IBM mainframe.”

So what is The Machine? Julie Bort with Business Insider on Thursday called it “a computer so radical and so powerful that it will reduce today’s data center down to the size of a refrigerator.” If it lives up to its hype, it promises to turn today’s computers into horse and buggies by comparison.

HP is developing all sorts of whiz-bang technologies to make this baby work — photonics, for instance, for super high speed data transfer. At the heart of The Machine will be a new memory technology, memristors, which HP has been developing since at least 2008. Like flash memory, memristors are nonvolatile, meaning they don’t lose the memory they’re holding when powered down. Unlike flash memory, however, they can handle over a million rewrites and are suitable to be used as a computer’s primary memory.

According to a 2010 article published by MIT Technology Review:

“The memristor circuits…are also capable of both memory and logic, functions that are done in separate devices in today’s computers. ‘Most of the energy used for computation today is used to move the data around’ between the hard drive and the processor, says [HP’s R. Stan] Williams. A future memristor-based device that provided both functions could save a lot of energy and help computers keep getting faster, even as silicon reaches its physical limits.”

In other words, a memristor system can store all of the data that would normally be stored on a secondary memory device, such as a hard drive, making that data instantly available to the CPU. They come with other advantages as well, including smaller size and a much reduced energy footprint, hence the refrigerator sized data center concept.

Linux++ is not the operating system that will run HP’s The Machine. According to another MIT Technology Review article, it’s only an interim step and is something of an emulator to make a conventional computer behave like The Machine:

“A working prototype of The Machine should be ready by 2016, says [The Machine’s chief architect, Kirk] Bresniker. However, he wants researchers and programmers to get familiar with how it will work well before then. His team aims to complete an operating system designed for The Machine, called Linux++, in June 2015. Software that emulates the hardware design of The Machine and other tools will be released so that programmers can test their code against the new operating system. Linux++ is intended to ultimately be replaced by an operating system designed from scratch for The Machine, which HP calls Carbon.”

It’s most likely that Carbon, The Machine’s OS, will be proprietary. It’s also likely that The Machine will be an extremely expensive piece of hardware, at least at first. However, if big server users such as Google and Facebook get behind the project, as they undoubtedly will if the technology proves to be viable, the price will rapidly fall. It’s entirely possible that within a decade this technology might be powering not only servers, but desktops, laptops and mobile devices as well.

This could turn out to be one of the biggest game changers the computing world has ever seen — bigger than the advent of the personal computer or the creation of smartphones and tablets.

Even if HP fails to get The Machine to fly, something like this is certain to be successfully developed elsewhere, and when that happens it will definitely prove to be a conundrum for free software. For starters, it’s doubtful that any any programs will work on new and radically different architectures without extensive modifications. Although we can expect well funded server projects like Apache, Docker, Hadoop and OpenStack to be ready if and when The Machine, or something like it, makes its debut, some smaller consumer oriented open source projects might not.

Right now, we don’t even know whether there will be a place for Linux when this brave new world arrives. We can assume that if HP’s bid is successful, however, Linux will be ready to go because HP’s already working on a Linux implementation, which Red Hat can take and run with.

Time will tell.

Christine Hall has been a journalist since 1971. In 2001, she began writing a weekly consumer computer column and started covering Linux and FOSS in 2002 after making the switch to GNU/Linux. Follow her on Twitter: @BrideOfLinux

12 comments to HP’s ‘The Machine’ & the Future of Linux

  • Yet another exceedlingly ‘dumb’ move.

    Linux++. Just disrespectful of Linux and C++.

    How can one make such a comparison? Too late. They did.

  • Matt

    The second I read the quote “The memristor circuits… are also capable of both memory and logic” I began to worry. Seriously, if we were able to drop in a memristor module into a modern PC (humour me here) would you trust it? What if – in later iterations – they had built in connectivity (advertised and otherwise) – conceivably you could drive-by pull all the data from it – the machine being powered up or otherwise.

    The MIT article referenced here most interestingly points out that memristors are not necessarily confined to digital states and could potentially function more akin to the synapses. I refer back to the first point here, but now add in some concealed (or otherwise) AI at another future date.

    So it’s back to my Jupiter Ace then and down with innovation etc.

  • Gary

    Considering HP’s recent history, I don’t see how this could be good for Linux.

  • JD

    HP… the company that makes the slowest highest-overhead version of Unix ever… and they think they will swipe linux to combine volatile memory and secure storage, and end up with neither…. I think this story is just to boost a dying stock

  • Sanders

    Way too much hype.

    This will not go anywhere unless it is based on moderately open specs and other people than HP can design things with and around it.

    Better hardware is important, but what is crucial about computers its the software they run.

    Give me a million times faster computer, without software its useless.

    There are already way better alternatives to modern desktop/servers than what we commonly use, but the problem with those is that they are not priced reasonably.

    They are called mainframes.

  • Brem

    I was at their European show a few days ago and they presented the concepts around The Machine, memristors, photonics, what are the challenges they will need to face to succeed in what they’re trying to build.

    For the OS part, indeed, they said they need to rethink/review the fundamentals concepts, especially on the memory and storage convergence.

    Furthermore, they said it will be opensource, to be able to leverage on the strength of the “community”.

    I don’t know if they’ll reach their ambitious goal, but if they do (around 60% of their R&D workforce is dedicated to the machine!) it will be a quantum jump to a new era of computing.

    And frankly, they’re not less legitimate than any other IT company to make the IT move.

    PS: they seem to have definitely turned the HP-UX page, no single exhibition was present at their show in Barcelona

  • Andrew

    It will definitely be interesting to follow, HP has invented or acquired a large portfolio of interesting technologies over the years including two major operating systems (HP-UX and Tru64). They definitely had the talent to pull off something like this, the question is…do they still have that talent and can they pull this off.

    Personally, I think they can.

  • Reza

    linux++ is open source. did you know how can we access the source codes or find more information about main Machine OS?

  • @Reza From what I understand, Reza, Linux++ won’t be released until June. HP has a special page set up with information and links to articles about The Machine at http://www.hpl.hp.com/research/systems-research/themachine/

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