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IBM, Sony, Toshiba Shed Light On The Cell

IBM, Sony, Sony Computer Entertainment and Toshiba talk up their jointly developed cell microprocessor, described as a "supercomputer on a chip" designed to handle demanding digital media and computer graphics.
IBM, Sony Corp., the Sony Computer Entertainment Inc. and Toshiba Corp. on Monday released more details on the jointly developed Cell microprocessor, which the companies claim is a "supercomputer on a chip" that's made to handle demanding digital media and computer graphics.

Details on the new processor, which is scheduled for production this year, were released at the International Solid State Circuits Conference in San Francisco. The Cell features supercomputer-like floating-point performance with clock speeds greater than 4 GHz, according to the four companies.

The creators are billing the chip as the engine for multimedia and other applications that proponents hope will become the heart of what vendors call the "digital home," a network of computers and devices that can share music, pictures, video and data.

Development of the Cell started in March 2001at a joint design center in Austin, Texas. The prototype chip is 221 mm, integrates 234 million transistors and is fabricated with 90-nanometer silicon-on-insulator technology.

SOI is a chip architecture that increases transistor-switching speed by reducing capacitance, which is the build-up of electrical charges in the transistor's elements, and thus reducing the discharge time.

The Cell creators claim the chip provides as much as 10 times better performance in handling entertainment and rich-media applications than current PC processors from companies like Intel Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc.

The chip is also capable of supporting multiple operating systems simultaneously. Those systems could include Linux, real-time operating systems for computer entertainment and consumer electronics applications, as well as guest operating systems for specific applications, the companies said.

Cell's chances of success in the market are good because it's based on an existing chip architecture, the IBM Power processor, and because it has the backing of two major consumer electronics manufacturers, Gordon Haff, analyst for Illuminata Inc., said.

"It's basically another instance of IBM moving the Power architecture into new specialty directions," Haff said. "Cell is obviously not a general purpose processor, but rather one very specifically focused on certain types of performance-oriented computing. ... This is not an attempt to introduce a new commercial computing architecture."

Initial production of Cell is expected to begin at IBM's 300mm wafer fabrication facility in East Fishkill, N.Y., followed by Sony's Nagasaki plant in Japan. Sony and Toshiba plan to feature the chip in a broad range of products, from digital televisions to home servers to supercomputers. The chip is expected to power the Sony PlayStation 3 video game system, which is scheduled for release next year, the Reuters news agency reported.

"We are confident that Cell will provide for major momentum for the progress of digital convergence, as a core device sustaining a whole spectrum of advanced information-rich broadband applications, from consumer electronics, home entertainment through various industrial systems," Masashi Muromachi, president and chief executive of Toshiba's Semiconductor Co., said in a statement.