IBM, Sony set to release details about the "Cell" processor

Chicago (IL) - Sony and IBM will provide details about their jointly developed Cell processor next week during the International Solid-State Circuits Conference (ISSCC) 2005. One of the most anticipated products of the year, the chip will likely make its debut inside the next Playstation and later move into workstation and server systems.

IBM and Sony kept information about Cell, the codename for the processor, on a short leash. This however did not prevent the firms from making a splash with a simple announcement late November 2004 that they had powered on the first prototype Cell workstation. Next Monday, IBM and Sony will follow up and will release more details about the architecture and capabilities of Cell.

According to program of the ISSCC 2005, Cell is a system-on-a-chip (SoC) that will include multiple streaming cores built on 64-bit Power architecture. The processor is manufactured in 90 nm SOI technology, will offer a "high degree of modularity" and "achieve a high-frequency clock-rate". Cell will take advantage of software that controls data movement and instruction flow to improve data bandwidth and pipeline utilization, IBM and Sony said.

In addition to the processor itself, IBM and Sony are expected to give insight into the memory integration of the platform. Cell will integrate 6-stage pipelined SRAM in 90 nm SOI technology which uses "a conventional 6-transistor memory cell and sense amplifier."

IBM and Sony have created high expectations in the platform by stressing that a one-rack server equipped with a Cell processor system will reach a performance of 16 TFlops - a rating that would put such a system into sixth place of the current Top 500 supercomputer ranking.

"Our collaboration with Sony is leading to a new era of innovation in the semiconductor and computing industries," said Colin Parris, vice president of product management of IBM Systems and Technology Group during a November announcement. "The supercomputer-like processing and performance of the Cell processor-based workstation is just the beginning of what we expect will be a wide-range of powerful next-generation solutions resulting from our joint development efforts."

Sony considers Cell as a potential successor of the current x86 architecture. Industry analysts however are not so sure, if Cell will be able to replace current PC processors. "x86 is now around for 30 years or so. We have seen similar claims and threats in the past, such as RISC. No architecture so far was able to replace x86," said Dean McCarron, an analyst at Mercury Research.

In the end, IBM and Sony will have to deliver on their claims: "It is premature to suggest that companies such as AMD and Intel should be worried about Cell."

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