Tuesday, February 08, 2005

The Cell Processor

The Sony/IBM/Toshiba Cell processor was introduced yesterday at the International Solid State Circuits Conference. Well, "introduced" in the sense that some technical details were presented. There wasn't enough information to get a real handle on much of anything, except to confirm what we already knew: the Cell is an extraordinarily ambitious processor design and is truly revolutionary.

I'm going to try to explain this as simply as I can, and please be forewarned that given the highly technical nature of the information, I may not have a clear understanding. Basically, the Cell is revolutionary because instead of one processor doohickey it has multiple doohickeys and you can get additional doohickeys to use if the first doohickey is connected to other doohickeys.

Roughly speaking, of course.

Instead of a conventional x86 architecture, the Cell architecture consists of a Power PC chip "on top" and eight subsidiary processing units underneath. Each of these subsidiary units can be addressed individually or in combination, with the Power PC chip directing traffic, so to speak. It's a remarkably flexible and potentially staggeringly powerful architecture, particularly running at 4.6 GHz as claimed. According to ZDNet, it also can also process 256 billion calculations per second (256 gigaflops). As a comparison, they mention that the 500th fastest supercomputer currently in use can do 851 gigaflops. So essentially, a single Cell processor, allegedly is 1/3 as fast as a supercomputer.

That sounds pretty damned impressive to me, and it's even more impressive when you consider that devices with Cell processors can be networked to provide additional processing units for the active device. So a Sony computer, theoretically, could receive additional computing power by being connected to a PS3. Like I said, this is wildly ambitious, and it certainly appears to be one of the most radical and ambitious processor designs in history.

Thanks for all that. Keep your flops to yourself, if you don't mind. I'd really just like to play games. And there are certainly open questions when it comes to gaming. Primarily, with the tremendously flexible architecture, the level of complexity when it comes to programming may be extremely high. The Playstation 2 was released with almost no middleware, and it took years to develop appropriate tools. This processor makes the brains of the PS2 look like a pretzel stick. So unless Sony has robust middleware tools for developers, and quickly, the cost to entry in terms of creating a PS3 game will be very, very high.

So Sony's vulnerabilities are two-fold: first, this processor cost an incredible amount of money to develop, which might translate into an inappropriately high launch price for the console, and second, Sony must make it a priority to support developers with tools to reduce the complexity of programming such a flexible processor.

In terms of power, though, there's no question that this is a real beast.

Sony is also making noise that they're going to unveil the PS3 before E3. This is designed to make Microsoft honks start sweating and call meetings where endless Powerpoint Presentations are shown. I'm sure it's happening today, actually. It's all part of the endless strategic gamesmanship that's going to take place over the next six months. There's a good chance Sony is lying, just as there's a good chance that Microsoft will issue a lie in response. We really have no idea when these consoles will first be seen until a few weeks (or even days) before it happens. After that, they should both be playable at E3, and I would expect Microsoft to provide a launch date (October, I'm guessing) then as well.

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