> Holy Chip! 
> Daniel Lyons, 01.30.06
> IBM's radical Cell processor, to debut in Sony's PlayStation 3, could reshape
> entertainment and spark the next high-tech boom.
> Later this year millions of homes will get a new supercomputer for the living
> room. Or maybe the playroom. Sony's long-awaited PlayStation 3 game console, a
> slender yet muscular machine the size of a DVD player, performs a
> mind-boggling 2 trillion calculations per second. This kind of power, once
> reserved for seismic exploration and nuclear-weapons design, will let
> programmers create videogames that look as realistic as film.
> Some techies say PlayStation 3, which may debut by midyear and could end up in
> 100 million homes in five years, will usher in the next microchip revolution.
> The Sony system owes its prowess to a microprocessor called Cell, which was
> cooked up by chip wizards at IBM (with help from Sony and Toshiba) at a cost
> of $400 million over five years. The Cell chip, based on a design inspired by
> supercomputers, runs at least ten times as fast as Intel's most powerful
> Pentium. More important, Cell boasts a staggering fiftyfold advantage in
> handling graphics-intensive applications that will define the next generation
> of visual entertainment--blindingly fast and seductively immersive games,
> virtual-reality romps, wireless downloads, real-time video chat, interactive
> TV shows with multiple endings and a panoply of new services yet to be dreamed
> up. 
> IBM reckons Cell, potent and versatile, can do a lot more than just play
> games. It sees a role for it in mobile phones, handheld video players,
> high-definition televisions, car design and more. Scientists at Stanford
> University are building a Cell-based supercomputer. Toshiba plans to use the
> superchip in TV sets, which one day could let fans watch a football game from
> multiple camera angles they control. Raytheon is set to use Cell in missile
> systems, artillery shells and radar. Other companies envision new
> high-definition medical imaging. "Cell is the next step in the evolution of
> the microprocessor. It's a peek into the future," says Craig Lund, chief
> technology officer at Mercury Computer Systems, which makes medical and
> military systems and is taking orders for Cell servers.
> IBM is already at work on beefier versions of Cell, and it has launched an
> allout campaign to woo a new generation of code-crunchers and game boys to
> write software for its futuristic chip. In an extraordinary move IBM disclosed
> hundreds of Cell's design secrets on the Internet, releasing a developer's
> guide that 10,000 programmers have since downloaded. IBM, with annual sales of
> $94 billion, says Cell could power hundreds of new apps, create a new
> video-processing industry and fuel a multibillion-dollar buildout of tech
> hardware over ten years.
> "We think this is going to spawn the next generation of growth in the
> industry," says James Kahle, 45, the renowned chip designer and IBM Fellow who
> oversaw the creation of Cell. "This chip will give you performance that is not
> achievable with any other architecture." Adds H. Peter Hofstee, an IBM
> scientist and the chief architect of a key part of the Cell chip: "We're
> talking about everything from making TVs to shooting things up into space to
> building huge supercomputers." He and Kahle spend much of their time on the
> road, running mind-blowing demos and proselytizing prospective licensees and
> geek groupies. 
> But IBM will have to clear some high hurdles to deliver on Cell's prodigious
> promise. Myriad competitors, including hotshot Silicon Valley startups
> ClearSpeed and Stream Processors, are in pursuit of next-gen chips. High tech
> is littered with the remains of chips that boasted remarkable abilities in the
> lab but failed in the marketplace, starved by reluctant programmers and
> recalcitrant customers and strangled by their own makers' miscues. A quarter
> of a century ago Gene Amdahl, the famed architect of the IBM 360 computer
> family, had an ambitious scheme to pack supercomputer power onto a chip but
> was too far ahead of his time, and his Trilogy Ltd. went down in flames. In
> the early 1980s the chip in the Amiga home computer far outraced those in the
> Intel line, but Intel conquered the market anyway. In the early 1990s Digital
> Equipment Corp. made the first 64-bit processor. It was an engineering tour de
> force and a commercial flop.
> If anything stops Cell's commercial success, it is likely to be the chip's
> very power. It is, to put it politely, a challenging platform for software
> creators. "The programming model is a nightmare," says Marc Tremblay of Sun,
> chief architect of a rival chip called Niagara, which uses a more traditional
> approach. He argues Cell's balky design will snag widespread adoption beyond
> gaming. 
> Even the hard-sell salesmen at IBM are quick to say Cell poses no threat to
> Intel, the world's leading chipmaker. Intel's processors do a great job on the
> basic business applications for desktops, laptops and servers. In this mature
> and mundane market Cell, specially geared to spin out intricate images at very
> high speeds, offers no real advantage. But the Intel architecture, 25 years
> old and constrained by having to be compatible with predecessor chips, is ill
> suited to next-gen imaging. Thus the world must move up to Cell, IBM argues.
