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Hewlett-Packard Enterprise Stakes Its Future on 'The Machine'

HP will today disclose plans to build a prototype of a new kind of computer by this time next year.

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Months before it emerges as an independent company, Hewlett-Packard Enterprise is prepared to stake its reputation on a new product that it believes will change the face of computing.

It is called “The Machine,” and HP first disclosed plans for it last year. And with it, HP intends to fundamentally redefine how computers are built to make them faster, simpler and more efficient by combining two key elements — memory and storage — into one.

At an HP event in Las Vegas later today, Martin Fink, HP’s CTO and the head of HP labs, will announce plans to build and demonstrate a working prototype by this time next year. By some accounts, HP has devoted about 75 percent of its research and development resources to getting it off the ground.

By then, HP will have split into two companies — Hewlett-Packard Enterprise and HP Inc. — the first devoted to corporate computing and services, the second devoted to personal computing and printing. That split will be effective on November 1, CEO Meg Whitman said in a speech Tuesday.

Here’s why The Machine is different from other computers: It uses a new type of memory chip built using a technology called memristors. They’re not entirely new — researchers first described memristors in the early 1970s. Basically, it’s a type of circuit that allows the creation of memory chips that are fast, like conventional DRAM memory, but also hold information when they lose their power supply, like flash memory. A single component can act as both the system memory and the system’s storage. Memristors had long been only theoretical, and then in 2008 HP proved they could be built.

Why are memristors important? In a world choking on endless mountains of new data that’s screaming to be sorted and analyzed, a machine like The Machine could make that task cheaper and easier by requiring a lot less power to get that work done. It would also speed the process of getting computing work done. There’s a lot of time and energy spent on moving data back and forth among three places — storage, memory and the processor. Memory based on memristors would eliminate a lot of that. Hard drives, which consume a lot of energy because of all their moving parts, would probably go away entirely.

A successful Machine could potentially remake a portion of the high-end computing market at first, and then its technology could migrate down into larger markets. Notebooks built with memristor-based memory, the argument goes, could allow the creation of notebooks and smartphones that can run a lot longer on a single battery charge. It’s the sort of great leap forward in computing that would get the new company off on the right foot. But it could also fall flat. The stakes are high.

But it turns out that memristor-based chips are hard to build. Over the years, I’ve occasionally talked to sources familiar with HP’s work in this area, and the one thing I heard consistently is that the chips have proven to be difficult to manufacture on a large scale. The chip-making world depends on the yield, the number of working chips that result from the manufacturing process. The chatter on HP’s memristor chips has been that yields hadn’t yet exceeded 15 percent — that is, 15 working chips would emerge out of 100 attempted. Yields are always low on new chips as the manufacturing challenges get worked out over time; once that happens, it’s not uncommon for a company like Intel to see yields north of 90 percent.

In an interview with Re/code Tuesday night, Antonio Neri, HP’s senior VP and head of its Enterprise Group conceded that the chips are tricky to make, but said that HP is getting the hang of it. “The yields are now much higher than what you’ve heard,” he said without elaborating. “Our materials scientists have solved many of the problems.”

Another crucial part of The Machine is a technology called silicon photonics. It uses tiny lasers to replace traditional copper wiring for moving data around inside a computer. HP will have to invent ways to build those components, too. And on top of that, there’s new software to build. Fink will presumably disclose more details about the progress on those parts of the machine as well.

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