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Icons of Progress

The Cell Broadband Engine

IBM100 The Cell Broadband Engine iconic mark

In 2000, while enjoying the successful release of the PlayStation 2 computer entertainment system, Ken Kutaragi, president and CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment Inc. (SCEI) was already thinking about ways to improve upon the design. After reviewing every microprocessor available from IBM, Kutaragi challenged the company to develop something new for the future PLAYSTATION 3—a revolutionary microprocessor that would deliver performance and efficiency beyond what was achievable even with conventional multi-core architectures. Toshiba Corporation joined in the challenge, and the three companies established the STI (Sony Group-Toshiba-IBM) Design Center in Austin, Texas, in the spring of 2001. More than 400 engineers would come together from the three companies spread out over 11 sites to design a “supercomputer on a chip.”

Although the original challenge was to develop a processor for use in a specific gaming console, the engineers at the STI Design Center focused on developing something that would support multiple applications and systems. As a 2005 Forbes magazine article explained, “If its builders’ advance hype is right, Cell promises a new era of graphics-rich computers, as well as TV sets and home theaters capable of processing and moving large volumes of high-definition content.”

After four years of collaboration between the companies, both within the STI Design Center in Austin, and at several IBM Research centers around the world, the Cell Broadband Engine Architecture (CBEA) was born. Its first prototype was produced at IBM’s semiconductor manufacturing plant in East Fishkill, NY. The Linux ® operating system was installed on the Cell Broadband Engine™ (Cell/B.E.) processor and tested. Over the next year, engineers worked on integrating the device into the PLAYSTATION 3 console so it could be demonstrated at the 2005 Electronics Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, California.

The Cell/B.E. processor features a configuration of nine independent cores: one IBM ® PowerPC ® processing element (PPE) and eight synergistic processing elements (SPEs). The PPE is a new core unlike any other PowerPC core made by IBM in the past. It serves as a general-purpose microprocessor, running the operating system. The eight SPEs, which comprise the majority of the Cell/B.E. die, are designed specifically to perform high-speed calculations. Unlike conventional processors that rely on the hardware to automatically bring data and instructions close to the processor with a hierarchy of hardware caches, the Cell Broadband Engine requires the programmer to create a “shopping list” of the data that the program requires. In today’s processors, hardware caches occupy the majority of the area in a processor, so while the Cell Broadband Engine places a larger burden on the programmer—who must specify the needed data in advance of execution—the reduction of area needed for hardware caches allows the Cell Broadband Engine to realize eight SPEs and one conventional core in a technology that supports only two conventional high-performance cores.

“The PC is no longer the driving force in semiconductor innovation,” said John Kelly, senior vice president and group executive for the IBM Technology Group. “Networking and consumer electronics applications are driving the evolution of a new semiconductor industry—one based on closer collaboration with customers.”

In 2007, IBM challenged university students to develop Cell-based applications in the Cell Broadband Engine Processor University Challenge. Almost 80,000 students in 25 countries participated in the challenge. The first-place winners—students Jayram Moorkanikara Nageswaran and Jeff Furlong from the University of California, Irvine, and Ashok Chandrashekar and Andrew Felch from the Neukom Institute for Computational Science at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire—used a cluster of PLAYSTATION 3 consoles to perform large-scale modeling of the human brain.

A year later, in 2008, IBM announced a revised variant of the Cell called the IBM ® PowerXCell 8i, which is available in IBM BladeCenter ® QS22 servers. IBM also built the first Cell-based supercomputer, IBM Roadrunner, which consists of 12,960 PowerXCell 8i processors, along with 6562 AMD Opteron processors. In 2008, the Roadrunner supercomputer was the first to break the petaflop barrier, reaching a processing speed of 1.026 petaflops [read more about the Icon of Progress, Breaking the Petaflop Barrier]. In 2010, Toshiba announced a new line of TVs based on the Cell processor.


Selected team members who contributed to this Icon of Progress:

  • Jim Kahle IBM Fellow and former director of technology for the STI Design Center; had overall technical responsibility for the development of the Cell Broadband Engine
  • Peter Hofstee Senior technical staff member in the STI Design Center in Austin, Texas, chief scientist for the Cell Broadband Engine and chief architect of the synergistic processor element
  • Ken Kutaragi Hononary Chairman of Sony Computer Entertainment Inc.; brought together Sony, Toshiba and IBM to form the STI alliance that developed Cell Broadband Engine Architecture
  • John Kelly Senior vice president and group executive for IBM’s Technology Group; worked with executives from Sony and Toshiba to develop the STI Design Center where the Cell Broadband Engine was designed
  • Bijan Davari IBM Fellow and vice president, next-generation computing systems and technology; had responsibility for Cell-based systems (Quasar program)