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A Giant Step for IBM's New Chip

By Steve Hamm The new Cell chip isn't just for games and gamers. Turns out, it's for doctors, chip manufacturers, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, as well.

While the high-powered multimedia chip is expected to make its biggest splash when it debuts in Sony's (SNE) PlayStation 3 game console early next year, the Japanese electronic giant's chip-development partner, IBM (IBM), has been busy trying to find other uses for the technology.

EMBEDDED-CHIP OPPORTUNITY. On June 28, IBM is expected to announce its first customer, Mercury Computer Systems (MRCY), a maker of specialized computers for the medical equipment, semiconductor testing, and defense-electronics industries. Mercury plans on incorporating Cell in medical and chip-testing equipment first, and later putting it in military gear like radar and sonar systems. It hired IBM's engineering-services group to help translate Cell from a game chip into an industrial-strength technology.

IBM believes this deal signals an important shift in the tech industry -- away from the traditional desktop world dominated by Microsoft (MSFT) and Intel (INTC). "In the past, the development of computing power has been driven by desktop applications," says Raj S. Desai, vice-president of IBM Engineering & Technology Services. "Now you're beginning to see gaming and these other data-intensive applications driving the performance gains in computing."

It's unclear just how sweeping a change Cell will bring beyond gaming, however. Analyst Rick Doherty of tech market researcher Envisioneering Group believes IBM has a chance to address at least one-third of the $3 billion market for embedded chips over time -- since electronics in cars and cell phones increasingly focus on multimedia and entertainment applications.

BEYOND THE CONSUMER REALM. But analyst Tom Starnes of market researcher Gartner Group says he believes only a sliver of the market will require the processing power of the Cell chip. A basic Cell processor is expected to deliver clock speeds of 3.2 gigahertz per core and contain nine "cores," so it has about 10 times the processing power of a standard desktop PC processor. "It's designed to be a screamer. The number of applications that need that level of performance are low," he says.

IBM and Sony haven't revealed pricing, but analysts believe Cell will cost about $30 in game consoles. The average PC processor today costs about $150 to $200, so with Cell, consumers get much more bang for the buck.

Big Blue has been developing the Cell in a joint venture with Sony and Toshiba since 2001. It started manufacturing the chip at its East Fishkill (N.Y.) fab earlier this year. So far, in addition to Sony using Cell in its game consoles, Toshiba has announced that it will use the chip in digital TVs next year, and IBM and Sony plan on selling a Cell-powered engineering workstation for producing digital content in movies, TV shows, and video games. But the Mercury deal is the first move for Cell beyond the consumer realm.

SERIOUS NUMBER CRUNCHING. The chip is a radical new design. It incorporates a lot of extra number-crunching and communications technology onto one chip that normally would be spread among a set of chips. This makes for a more powerful yet affordable package. Cell chips typically will incorporate anywhere from two to nine separate cores that are programmed to handle different processing jobs.

Cell offers the computing oomph that Mercury Computer Systems has been looking for to power a new generation of products. In terms of sheer processing, it produces eight or nine times the performance of other alternatives, says Craig Lund, Mercury's chief technology officer. And, in real-world tests, when the company measured the performance of systems using Cell by watts or by weight -- two crucial factors in defense electronics -- it beat the alternatives by a factor of three or four.

These performance achievements mean much more advanced algorithms -- requiring serious number crunching -- can be put to use. For instance, in radar, one of the problems is that a military aircraft gives away its position when it turns on its radar. Using Cell processing power and advanced algorithms, Lund says, it's possible that a jet with Cell on board might be able to use radar from other aircraft and land installations to "see" without exposing itself.

BRAVE ENOUGH? IBM has just begun its campaign to round up customers for Cell beyond the consumer-electronics realm. This fall it plans on distributing a version of the Linux operating system for Cell and a set of tools that will make it easier for developers to build products on top of Cell (see BW Online, 6/28/05, "A Tech Trio's Hard Cell"). "I'd be very surprised if they don't have a handful of customers in the next six months," says Envisioneering Group's Doherty.

Whether he's right will depend on IBM doing a smart job of spotting the applications that need the Cell's computing power -- and the companies that are brave enough to try an unproven new technology. Hamm is a senior writer for BusinessWeek in New York

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