Memristors' one-year delay will hit IT in the wallet

Memristors' one-year delay will hit IT in the wallet

Summary: The technology industry and consumers stand to lose out after HP knocked back the date of launch for its ultra-efficient storage technology

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HP has knocked back the commercial launch of its memristor storage technology, which is shaping up to be a cheaper, more efficient successor to flash. If its release is delayed, where does that leave the technology industry?

Co-developers HP and Hynix initially planned to bring memristor technology to market in 2013. But this release date has now been moved to summer 2014, because Hynix wants time to shift its business, The Register reported on Monday. HP Labs fellow Stan Williams said that the storage specialist needs to be able to cope with the cannibalisation of its mainstay flash products by the ultra-efficient non-volatile storage technology provided by memristors.

Memristor
Memristors have the potential to shake up the technology industry

If this occurs, it will be a dismal thing for the tech industry. Memristors are a way to unlock the true potential of the public and private cloud, mobile devices and high-performance computing. Any commercial delay will put a drag on development of such products taking advantage of the storage technology.

When given the opportunity to confirm or contradict The Register report, HP side-stepped the issue.

"As with many other ground-breaking technologies being developed at HP Labs, HP has not yet committed to a specific product roadmap for memristor-based products," it said in a statement. "HP does have internal milestones that are subject to change, depending on shifting market, technology and business conditions."

Why memristors matter

A memristor is an electrical component that has resistance to electrical current, but the resistance changes as you put the current through. When you take the current away, the memristor preserves the last state it was in. Essentially, it's an analogue memory circuit.

HP has already proved that memristors can perform both logic and storage operations. This means computation could be performed much closer to the storage layer than in existing technologies. In turn, this means companies can make devices that perform faster and use less power at the same time. 

In fact, the technology is eventually expected to replace flash, DRAM and even hard drives.

This is because it roughly doubles the storage capacity of those storage mediums, while keeping the price the same.

HP has developed the technology through HP Labs. It got into the effort because it buys vast quantities of storage technology for its public and private clouds, servers, computers and mobile devices, and it wants to lower prices and up performance. Hynix is involved because it knows it will be able to sell the technology to everyone that makes sophisticated electrical equipment.

So why the delay? According to The Register, Hynix needs time to alter its business to cope with the expected cannibalisation of its flash by the technology, and as Hynix will be the one fabbing the stuff, there's not much HP can do here.

Damaging delay

But is this right for the industry? I don't think so. A delay would be damaging, because the memristor has the potential to solve one of the two major problems facing the technology industry: storage I/O.

Let me put it this way: it used to be that an application's performance was limited by the clockspeed of the processor it ran on. But as applications have become distributed due to the rise of cloud/distributed computing, the block on many applications has moved to their input/output layer. This is true in both private and public clouds.

This block exists in two areas: latency to read and write data, and latency to shuffle the data between bits of kit. Memristors solve the first block, by making application access times significantly faster, while major IT companies such as Intel, IBM and Fujitsu are already working on photonic interconnects to solve the network bandwidth snafu.

If they delay the launch of the technology, HP and Hynix are withholding something that could benefit not just the technology industry, but every consumer of digital products on the planet.

Cost benefits all round

The digital items we buy — whether it be MP3 songs or rentable compute time from Amazon — are costed partially according to how much money it takes to perform a computation. Introduce memristors, and the cost of computation gets dramatically smaller.

When it comes to the enterprise, in cut-throat industries like cloud computing, we can expect these cost changes to be passed on to buyers (Amazon has cut its cloud pricing 19 times in six years; just imagine what they could do if their storage costs halved). In more established, less disrupted industries, we can expect a nice uptick in performance.

Private clouds will get cheaper as well, as the total cost of ownership on a per-server basis will fall. This means businesses will be able to get more storage bang for their buck on technologies based on memristors.

The technology will also have beneficial effects on storage-hungry supercomputing, by increasing the number of experiments/simulations that can be performed in any time period. This has the potential to lead to a bevy of improvements for humanity — better crops, better drugs, better weather prediction.

So, what gives, HP-Hynix? Why not take the risk of cannibalisation and clean up in the long term? At the end of the day, everyone but Hynix's storage rivals stand to benefit from the introduction of the technology.

Topics: Emerging Tech, Storage

Jack Clark

About Jack Clark

Currently a reporter for ZDNet UK, I previously worked as a technology researcher and reporter for a London-based news agency.

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15 comments
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  • you must not understand quarterly results

    one's shareholders are unlikely to take kindly to management saying "we will kill our own business this quarter and the next and possibly the next, but long term, we will make a killing" When the alternative is "Long term we will make a killing, but in the meantime, we will continue to pimp our flash products as we transition"

    Business is not some common-good altruistic en devour..nor should it be.
    TrishaDishaWarEagle
    • What about Amazon?

