PC performance to take 200X speed increase?

(Alt subject for the geeks… “Moore’s Law No More.” )

This is a most interesting story. IBM and Sony have apparently released details of their new “cell” processor. This technology has been in the works for about 4 years and 2 years ago it got some major hype… Now it looks like the possible dawning of a whole new era.

Details trickle out on Cell processor

SAN FRANCISCO The eagerly anticipated Cell processor from IBM, Toshiba and Sony leverages a multicore 64-bit Power architecture with an embedded streaming processor, high-speed I/O, SRAM and dynamic multiplier in an effort, the partners hope, to revolutionize distributed computing architectures.

Although the technical aspects of the design, which has been in the works for nearly four years, are tightly held, details are emerging in excerpts from papers to be released today for the 2005 International Solid-State Circuits Conference(see story, page 94), as well as in patent filings.

The highly integrated Cell device has been billed as a beefy engine for Sony’s Playstation 3, due to be demonstrated in May. But the architecture also addresses many other applications, including set-top boxes and mobile communications. Workstations fitted with the Cell architecture a $2 billion endeavor are already in the hands of game developers.

This is the next generation of the POWER PC architecture that Apple uses in its Macintoshes. Apple’s G5 was the first 64-bit processor available to the general public and changed the way the world looked at processors. This supposedly blows it out the water.

Performance estimates

…Giving scale to the performance targets for the project, one of the ISSCC papers puts the performance of the streaming-processor SRAM at 4.8 GHz. This suggests the data transfer rate for 128-bit words across the local bus within the processing element. When the Cell alliance was announced in 2001, Sony Computer Entertainment CEO Ken Kutagari estimated the performance of each Cell processor a collection of apparently four processing elements in the first implementation at 1 teraflops.

So what the heck is a teraflop? Here is some perspective… When the G5 shook up the supercomputing world, 2,200 G5 processors were needed to produce 10 teraflops. And THAT was the third largest supercomputer in the world at the time.

This is a multi-cored processor. That means it has 4 processors in one physical chip. (like a double barrel shot gun) If one of those produces a teraflop it is nothing short of amazing. 10 chips could replace 2,200 chips today.

One limitation to this technology would be the speed we can move data in and out of memory. Today memory speed would be the bottleneck… Although with a 64 bit processor you can have 4,000 Gigabytes of RAM. (Try putting 4TB of RAM in your Pentium box 😉

While I’m obviously somewhat skeptical, when major companies throw 2 BILLION bucks at a project, I tend to believe they have a reason. Even if the first generation is “only” 1/10th of what they expect, that makes it about 20 TIMES faster than the fastest boxes today. If it meets expectations, that is roughly a 200 fold increase. Amazing. And prototypes are already shipping!

Sony mentioned in their press release using it for servers so clearly it will be coming soon to a desktop near you. (I’d guess on a Mac first as they use the PPC already but I have no clue.) And presumably if they are going to be in Play Stations they are going to be cheaper than what we have today.

Personally I’d buy Sony, IBM, Toshiba, and Apple and short Intel. But that’s just me.

I’ll be posting more when they release more details on Feb 6th. In the mean time, more and here.

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