The ever-accelerating pace of technological evolution is a fascinating phenomenon, and even more so when it directly affects our lives. Imagine your television, gaming console, stereo receiver, PDA, cell phone, and dozens of other gadgets forming a sort of Beowulf cluster to handle all your productivity and entertainment needs. A new microprocessor architecture in the pipeline, dubbed the Cell, looks to do just that.

Let's rewind a bit. On March 12, 2001, an announcement was sent to the presses that IBM, Sony, and Toshiba were teaming up to create the first, in their own words, "supercomputer-on-a-chip." Perhaps this news was mostly overlooked because it was a bit unbelievable at the time, or due to the fact the project was only expected to bear fruits by late 2004.

Regardless, with today's announcement that the processor has reached the end of the conceptualization stage and is being sent to fabrication facilities for prototyping, there's good reason to begin to get excited.

“We started with a clean sheet of paper and tried to imagine what sort of processor we would need five years from now. For a next-generation microprocessor, we think the key is going to be communication between devices such as game consoles, home gateways, and PDAs.”
- Lisa Su, director of emerging products at IBM Microelectronics

The venture began as an agreement by Sony, IBM, and Toshiba to equally invest upwards $400 million over a five-year period to design what is now known as the Cell. This required them to eschew almost all existing architectures and begin building from the ground up. They set up a joint development center in Austin, Texas, which would be utilized strictly for developing the Cell. Up to 300 computer engineers and architects from the three companies would be staffing this project, carrying out the research and development phases.

Production of Cells is expected to take place in IBM's state-of-the-art manufacturing facility, located in East Fishkill, New York. They expect a majority of the manufacturing capacity of this plant to be put towards Cell production once it begins.

The consortium defined the basic target specifications as a processor, composed of a scaleable number of distinct, identical processor cores, capable of more than 1 trillion floating point instructions per second at its peak. In order to do this, the Cell utilizes the latest in microprocessor architecture and production technologies from IBM's massive portfolio, such as:

Representatives from the companies claim this will make a 16 chip array of Cell processors faster than Deep Blue, possess a lower power consumption, and break teraflop-level performance. The chips will have built-in capability for broadband communication, allowing the chips to take advantage of the booming growth in bandwidth that is continually progressing.

Besides merely being able to put between 4 and 16 of these chips in a Cell, the broadband connectivity allows Cells from different devices to communicate and function together, turning a high-tech home into a grid computing network for your every whim.

Another key highlight is the flexible nature of the Cell. Each of the individual chips which compose it are general purpose and can handle an array of tasks on their own or in cooperation with other chips, allocating task handling based on the function being performed. A 3D game, for example, would require several of the chips to handle rendering capabilities, but as the game goes to an MPEG cut scene, those same chips could be re-allocated to handle video decoding functions. It will also eliminate the need for dedicated sound and video components, two things that add to the price of set-top devices, computers, and mobile products.

Additionally, the Cell will implement IBM's recently developed "self-healing" technology, whereby each chip has inherent "meshed redundancy" that takes over if an area goes down. This is the same technology which will be implemented in IBM's upcoming ubercomputer, Blue Gene. Massive redundancy and the ability to continue functioning even in the case of portions of the chip dying off is a first for silicon, despite having been used in the brains of animals since the dawn of time.

"It can be reconfigured for optimal performance of both graphics and communications processing. It's way beyond DSPs and way beyond normal pipeline graphics processors. It's going to take an enormous amount of software development. We believe the chip architecture is going to be on time and ahead of the software wizardry that is going to really make it get up and dance."
- Richard Doherty, analyst for Envisioneering, Seaford, N.Y.

However, a system as revolutionary as the Cell isn't without its pitfalls. For one, the entirely new architecture is going to require development of its own operating system, applications, and developer kits. On top of that, computer programmers and software developers will need to learn the new platform. Much of the hullabaloo over the Playstation 2 resulted from the inadequate development tools, and although that was later rectified, it slowed adoption of the system.

In order to ease the impact of those issues, the companies are engineering the Cell to function with myriad operating systems, as well as their own proprietary one. So far, Linux is the only system that they are listing as officially supported.

After it goes into production in 2004, it will find its way into the PlayStation 3, as well as numerous other tech products.

...(the) Cell...will raise the curtain on a new era in high-speed, network-based computing. With built-in broadband connectivity, microprocessors that currently exist as individual islands will be more closely linked, making a network of systems act more as one unified 'supersystem.'
- Ken Kutaragi, president and CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment Inc.

As of now, the chip has finished prototype design stages. It is currently in the process of being handed over to the fabrication facilities for sample production. The entire project is currently on schedule for a 2004 release.