Cell, which was developed by IBM, Sony, and Toshiba, is best known as the engine that powers PlayStation® 3, Sony's next-generation gaming console that is scheduled to debut next spring. However, gaming is just one application -- each of the three companies has big plans for this revolutionary new technology based on the Power Architecture™ technology.
IBM developerWorks today published key technical documents on the Cell Broadband Engine, documents designed to help developers build Cell-based products and applications that address a range of industries from consumer electronics to medical devices to defense. The releases describe these components of the Cell Broadband Engine Architecture:
- The Cell Broadband Engine Architecture defines a processor structure designed to enable distributed processing and multimedia applications, containing a Power Architecture processor augmented with multiple high-performance SIMD RISC Synergistic Processor Units and a set of DMA commands.
- The Synergistic Processor Unit Instruction Set Architecture (SPU ISA) details the high-performance SIMD RISC processor which should accelerate media and streaming applications for Cell systems.
- And Synergistic Processor Unit C/C++ Language Extensions, Application Binary Interface, and Assembly Language specifications, all to help developers leverage the full processing power of the SPUs.
Dan Greenberg, Power Everywhere systems offerings program director, IBM Systems and Technology Group, spoke with developerWorks about the importance of these documents and how they relate to the Cell processor roadmap.
dW: What is the significance of releasing these documents?
Dan Greenberg: This is an important milestone for the Cell project -- it follows through on a statement of intent we made in June 2005 at the Power.Org event in Barcelona to make public substantial amounts of Cell information. It is a key element of our strategy to create a broad ecosystem -- and a thriving market -- for Cell. And since Cell is based on Power Architecture, it's a key element of the IBM Power Everywhere strategy to continue building the Power Architecture platform and ecosystem.
Just as important, it's part of IBM System and Technology Group's strategic thrust of "collaborate to innovate." Cell itself was born as the result of collaboration with Sony and Toshiba. Now we are disclosing a lot of the workings of Cell to broaden that collaboration and bring to market many types of exciting innovative products.
dW: How will these documents "broaden the collaboration"?
DG: The documents we and our partners Sony and Toshiba are releasing detail how the Cell Broadband Engine works -- enough detail for developers to begin evaluating the technology. In addition, we're disclosing programming extensions which will allow others to begin coding toward Cell. No fee is required to download the documents. We hope a lot of people download them to get a head start on developing for this breakthrough technology.
dW: How is IBM trying to generate increased interest in Cell?
DG: We see a large number of potential plays for Cell -- and I promise that wasn't a pun on the importance of Cell to the game console industry. It's important to understand that Cell is an architecture: It's a set of concepts that couple Power Architecture with additional high-speed, on-chip processors and tremendous bandwidth both among the processors and between the chip and peripheral systems. The chip you've been reading so much about is formally called the "Cell Broadband Engine," or CBE. And it's but the first implementation of the Cell Broadband Engine Architecture.
Available immediately are offerings from IBM Engineering and Technology Services (E&TS) to create and customize boards and systems based on CBE. Our recent agreement with Mercury is a good example of that. The initial offerings in this suite are enabling companies to evaluate this ground-breaking technology with the assumption that many companies will then move to design and manufacture a range of innovative Cell-based products.
dW: Could you tell us a little about what E&TS is doing with Mercury?
DG: It's a multiyear alliance that will give Mercury access to IBM's repertoire of Cell technology and expertise in implementing systems based on the technology. Mercury's initial plans are to integrate Cell technology into future products -- Mercury's goal is to boost the performance of its clients' radar, sonar, MRI, and digital X-Ray applications and systems. One of the things Mercury and the E&TS engineers hope to address are performance boosts so Mercury's systems can handle the dramatically increasing amounts of data that new and improved sensors are now delivering. Also, the company plans to take advantage of Cell performance to enable its products to improve image quality (since so many of its offerings involve visualization).
Another E&TS offering is the potential to create a custom derivative of the Cell Broadband Engine -- the opportunity to craft a new member of the Cell family for and with clients.
dW: How would that work?
DG: All chips are a balance of a number of parameters and constraints -- performance, power consumption, cost, etc. For some applications, the existing Cell Broadband Engine chip is the right balance; for others, a different balance might be struck. But creating a processor is a major engineering effort. We expect that a few large clients with specific -- and often differentiating -- needs would contract with E&TS to do this work. Interested clients can contact E&TS online or through their IBM account representative.
dW: Does the Cell Broadband Processor Architecture differ from the existing Power Architecture technology?
DG: The central processor in the Cell Broadband Engine is 100% 64-bit "Power Architecture Classic" compatible. For example, that means you can take software that runs on a PowerPC® 970 and run it on the Power Architecture core of Cell Broadband Engine and vice versa -- assuming of course, that the code does not leverage Cell's Synergistic Processing Units. This cross-leverage will allow us to build an ecosystem for Cell much faster than we might otherwise and, we expect, will increase interest in the Power Architecture ecosystem due to the broad awareness of Cell.
dW: What type of products could potentially use Cell?
DG: Sony's PlayStation 3 is an obvious example. High-performance consumer electronics like digital television (DTV) and home media servers, some of which have already been announced by Sony and Toshiba, will use Cell.
Such demanding applications as Magnetic Resonance Imaging [for] medical scanners, CT scanners, ultrasound, radar and sonar, where having the rapid manipulation of data into 3D images is really differentiating, could be uniquely suited to Cell.
And there are many opportunities to greatly improve security and surveillance. Imagine, for instance, being able to compress dozens of video streams simultaneously and having the capability to recognize people in real time.
dW: Thank you for your time. Is there any final thought or impression you'd like us to take away from this interview?
DG: We're really excited by the possibilities for this new technology and now that the documentation has been released, we're looking forward to continuing collaboration with a vastly expanded community. IBM's goal is to broaden the ecosystem for Cell and for all members of the Power Architecture community -- and we intend to continue to contribute to build this community.
- Get the new Cell resources mentioned in this article on developerWorks (registration required).
- Read about the Mercury collaboration with IBM on Cell integration.
- Get an introduction to the Cell Broadband Engine Architecture -- from 20,000 feet (developerWorks, August 2005).
- Join the Org! The Power.Org, dedicated to collaborative innovation on the Power Architecture technology.
- Spufs: The Cell Synergistic Processing Unit as a virtual file system describes Cell's unique SPU file system interface that allows Linux to run on it (developerWorks, June 2005).
- Meet Arnd Bergmann, the Linux kernel maintainer for Cell, who talks about programming for this much-anticipated new architecture (developerWorks, June 2005).
- Get a look at a 4.8GHz fully pipelined embedded SRAM in the streaming processor of a Cell processor (developerWorks, May 2005).
- Try this roundup of Cell papers (developerWorks, April 2005).
- Find a dedicated Cell section in the IBM Semiconductor Solutions Technical library and elsewhere on the Semiconductor Solutions site.
- In regards to the Cell Architecture, discover more about what took place at the June 2005 Power.Org event in Barcelona.
Get products and technologies
- IBM Engineering and Technology Services (E&TS) can get you started on a Cell project collaboration.
- IBM alphaWorks maintains a topic area on Cell resources, including a roundup of articles on Cell.
- Technical discussion of the Cell documents is going on now at the Cell Architecture forum; comments and errata are welcome there also, or in the comments box at the bottom of this page. Errata on the specifications are welcome via e-mail to CBE_Documentation@us.ibm.com.