> "We are going into a new era," Kahle declares. "The world is changing."
> An IBM demo shows the contrast. A terrain rendering program lets you fly over
> Mount Rainier at 1,300mph. Cell crunches through millions of lines of
> topographical and photographic data per second to paint topographically
> accurate, photo-quality pictures at a movie-quality 30 frames per second. On a
> similar program a Pentium takes more than two minutes to sketch a single
> frame. 
> PlayStation 2 had just debuted, and Sony videogame chief Ken Kutaragi was
> already looking ahead to the next version. He told IBM he wanted a
> thousandfold increase in power. IBMers took up the dare, one so bold that it
> challenged them to think beyond current chip designs. "We knew we could never
> make the existing stuff go a thousand times faster," says Hofstee.
> In early 2000 Sony, Toshiba and IBM set up the STI Design Center, housing it
> at an IBM site in Austin, Tex. James Kahle was put in charge. Armed with only
> a bachelor's degree from Rice University, Kahle, born in Venezuela and raised
> in New York, had joined IBM out of school in 1983 to write software for
> designing next-generation chips. His low-key, nice-guy style masks his
> intensity as a chip designer--his work shows up in the Apple G3, G4 and G5
> computers, the Nintendo GameCube and IBM's biggest Unix servers; he calls some
> chips "my grandchildren."
> The project employed 450 engineers, mostly from IBM. They worked a lot,
> socialized a little (group dinners, a few ski trips) and struggled with the
> barriers of technology and physics--and of language and culture. Weekly
> English classes were held for Japanese staffers. In brainstorming sessions
> some Sony and Toshiba engineers had a penchant for diplomacy and mulling every
> option; they found it jarring when their IBM counterparts relied on instinct
> and blunt, bare-knuckled debate.
> Cell's creators needed to strike a balance between raw power and the
> versatility to do more than just play games. Special graphics chips are
> superspeedy, but for only one task. General-purpose chips like those made by
> Intel devote a lot of muscle to the ability to handle a wide variety of jobs,
> but they aren't superfast at any one of them. For two decades Intel boosted
> performance by cramming more transistors onto a chip, but now chips draw so
> much power and generate so much heat that they can't be cranked up much more.
> Intel and others boost performance by lashing together two or more thinking
> elements on a single chip. Intel makes dual-core chips. Sun's Niagara boasts
> eight cores. For Microsoft's Xbox 360, IBM linked three Power cores. But even
> these multicore chips will not be powerful enough to drive the next wave,
> Kahle argues. Cell needed an entirely new design.
> Cell uses a single, central processing core that routes work to eight tiny
> (but powerful) offspring called synergistic processing engines, or SPEs. A
> year into development the engineers had a design ready but then felt compelled
> to revise it because it would be too difficult for developers outside the game
> business. "Game developers don't mind working with a difficult chip, but we
> wanted to reach a wider audience," says Michael Day, an IBM software engineer.
> Months later they devised a new approach that drives Cell today. But more
> hurdles arose. Engineers grappled with a highly complex memory-management
> system that controls how bits of data are fed in and out of the SPEs. For 16
> weeks Kahle's staff would meet every morning at 9 a.m. to hash out the
> problem. "We came up with one design after another and kept throwing them out
> and coming up with new designs. We sat there for three or four hours a day.
> Sometimes we never got out," Hofstee says.
> By April 2004 the first working chip came off the line at IBM's silicon
> factory in East Fishkill, N.Y. The new Cell didn't deliver the 1,000X gain
> that Sony wanted--but it did deliver 50X. Cell cranks out 200 billion
> floating-point operations per second (200 gigaflops). That is akin to a
> full-fledged supercomputer in the late 1990s. Add an Nvidia-designed graphics
> chip and PlayStation 3 runs 2 trillion instructions per second.
> By early last year Sony was sending out Cell prototypes and software tools to
> get developers started on writing new games for PlayStation 3. "We're seeing
> stuff that goes dramatically beyond what we can do with the current generation
> [of games]," says Andrew Goldman, chief executive of Pandemic Studios, a Los
> Angeles outfit that wrote a series of popular Star Wars games for PlayStation
> 2. "And what you will see over time is going to be even more amazing." He says
> it will take years to fully exploit Cell's capabilities.
> Last year IBM began its own evangelizing. Instead of revealing design details
> to only a small number of potential partners sworn to secrecy, IBM trumpeted
> Cell's secrets on the Internet, releasing 700 pages of documents describing
> the new architecture and a 1,100-page development kit, free for Internet
> download. "We've opened up the architecture and provided all the details,"
> Kahle says. "We want to see this architecture proliferate in the marketplace."
