IBM Makes Way Into Xbox

UPDATED: IBM has been working with Microsoft since 2003 to develop one of the microprocessors found in the upcoming Xbox 360, the console gaming system expected to deliver a significant boost in graphics power to enthusiasts.

Production of that chip is under way at IBM’s facility in Fishkill, N.Y., and at Chartered Semiconductor Manufacturing in Singapore, officials said Tuesday.

IBM also unveiled some of the details behind the chip’s architecture at the Fall Processor Forum in San Jose, Calif.

The chip is built with three cores, each with a customized version of IBM’s 64-bit PowerPC core and capable of clock speeds greater than 3GHz. In addition to the three cores, the chip has a 21.6Gbps front side bus (FSB) and 1MB shared L2 cache helps the cores process the computations needed to deliver the next-generation console graphics and applications.

The alliance with IBM is hardly the first time IBM and Microsoft have worked together, though this particular pairing is ironic. Back in the early 1980s, it was IBM that looked to Microsoft to supply the first operating system, PC-DOS, for the original IBM PC.

Almost 25 years later it is Microsoft looking to IBM to help design and supply processors for its computer, the Xbox 360 game system.

“Microsoft was able to take advantage of the significant investment IBM has made in chip architecture and system design,” said Jeff Brown, the chief engineer at IBM in charge of the Xbox project.

Speaking at the Fall Processor Forum chip conference in San Jose, Calif., Brown said Microsoft engineers were involved in all the tradeoffs and decisions that went into the final design of the Xbox processors.

Although IBM has considerable manufacturing capability, the decision to also use Charted as a second source foundry may have been driven by Microsoft’s desire to ensure a ready supply in case of spikes in consumer demand for the next generation gaming system.

Brown said there were also distinct advantages to having two chip foundries involved.

“Having two foundries gave us [any faulty] parts back quicker than if we had one,” he said. “It also let us compare and contrast how a part was running in two different foundries and better identify if there was a hardware or design process problem.”

Brown said IBM was able to get from the first silicon samples of the new processors to volume production in eight months, which is considered a very fast timeline.

IBM has been working with Microsoft on the Xbox 360 microprocessor since a Nov. 2003 agreement between the companies.

The Xbox 360 is expected to ship in time for this year’s holiday season and is designed to be more than just a console gaming system. In addition to IBM’s three cores providing 3.2 GHz speeds each, the Xbox 360 includes a customized graphics card from ATI Technologies and 512MB of RAM .

Microsoft has also added DVD playback capability, the ability to listen and rip music albums, share videos and pictures to the system, as well as the ability to connect to its Media Center Edition 2005 for the PC.

The upcoming Xbox is geared primarily to compete with Sony’s PlayStation 3, which features IBM’s Power architecture with multi-core, 64-bit computing. It is expected to launch in the spring.

IBM, Sony and Toshiba (STI) collaborated on the PlayStation 3 architecture and will use it as the backbone for the new console.

The Cell engine, as it’s called, is expected to fuel growth for its use outside the gaming world and into applications from medical imaging to video surveillance software.

STI released the technical documents behind Cell for public download in August.

David Needle contributed to this report.

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