IBM to ship Cell-based blade server in Q3

New York (NY) - IBM announced that it will begin shipping a new blade-server using the Cell processor in the third quarter of this year. The chip will be made available in the framework of the firm's BladeCenter H family and will aim to accelerate digital animation applications, as well as floating point heavy scientific software.

Details about the blade server were scarce, but enough to attract attention to IBM's general renovation of its blade server family, which is claimed to be up to ten times faster (and significantly more expensive) than the previous generation. Despite IBM kept the announcement of the Cell blade to a minimum, simply stating that the server will be arriving in Q3 of this year, a previous demonstration of a prototype as well as one already shipping Cell system hint to what IBM's Cell blade system could look like.

At the core of the system there will be a nine-core Cell processor, consisting of one Power processing element and eight synergistic processing elements (SPEs). SPEs are considered by IBM as full processing elements that not only will run threads allocated form a main program but can, conceivably, can "merge" into one unit to provide acceleration to one thread. Clock speeds of IBM's prototype ranged from 2.4 GHz to 2.8 GHz, which is significantly lower than the expected clock speed of the Cell in Sony's Playstation 3 (3.2 GHz).

The prototype system integrated a total of seven boards, each carrying two Cell pprocessors. The claimed floating foint performance was claimed to achieve of 2.8 TFlops.

Similar to the Cell-based CTES computer currently available from Mercury Computer Systems, other Cell systems such as IBM's blade server will be using Rambus' XDR memory, which provides a bandwidth of 12.8 GBps and currently is said to be clocked with 2.4 and 3.2 GHz in production units.

IBM was careful to outline its sales expectations for the Cell blade and repeated the product positioning that was first noted at the Cell's first announcement in early 2005. According to Sony, Toshiba and IBM, the Cell chip will not become a mainstream processor, but more likely high-end processor, whose popularity will be driven by the Playstation 3. Cell is also expected to make its way into supercomputers to handle scientific calculations and workstations to improve the creation of digital animations.

While the idea of a high-powered desktop workstation based on the Cell may sound intriguing to many users, there are several limitations that will make it difficult for Cell to enter large volume markets other than gaming or entertainment. One of the road blocks, for example, is software support. Cell currently runs on only Red Hat's Fedora Core 4 Linux OS, according to IBM. But then, this isn't the way IBM's Core is heading anyway: "I don't know if the conventional desktop is a system that I'm most interested in," said Cell lead architect Dr. Peter Hofstee in an interview with TG Daily last year.

In the end, the Playstation 3 and potentially other home entertainment devices may be the only applications most users will be able to see what the Cell processor is capable of.