Consoul's Blog Consoul Games: The Hard Cell

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

The Hard Cell

Sony, IBM and Toshiba delivered an in-depth presentation at the ISSCC (International Solid State Circuits Conference) in San Francisco on Monday, revealing their Cell processor for the first time. The Cell is the culmination of their joint research and development work that began in March 2001 at a design lab based in Austin, Texas.

The Cell processor is a 90nm chip that incorporates 234 million transistors and features a breakthrough multi-core architecture and ultra-fast communications capabilities. Initial hardware testing indicates clock speeds well above four gigahertz and (incredibly) over 256 gigaflops. That's over 256 billion floating point operations per second. According to a list maintained by scientists at the University of Mannheim and the University of Tennessee as recently as June 2002, that level of performance would rank the 2 centimetre wide Cell chip among the 500 fastest supercomputers in the world. The Cell is operating-system independant, and is capable of running multiple operating systems simultaneously.

William Zeitler, senior VP and executive of the IBM Systems and Technology Group, said "Today we see the tangible results of our collaboration: an open, multi-core, microprocessor that portends a new era in graphics and multi-media performance." Ken Kutaragi, the "father of Playstation" and president of Sony Computer Entertainment Inc, added "With Cell opening a doorway, a new chapter in computer science is about to begin." Masashi Muromachi, corporate VP of Toshiba Corporation and president & CEO of Toshiba's Semiconductor Company, said "We are proud that Cell, a revolutionary microprocessor with a brand new architecture that leapfrogs the performance of existing processors, has been created through a perfect synergy of IBM, Sony Group and Toshiba's capabilities and talented resources. We are confident that Cell will provide major momentum for the progress of digital convergence, as a core device sustaining a whole spectrum of advanced information-rich broadband applications, from consumer electronics, home entertainment through various industrial systems."

Bold statements and very impressive specs, but performance in real world application is all that matters to the public. This of course, is entirely dependent on how well any given software is written to exploit the hardware. IBM claims that the Cell supports a number of programming models that should make programming for the chip relatively easy. Heat is always an issue with super-fast processors, but Cell will apparently rely only on air-cooling and is capable of running at five different power states to reduce the heat it produces.

We'll have to wait a while before we see the Cell in real-world devices and can start to get an idea of its true potential. Sony's PlayStation 3, expected to launch in 2006, will likely be the flagship Cell device. XBox's successor will almost certainly beat the PS3 to the market, gaining some advantage in early sales. Whether Cell's sheer power will allow Sony to dominate in the next generation remains to be seen.


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