Feb 8, 11:22 AM EST
IBM adopts high-performance 'Cell' chip
By BRIAN BERGSTEIN AP Technology Writer
BOSTON (AP) -- A highly touted microprocessor designed to provide hyper-realistic imagery in video games is making its first appearance in a computing system made by the chip's leading designer, International Business Machines Corp.
IBM announced Wednesday that it would incorporate the "Cell" chip into a new line of servers for defense, medical imagery, entertainment and other applications that require sterling graphics and intensive computing.
Cell is slated to run Sony Corp.'s upcoming PlayStation 3 video game system and high-definition TVs from Sony and Toshiba Corp.
Sony and Toshiba co-designed Cell with IBM; last month the three companies renewed the partnership for another five years.
While Cell's performance is highly regarded, there are skeptics who say it remains to be seen whether the chip will see enough broader uses to truly count as revolutionary. Before Wednesday's announcement, Cell's main assignment outside of Sony and Toshiba had been specialized medical and defense computers made by Mercury Computing Systems Inc.
Now IBM will use Cell in a line of "blade" servers, so named because they are relatively thin chunks of circuitry designed to perform specialized computing tasks. Because they are smaller than traditional servers, IBM envisions Cell-based blades seeing action in a wide range of settings, possibly including military vehicles.
"It's not going to be a general purpose computer," said Tim Dougherty, IBM's director of blade center strategy. "But for certain things, it is incredible, and it will make orders of magnitude difference."
Cell's fate will be closely watched because Big Blue is anxious to find ways to spur revenue growth.
Cell is touted as a game-changing "supercomputer on a chip" because of its unusual design, which includes an IBM Power processor at its core, helped by eight additional processors working together.
But for the chip to gain wide acceptance, IBM needs to spur outside programmers to write software that takes advantage of Cell's prowess. That could prove a tougher task than usual because Cell is architected so differently from other chips.
IBM hopes this summer's release of the Cell-based servers helps kickstart work by third-party programmers. Eventually IBM is likely to deploy Cell in other kinds of hardware, from supercomputers to data storage systems.
In turn, that could inspire other customers to follow Mercury's lead and try to tweak Cell for their own specialized purposes.
For example, defense contractor Raytheon Co. is exploring whether it can use Cell to dramatically improve the performance of sensor networks. Raytheon's chief technology officer, Peter Pao, called Cell "a very exciting technology" with "a lot of promise," but said Raytheon is still evaluating how to rewrite software and redesign systems to work with Cell.
"The most important thing is for this chip to have a large market with a large user base, because with that, IBM will have the financial incentive to continue to improve this product," Pao said. "We need that base."
One knock against Cell could be that it produces a relatively high amount of heat, which could keep it out of mobile devices.
Blade servers can be particularly sensitive to heat because they pack so much circuitry into a small space. However, Dougherty said the new servers are designed in such a way to get around the heat problem.
Dave Turek, IBM's vice president of "deep computing," noted that while Cell's current setup stems from the intense demands of video game systems, the chip's general architecture is designed to be modified for different industries' applications. In other words, Turek said, future iterations easily can be made cooler.