Next-Gen Gaming Chip Not Just For Fun

New specs are out on one of the hottest new chip architectures to hit the gaming world. But the caretakers of The Cell, the so-called Broadband Engine, said the architecture is ideal for more than gaming consoles.

A brainchild of Sony , Toshiba and IBM , The Cell is slated for game consoles such as Sony’s PlayStation 3 and is due early next year.

But the three companies, which go collectively by the acronym of STI, want the chip and its architecture to have a home away from gaming consoles and converged media and be comfy in the business world, too.

With new digs in mind, Sony released five documents available for download today, the result of four years and the investment of several hundred millions of dollars: Cell Broadband Engine Architecture, Synergistic Processor Unit (SPU) Instruction Set Architecture, SPU C/C++ Language Extensions, SPU Application Binary Interface Specification, and SPU Assembly Language Specification.

IBM released the same documents as well as an overview of the technology and a discussion forum to discuss the technology. Toshiba officials said they would release its documents after it completes its customer support structure.

Thursday’s document release gets down to code-level implementation of the Cell engine, from language syntax for assembly programming to the extensions needed to create the end user applications in C and C++.

In all there are more than 750 pages that provide an inside peek at the platform, free of charge to the world. In fact, the three companies want to get the code into the hands of as many developers as they can to to create Cell-based applications.

Dan Greenberg, IBM PowerEverywhere program director, said the company will be releasing more tools and support for Cell in the coming months, which is why they are requiring developers to register their e-mail address before they can download the documents. The e-mail address will be used to inform them of future support, he said.

The microprocessor architecture is based on IBM’s Power chips used in the server world, optimized and augmented for media- and data-intensive streaming applications, Greenberg said.

The Cell uses a single-chip, 64-bit, multiprocessor with nine processors operating on shared memory. The nine processors come in two types that work independently but are interdependent — the Synergistic Processor Element (SPE) uses eight of the nine processors to perform the data computations in applications, while the one Power Processor Element (PPE) is used to run the operating system and the top-level control of the application.

As Greenberg mentioned the architecture has been optimized for streaming applications, so its more adept at crunching numbers than multi-tasking. However, officials note Cell is capable of performing both duties.

As such, Greenberg said, the company can envision capabilities beyond its entertainment value and wants to get the developer community on board to use and eventually expand on Cell.

“We believe that by enabling collaboration around the architecture that we will be able to expand the market much more quickly than if we did it kind of in the traditional closed way of creating all this code ourselves and putting it out there,” he said.

Officials see the Cell architecture powering a wide variety of applications outside the gaming community; possible business applications range from boosting the processing power of medical imaging devices like MRI and CAT scan machines to improving video data analysis in surveillance applications.

In a blog entry Thursday, Irving Wladawsky-Berger, IBM’s vice president of technology and strategy, said technology like the Cell architecture represents another watershed moment in computing. As computing switched from batch processing to interactive decades ago, a similar shift is underway to remove people from the user interface altogether.

“We don’t want the machines to be visible, we don’t want to be surrounded by computers at all, we want the computers to disappear into the consumer appliances, cars, and entertainment of our daily lives, as well as into the business, government, and health care processes that we deal with,” he wrote. “We want the technology to make the world a much better place for us all, but we want it to continue to be a familiar, human-like world.”

The documents are available at IBM’s Web site here (with registration) and at Sony Computer Entertainment’s site here (no registration required).

Previously only available under a non-disclosure agreement (NDA), the release Thursday expands on the details provided earlier this year by the joint venture at the International Solid State Circuit Conference in February 2005. There, STI officials provided an overall technical preview but no details.

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