We're flying at about Mach 1.5 around Mount Saint Helens, in Washington state. IBM Corp. senior programmer Barry L. Minor is at the controls, rocketing us over the crater and then down to the lake at its base to skim over the tree trunks that have been floating there since the volcano exploded over 25 years ago. The flight is exhilarating, even though it's just a simulation projected on a widescreen monitor in a cluttered testing lab.
Then, at the flick of a switch, Minor turns the simulation over from his new Cell processor to a dual-processor Apple Power Mac G5, and the scenery freezes. The G5 almost audibly groans under the burden, though it's no slouch. In fact, it's currently the top of the line for PCs. But Cell is something different entirely. It's a bet on what consumers will do with data and how best to suit microprocessors to the task--and it's really, really fast. Cell, which is shorthand for Cell Broadband Engine Architecture, is a US $400 million joint effort of IBM, Sony, and Toshiba. It was originally conceived as the microprocessor to power Sony's third-generation game console, PlayStation 3, to be released this spring, but it is expected to find a home in lots of other broadband-connected consumer items and in servers too.
Executives at Sony Corp., in Tokyo, wanted more than just an incremental improvement over PlayStation 2's processor, the Emotion Engine. What they got was a 36-fold acceleration, to a whopping 192 billion floating-point operations per second (192 gigaflops). Because Cell is a combination of general-purpose and multimedia processors, it defies an exact comparison with other upcoming chips, but it's thought to be more powerful than the chips driving competing game systems.
Cell can calculate at such blazing speed, in part, because it's made up of nine processors on a single chip of silicon, optimized for the kind of real-time calculations needed in today's broadband, media-rich environment. A specially designed 300-gigabit-per-second bus knits the processors into a single machine, and interface technology from Rambus Inc., Los Altos, Calif., gives it fast access to memory and other off-chip systems.
So far, microprocessor watchers have been impressed with what they've seen of Cell. "To bring huge parallel processing onto a single chip in a clean and efficient way is a real accomplishment," says Ruby B. Lee, a professor of electrical engineering at Princeton University and an IEEE Fellow.
A graphics-heavy item such as PlayStation 3 isn't just a showcase for an unusual chip. For IBM it's a philosophical statement. "Gaming is the next interface driving computing," says James A. Kahle, Cell's chief architect with the IBM Technology Group, in Austin, Texas [see photo, " Multicellular"]. Just as moving from punch cards to electronic displays changed what people expected of computers, the highly collaborative, real-time realism of today's games will set the standard for what people want from computers in the future.
But even now, the sheer desire for power in the gaming market guarantees that Cell will be made in volumes that more than make up for the loss last year of IBM's highest profile customer, Apple Computer Inc. Market research firm iSuppli Corp., in El Segundo, Calif., predicts that 37 million game consoles will be sold this year alone worldwide. By 2007, when all three game console makers will have released their next-generation products, the market will have grown to 44 million. And though Cell is exclusive to the PlayStation 3, IBM has a lock on the rest of the console market. Its microprocessors will power both of Sony's competitors, Microsoft's Xbox and Nintendo's GameCube.
The Cell-powered PlayStation 3 can expect to pick up a little less than half of what could become a market worth up to $9.5 billion in 2007, according to iSuppli senior analyst Chris Crotty. And, of course, there are other high-volume plans for Cell.
Toshiba Corp., in Tokyo, for one, plans to build television sets around it. The company has already shown that a single Cell processor can decode and display 48 compressed video streams at once, potentially allowing a television viewer to choose a channel based on dozens of thumbnail videos displayed simultaneously on the screen. And in a smaller market, Cell has already found its first outside customer in medical- and military-systems maker Mercury Computer Systems Inc., in Chelmsford, Mass., which is developing a two-Cell blade server due out by April.
With two such massive consumer electronics makers as Toshiba and Sony behind it, Cell is an obvious attempt to control the "digital living room," as technology executives have dubbed their dream of a home where all the media players are intelligent and networked together. "[Sony's] goal is to make a computer fun...to make it an entertainment platform," says Sony's Cell director Masakazu Suzuoki. "But even if we make the Cell system an entertainment platform, there's nothing if there's no content."
Indeed, experts say Cell's success hinges on whether programmers outside IBM, Sony, and Toshiba will be able to exploit the gigaflops that Cell has to offer. Tony Massimini, chief of technology at the consulting firm Semico Research Corp., in Phoenix, puts it bluntly: "Cell has strong potential, assuming that the game developers satisfy their customers' needs. But if the games suck, who wants to buy it?"