Friday, September 02, 2005

Cell Processor – Final Specs Released

IBM, Sony, and Toshiba formally announced the specs on their proposed Cell processor. For those who are not familiar with the Cell processor, it is a new processor based on a 64-bit architecture with features directed toward distributed processing and media-rich applications. It is a single chip with multiple cores each running its own application program with a rich set of DMA functions for fast communication between all the Cell processing elements. You can find a concise view of the architecture here. If you want to see the specs for the first implementation of the Cell processor on a gaming platform, here’s what Sony will do with it on their upcoming Playstation 3.

All processors share the same storage space. The processors are divided into two categories: PPE (Power Processing Element) – designed for running 32 and 64-bit applications and SPE (Synergistic Processor Element) – designed for running compute-intensive applications.

The Cell processor explicitly makes parallel the computation and transfers of data and instructions. Today’s processors are losing clock cycles waiting for data to come out of memory (unless it’s already in cache). The DMA model of the Cell processor allows each SPE to have several memory accesses running concurrently.

While current gaming systems use a graphics accelerator for speeding up the rendering process, the Cell processor replaces this chip with a more generalized computational resource that can be used for anything. Software will take over the rendering task. Check out this site for more details.

One question on the table is how will current bus architectures evolve to provide enough bandwidth to the Cell processor architecture.

Although it was originally targeted for the gaming community, it will have applications beyond that group. The head architect for the Cell processor, Dr. Hofstee sees the gaming platform as the first step on the road to making it a general purpose processor for other segments such as workstations, supercomputers, and engineering applications. He doesn’t envision it as a general purpose processor for the PC though. The Cell will run Linux which will be the key to moving it into new areas.

The video gaming industry is watching this closely. For example, the Austin Gaming Conference is dedicating their keynote to it in this year’s conference.

If you are working with next generation processors, I would like to hear from you. You can reach me at hall.martin@ni.com.

Best regards,
Hall T. Martin

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