Advanced Imaging

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Advanced Imaging Magazine

Updated: July 8th, 2008 05:26 PM CDT

The IBM Cell Processor

Cell Architecture
Cell Architecture
Microprocessor Module
The Cell Microprocessor Module
Detail of Processor Chip
A lot of power in not a lot of space
Tomography Image
An image from a Linux-based computed tomography image reconstruction application running on a prototype of Mercury's dual Cell-based Blade.
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By Keith Reid

The IBM demonstration at the March 2006 Cebit show was, by most accounts, impressive. A beating human heart, shown in 3D (with the appropriate glasses), could be manipulated, a slice at a time, in real time. The power to crunch through the mountains of data required for the demonstration was impressive. But what was really noteworthy, was that the IBM Cell processor driving this advanced imaging application will soon be found in million of homes around the world. In that more mundane environment, the primary application will involve cranking out digital zombies and space aliens on a big screen TV, to be dealt with through virtual carnage.

The Cell processor is the result of a collaborative, $400 million effort between IBM (Armonk, N.Y.), Sony Group (Tokyo) and Toshiba Corporation (Tokyo) to develop a new processor for the next-generation Playsation 3 console, with applicability in other imaging- and physics-intensive areas. Cell is said to provide 10 times the performance of the latest PC processors in general applications, and up to fifty times the performance in imaging applications.

The Cell Architecture grew from a challenge posed by Sony and Toshiba to provide power-efficient and cost-effective high-performance processing for a wide range of applications, with its core functionality focused on the extreme graphics demands made by game consoles. “When we were trying to achieve the performance targets that Sony Computer Entertainment had set, we discovered that we had to go beyond the ordinary,” said Dr. H. Peter Hofstee, Cell chief scientist and Cell synergistic processor chief architect. “Cell addresses a number of fundamental limiters to processor performance. The basic three limiters that we were working with were the memory wall, the power wall and the frequency wall.”

Based on the analysis of available die area, cost and power budgets and achievable performance IBM determined that the best approach was to exploit parallelism through a high number of nodes on a chip multiprocessor. The result is a processor that is significantly more powerful than a conventional, general purpose processor in many areas (but not all), and that brings with it some new challenges for hardware and software developers.

Chip Architecture

At the heart of Cell, is a conventional IBM 64-bit Power Architecture™ core (called the power processor element or PPE) augmented with eight specialized synergistic processor unit co-processors based on single-instruction multiple-data, or (SIMD), architecture.

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