Justin du Coeur (jducoeur) wrote,
Justin du Coeur

Steam engine time for memristors?

Serious techies, and especially long-thinking programmers, should take a read through this article in Ars Technica. It's well worth the five minutes, but the tl;dr is that HP appears to seriously believe that memristor-based machines are coming in the next five years or so, and they are likely to *seriously* upset everyone's assumptions about how computers tick.

The key points are:
  • Memristors are a reasonably fast form of memory, so they can be used as RAM

  • Memristors are nonvolatile, so they can be used as flash

  • Memristors are incredibly dense -- moreso than current disk storage
Now, put those together and think about it. If you have a form of RAM that is denser than what we think of as "storage", why do we want "storage"? The upshot of the article is that, if this pans out, it totally upsets our distinction of "memory" vs. "storage", which is deeply baked into almost every computer, even into our software architectures.

Mind, the thing that I *haven't* yet seen is how much this costs. Being able to store a terabyte on a chip isn't very useful if it costs a penny per bit. But the computer industry has a talent for driving prices down, so it's not a bad bet that, even if this stuff is prohibitively expensive now, it is likely to become less so over time.

This story has been building for a while, but the article makes a good point that implications for the software industry are dramatic. With this sort of tech, every computer becomes potentially instant-on. We have to think about reliability in very different ways if the computer is potentially never really turned "off": every system has to become much more rigorous about cleaning up after itself. The way we structure data changes dramatically when essentially everything is in "live" RAM, with the result that many processes potentially get much, much faster. On the tricky side, if your server truly never turns off, then evolving a cloud-based package becomes a truly entertaining problem unto itself: it would become even more important to develop protocols for managing an always-on system.

Of course, since they are leading the charge here, HP has a shot at becoming a true leader in the tech arena again, so they are talking it up hard. They are not mere disinterested researchers here: there's a good deal of sales pitch. Still, if they can make the tech live up to its potential, they're probably correct that it can upend an awful lot of assumptions.

There's a lot that could go wrong here, but I wantWantWANT this tech to pan out: the potential for making software that is more beautiful, elegant *and* fast is awfully neat. We'll see what happens.
Tags: programming

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