The Cell Chip's Other Life

The powerful processor inside Sony's PlayStation 3 has other, less-publicized uses -- among them, telecom, defense, and medicine

The excitement over Sony's (SNE) PlayStation 3 and its superstrength Cell chip is building to a fever pitch. The next-gen console, due out this spring, will draw its power from Cell, essentially a supercomputer on a chip, expected to deliver eye-popping 3-D graphics and lightning-quick response times for speed-junkie gamers (see BW Online, 1/23/06, "A Monster Year for Game Consoles").

Amid the ballyhoo, little attention has been paid to Cell's other selling point: its potential for transforming data-crunching in industries hungry for computing power -- and on the military battlefields of the future.


  The wraps are starting to come off. On Feb. 8, IBM (IBM) introduced the first computer to harness Cell as part of a major upgrade of its so-called blade servers, used in everything from midsize businesses to huge corporate data centers. The Cell blade fits into IBM's BladeCenter chassis -- a box into which you can slide up to seven Cell blades. IBM proclaimed it the dawn of the "visualization computing era."

Says Tim Dougherty, director of BladeCenter strategy: "We think this has the potential to revolutionize the way people address certain marketplaces." The targets: digital media, medical imaging, oil and gas exploration, aerospace, defense, and telecommunications.

No matter how much power the Cell may possess, it won't be an overnight revolution. To begin with, IBM's Cell blades won't pop off an assembly line like so many Dell (DELL) desktop PCs. Initially, IBM will assemble them for particular customers in connection with consulting engagements -- such as with Mercury Computing Systems (MRCY) -- to overhaul products for military and medical uses. "These will be special-purpose computers, not general-purpose ones like the PC," says Jim Kahle, IBM fellow and director of the joint Cell Design Center in Austin, Tex.


  Chip industry leader Intel (INTC) makes light of Cell. Intel concentrates on products for PCs and servers and doesn't have a chip that can match Cell's processing capabilities -- but it says that doesn't matter. "Cell is targeted at games and embedded applications, and it's not in the mainstream server, mobile, and PC sectors," where Intel dominates, says Intel spokesman Chuck Mulloy.

Yet analysts believe that over time, Cell could play a significant role in business and defense by bringing prices down and enabling new feats of high-speed processing. The chips will appear not just in blades but also in engineering workstations and in specialized gear like radar and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) systems. "These processors will offer levels of performance in a single machine that will blow people away," says analyst Charles King of tech consultancy Pund-IT. "It's not a big market initially, but eventually, it could be a very big market."

The Cell chip, jointly developed by Sony, IBM, and Toshiba, is based on IBM's Power microprocessor architecture. Power chips run a wide array of electronics -- supercomputers, high-end corporate computers, Cisco (CSCO) routers, cell phones, and more. Cell is also manufactured by IBM. While Big Blue's microelectronics revenue represents just a sliver of overall sales, IBM considers chips and chipmaking technologies a key innovation differentiator in an industry where many products are increasingly commoditized (see BW Online, 2/7/06, "For IBM, Speed Rules").


  What's so special about Cell? The chip was designed from the ground up for the multimedia, networked world. The initial Cell chips have nine "cores," each programmable to handle different functions -- for example, audio, video, and graphic rendering. The technology also has "parallelism" that allows more things to happen at the same time. All of this makes it possible to accelerate processing speeds by a factor of 15 or more.

For instance, when used in an MRI machine, the images would look like a high-definition video rather than a choppy series of low-resolution pictures. IBM and its partners plan to cooperate on designs for the next generation of Cell processors and other chips (see BW Online, 1/12/06, "Toward the Chips of Tomorrow").

Cell could have a major impact on the defense and aerospace industries. Raytheon (RTN) is working with IBM to develop a two-chip package for use in everything from radar and sonar to night-vision goggles. In addition to powering the individual systems and devices, Cell will, ideally, help integrate information from many sensors and sources, so individual soldiers and commanders can have both detailed and holistic views of the action around them. Raytheon plans on using Cell in its entire family of sensor-based products.


  "This will be a key enabler for many things that will happen in network-centric warfare," Raytheon Chief Technology Officer Peter S. Pao, says of the Pentagon's plan to use advanced digital-imaging and networking to transform the battlefield of the future.

Other companies are developing uses for Cell that cut across industries. One of them, Mercury Computer Systems, has already developed three Cell-based technology modules designed to be included in systems for defense, medical, oil and gas exploration, and digital entertainment. "We have high hopes that this could become a big part of our business," says Joel Radford, Mercury's vice-president for strategic marketing and alliances.

Tech startups may also have a place for Cell. In December, IBM invited a handful of top venture capitalists to a Cell briefing in Silicon Valley. Carl Everett of Accel Partners, who attended the event, says he sees potential for Cell not just in consumer devices but also in corporate data centers. For instance, one company he has invested in, Transitive, provides emulation software that allows programs originally designed to run on one type of microprocessor to run on another type -- without the need to make any changes. Everett believes all sorts of such "virtualization" technologies exist that will run well on Cell.

Will buzz around the nongaming uses forCell rival the entertainment-related hype? Probably not. But, behind the scenes, this technology could bestow crucial help in saving lives, finding new energy sources, and winning wars.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.