      Hey TrishaDishaWarEagle,
      Thanks for commenting. I agree that business is not an altruistic/common good entity, but that does not prevent shareholder-owned businesses from making big risky bets that cannibalise themselves in the short term. Eg Netflix's move away from its disc distribution, or Amazon's commitment to big long-term projects. As Bezos says in the first shareholder letter "We will continue to make investment decisions in light of long-term market leadership considerations rather than short-term profitability considerations or short-term Wall Street reactions." (http://benhorowitz.files.wordpress.com/2010/05/amzn_shareholder-letter-20072.pdf)
      Jack Clark
      • Apple

        Canibalizes it's own product lines all the time.
        bvirga0218@...
      • re: netflix

        and what happened to netflix's market cap due to its strategic blunder , one which We can admit will be in business textbooks in about a year?
        TrishaDishaWarEagle
  • Competition

    HP/Hynix aren't the only ones developing flash-alternative technology. A delay by HP/Hynix is a window of opportunity for first to market by other manufactures - some of whom are not as heavily invested in legacy flash storage. The horses are at the gate; place your bets.
    Mace Moneta
    • Yes - IBM!

      MaceMoneta,
      Agreed - it's going to be interesting to see what IBM come up with in the intervening period. However HP have a few tech advantages and Hynix has such fabbing ability that this is a significant delay, I think. Do you disagree? HP's tech has struck me as leading the pack in many senses.
      Jack Clark
  • Not everything is foreseeable

    "Why not take the risk of cannibalisation and clean up in the long term?"

    And what happens if major purchasers simply stop buying?--keeping short-term purchases to a minimum on the assumption flash will soon be outdated and memristor prices will fall? What happens when the inevitable unforeseeable problems arise of ramping up any new technology to production levels, resulting in lower-than-expected yields and longer-than-planned delivery times?

    This isn't some minimal improvement like a slightly faster hard disk, it's a fundamentally new technology. Better that the company introducing it takes steps up front to maintain financial stability than jump in an risk catastrophic upheavals just to get to market a year earlier. And my the time it's ready, there will be a whole layer of other new technology in common usage such as Thunderbolt and retina displays--items that will require larger and faster storage and processing capability that memristors will be able to provide.
    Rick_R
    • Re: Not everything is foreseeable

      This is also called the "Osbourne effect."
      Andylb
    • RE: Not everything is foreseeable

      Well, if they aren't selling massive quantities of the memristor technology, meaning their flash chips will still be selling fairly well in comparison to how it is currently selling, and thus they won't be cannibalizing their flash memory market, so it's a non-issue.
      Nick Askins
  • Inventing scarcity to reap higher profits

    They are preventing a more efficient technology from coming on the market so they can move more of their older stock. This is definitely a step in the wrong direction in the middle of an environmentally conscious movement; however, I fail to see how this will reduce end-user costs, as companies will probably absorb higher profits by wielding the same pricing structure that people found acceptable before ...
    Vapur9
  • In pretty much the same place.

    "If its release is delayed, where does that leave the technology industry?"

    In pretty much the same place. It's not as if there's gonna be a cataclysm if technology stops for a bit. As much as I love technology, I disagree with the asserstion that survival means constant growth/advancement. The world will go on, with or without this technology.
    CobraA1
    • RE:

      I agree that we don't require new advancements in technology and computers to survive, literally or metaphorically, but it does make the future better in all ways to have the technology sooner, so long as it's ready, which seems to be true.
      Nick Askins
  • Great Business Case Study

    It will be an interesting study a few years down the road to do a case study about whether or no Hynix made the right decision. Preserving a legacy product and keeping ground breaking innovation at bay is not something I would want to take responsibility for. Sure it makes sense on the quarterly income statement. But would any company choose to be Microsoft versus Apple today? Apple went for innovation above legacy products, and Microsoft chose legacy. In my view Hynix should innovate and get ahead of the competition. If any shareholder wants to vent against that strategy - let them go right ahead.
    Deleo77
  • What if...

    what they meant to say was that public availability is delayed, since the first year of production is already spoken for? Note, it wasn't for technology reasons there is a delay, they are just "realigning". Odd phrase, isn't it? Maybe it means something else. Let's see, who would buy up all this new memory for a whole year? Apple? Wouldn't THAT be a shot at Microsoft making a tablet and shutting out HP? It would be amazing!
    Tony Burzio
    • Occured to me too

      This occured to me too, that they did create a huge batch, but made a deal with google/ibm/hp/ or the like to sell it all to them for their servers. and just can't admit it.
      Nicholas Hoover