Hello,

We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not an Insider? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

A View from Martha Kim

Better Architecture

Computers are overdue for the fundamental changes they could soon get.

  • April 21, 2015

Computer architectures aren’t laws of physics. They’re man-made inventions designed to harness raw resources, such as billions of transistors, for a range of useful computational tasks. 

Martha Kim
Martha Kim

When our computing needs and tasks change—as they inevitably will over the decades—it becomes increasingly awkward to express programs through the original architecture. And yet that’s where we find ourselves—adhering to an ossified architecture that imposes constraints and slows our technological progress.

This story is part of our May/June 2015 Issue
See the rest of the issue
Subscribe

Today’s architectures are more than half a century old. In the 1940s, electronic computers became reprogrammable, with data and instructions (a.k.a. software) stored in memory and passed to a central processing unit (CPU) for computation. This architecture evolved slightly over time but remained fundamentally the same.

The vast majority of computing devices today are connected to the Internet, making them vulnerable to remote attack. Our data centers demand the type of strong security—including isolation and tracking of data—that classic architectures were never designed to support.

That’s one reason computing architectures must evolve. A system being developed by Hewlett-Packard, known as the Machine (see “Machine Dreams”), uses electronic components called memristors to store and process information—offering more powerful ways to handle large amounts of data—together with silicon photonic components that allow data to be transported at very high speeds using light. HP’s researchers are also developing a new operating system, Machine OS, to make the most of this new architecture.

Reinvention like this doesn’t solve all our problems. In some cases it creates new ones. The consistent architecture of IBM’s System 360 in the 1960s and 1970s ensured that buyers of early models could upgrade their machines and feel confident that the programs they were already using would continue to work. Can a new architecture evolve without forcing every program to evolve with it?

Probably. Since the days of the System 360, compilers and program translators—tools that allow software to run on different architectures—have matured substantially. We’ll need to make the most of such tools if we hope to loosen our ties to legacy architectures and allow computers like the Machine to thrive.

Martha Kim is an associate professor of computer science at Columbia University.

Tech Obsessive?
Become an Insider to get the story behind the story — and before anyone else.

Subscribe today

Uh oh–you've read all of your free articles for this month.

Insider Premium
$179.95/yr US PRICE

More from Intelligent Machines

Artificial intelligence and robots are transforming how we work and live.

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe and become an Insider.
  • Insider Premium {! insider.prices.premium !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Our award winning magazine, unlimited access to our story archive, special discounts to MIT Technology Review Events, and exclusive content.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly magazine delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website

    The Download: our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation

    Access to the magazine PDF archive—thousands of articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips

    Special discounts to select partner offerings

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Ad-free web experience

    First Look: exclusive early access to important stories, before they’re available to anyone else

    Insider Conversations: listen in on in-depth calls between our editors and today’s thought leaders

  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}* Best Value

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus ad-free web experience, select discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly magazine delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website

    The Download: our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation

    Access to the magazine PDF archive—thousands of articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips

    Special discounts to select partner offerings

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Ad-free web experience

  • Insider Basic {! insider.prices.basic !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Six issues of our award winning magazine and daily delivery of The Download, our newsletter of what’s important in technology and innovation.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly magazine delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website

    The Download: our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation

/
You've read all of your free articles this month. This is your last free article this month. You've read of free articles this month. or  for unlimited online access.