> The wooing is necessary, for Cell's "asymmetric" design (its eight
> co-processors have a different architecture than the main core), though key to
> the chip's superior performance, is also what makes writing software for it so
> difficult. In the mainstream chip world designers use an array of tool kits
> and high-level programming languages (such as C++) to easily convert
> instructions into a form the chip can comprehend. Such tools exist for Cell,
> but the chip's design is so complex and so utterly different from anything
> before it that code-crunchers do some of the work "down on the metal,"
> cranking out basic assembly code, which can take five times as long.
> The good news: Some designers say creating games for Cell is far less
> complicated than writing for PlayStation 2. "Anyone who worked on the
> PlayStation 2 is jumping for joy," says Jeremy Gordon, chief executive of
> Secret Level, a gamemaker in San Francisco that is remaking a classic 1980s
> Sega videogame for the new Sony box.
> Selling Cell, Hofstee last year gave eight speeches at technical conferences.
> He and Kahle have visited more than 50 companies, enduring abundant skepticism
> from jaded industry veterans--until they ran their speedy Cell demos. "It's
> just amazing to go meet with people who have been in the industry for 25 years
> and just see their jaws drop," Kahle says. When a famous chip designer, a
> veteran of Motorola and Apple, visited Austin for a demo in 2004, Kahle showed
> him images from the Mount Rainier flyover, eliciting stunned silence. "He just
> got really quiet," as he realized "what this is going to do to the industry,"
> Kahle says. 
> Toshiba demos a Cell-based "Magic Mirror" that turns an LCD screen into a
> virtual mirror by combining feeds from several cameras. Look left, look right
> and your "reflection" mimics you on screen, thanks to that tiny Cell chip
> zipping away. In the next generation of TV sets Toshiba hopes to lay the
> foundation for interactive viewing. One day you might watch a football game
> from the quarterback's perspective and shift to a seat up high on the 50-yard
> line, then zoom up to watch from the blimp overhead, backflips that videogame
> players take in stride.
> Masakazu Suzuoki, Sony's lead designer on Cell, says Sony aims to use this
> power to create movies that are interactive and changeable, with multiple
> story lines, so people will watch the same flick more than once. Another idea
> Sony is kicking around: placing ads in the background of movies and TV shows
> and customizing them to suit the viewer, with Cell processors keeping track of
> who sees what. 
> Breakthrough chips easily inspire such big ideas, but Cell enjoys a running
> start that previous chips didn't have. It is likely to end up in millions upon
> millions of homes around the world as the PlayStation 3 rolls out. Once these
> Cells throb away in game consoles, TV sets and set-top boxes, they can be fed
> digital fare by new networks of Cell-based servers. "As the clients become
> very powerful, then the servers will have to become very powerful, too," Kahle
> says. 
> The PlayStation hook inspires confidence at Raytheon, the Waltham, Mass.
> defense contractor, which has studied Cell for 15 months and plans to use it
> in scores of next-generation systems. "Sonar, infrared sensors--there are
> hundreds of products that Raytheon designs that could use this type of
> technology," says Peter Pao, chief technology officer. "Current chips are
> going to run out of steam. We always look to the future."
> At Mercury Computer Systems in Chelmsford, Mass. engineers are working on a
> Cell system called Turismo, which is due later this year and will pack up to
> 128 Cell chips into a 6-foot-high rack, producing up to 25 trillion
> calculations per second. Mercury, which sells modules for medical gear made by
> General Electric, Philips and Siemens, says Turismo could make a CT scanner so
> fast that it will be able to paint a 3-D image in four seconds versus five
> minutes on an Intel Pentium. Mercury is even pushing Cell to firms that create
> computer-generated special effects for movies. "This chip is opening doors for
> us," says Joel Radford, a Mercury vice president.
> Back in Austin Kahle talks about "immersive interaction," 3-D virtual worlds
> modeled with such detail that you can see, from your screen, exactly what it
> looks like when you're standing on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street
> in Manhattan. "This is going to open a whole new realm of how people interact
> with computers and each other, where we'll mix reality with virtual reality,"
> he says. For his entire career Kahle has been driven to create a chip that
> could change the world; now, he says, it has arrived. "This project is the
> culmination of that desire."
> Sean Ness
> Business Development Manager
> Institute for the Future
> Office: 650.233.9517
> Cell: 408.406.7597
> Main: 650.854.6322
> Fax: 650.233.9417
> IFTF's Future Now Blog - <http://future.iftf.org/ <http://future.iftf.org/> >
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