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IBM Debuts 'Cell' Chip

UPDATED: IBM and some of its partners introduced a new semiconductor chip today that is expected to disrupt some traditional computing architectures.

In concert with design partners Toshiba, Sony Computer and its parent company Sony , IBM detailed its jointly developed microprocessor -- code-named Cell -- at the International Solid-State Circuits Conference (ISSCC) in San Francisco this week.

Touted as a "supercomputer on a chip," the processor is about the size of a pushpin (221 mm) but features floating point performance, support for simultaneous multiple operating systems, and clock speeds greater than 4 GHz.

"With Cell opening a doorway, a new chapter in computer science is about to begin," Ken Kutaragi, executive deputy president and COO at Sony, said in a statement.

The companies, which have been working on the designs since 2001, said the chip should be able to power the gamut of applications found in small household consumer electronics devices. IBM, Sony Group and Toshiba said they would promote a very wide range of Cell-based products including home entertainment systems and supercomputers.

"But Cell isn't meant just for fun and games. It's also intended for professional graphics workstations and other computing devices, which makes people wonder what kind of magic will be bottled in the chips," Tom Halfhill, a senior analyst with semiconductor research firm In-Stat wrote in a newsletter issued last week.

IBM said the Cell chip is a multi-thread, multicore architecture that will support multiple operating systems, including Windows, Unix and Linux, as well as real-time consumer electronics and game operating systems. The chipmakers said they are also confident the chip can tackle multi-channel high-definition broadcast programs, as well as mega pixel digital still and movie images captured by high-resolution CCD/CMOS imagers.

Built using 90 nanometer silicon-on-insulator (SOI) technology, the Cell chip will also have substantial bus bandwidth to and from the main memory; a flexible on-chip I/O (input/output) interface; real-time resource management system for real-time applications; on-chip hardware in support of security system for intellectual property protection; and energy saving technology.

Memory chipmaker Rambus said IBM and partners will use its XDR memory and FlexIO processor bus interface hardware. The company said the memory and processor bus interfaces designed by Rambus account for 90 percent of the Cell processor signal pins, providing an unprecedented aggregate processor I/O bandwidth of approximately 100 gigabytes-per-second.

Halfhill said consumer applications are just the tip of the iceberg for the Cell uses. After a thorough analysis of the patents issued for the Cell chip by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Halfhill said the processor has the potential to be very disruptive.

"We believe the 'new programming model' is a way of binding program code and data together in special bundles, perhaps as part of a new instruction-set architecture (ISA)," Halfhill said. "The '734 patent describes a much larger register file and other novel architectural features not found in any PowerPC chips today. If Cell isn't a wholly new architecture, it may at least be a significant extension of PowerPC.

Halfhill said the name Cell derives from the architecture's "software cells," which combine program code, data, global identification numbers, and other metadata in formatted bundles.

"Software cells can freely migrate in search of execution resources -- whether those resources are in a single chip, spread across multiple chips in a system, or distributed across multiple systems on a local or global network," Halfhill said. "With the Cell architecture, clustering and grid computing are native concepts. It's a new parallel programming model for a fast-approaching age of universal multiprocessing."

IBM has said it plans on pilot production of Cell microprocessors at its 300mm wafer fabrication facility in East Fishkill, N.Y. during the first half of 2005. Big Blue said it has also tagged the processor for a workstation it is developing with Sony Entertainment.

Sony said it plans on debuting the processor in home servers and high-definition television (HDTV) systems in 2006. Toshiba said it expects to launch its first Cell-based product, a high-definition television (HDTV), around the same time frame.



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