Final Words

Concluding anything about Cell requires a multifaceted look at the architecture and the platform as a whole.

First from the perspective of the game industry, more specifically Playstation 3:

Cell’s architecture is similar to the next version of Microsoft’s Xbox and upcoming PC microprocessors in that it is heavily multithreaded.   The next Xbox will execute between 3 and 6 threads simultaneously, while desktop PC microprocessors will execute between 2 - 4.   The problem is that while Xbox 2/360/Next and the PC will be using multiple general purpose cores, Cell relies on more specialized hardware to achieve its peak performance.   Cell’s SPEs being Altivec/VMX derived is a benefit, which should mean that the ISA is more familiar to developers working on any POWER based architecture, but the approach to development on Cell vs. development on the PC will literally be on opposite ends of the spectrum, with the new Xbox somewhere in between.

The problem here is that big game development houses often develop and optimize for the least common denominator when it comes to hardware, and offer ports with minor improvements to other platforms.   Given Cell’s architecture, it hardly looks like a suitable “base” platform to develop for.   We’d venture to say that a game developed for and ported from the PC or Xbox Next would be under-utilizing Cell’s performance potential unless significant code re-write time was spent.

Console-only development houses, especially those with close ties to Sony, may find themselves able to harness the power of Cell much more efficiently than developers who ascribe to the write-once, port-many process of cross-platform development.   Given EA’s recent acquisition and licensing-spree, this is a very valid concern.

With Cell, Sony has effectively traded hardware complexity for programmer burden, but if anyone is willing to bear the burden of a complicated architecture, it is a game developer.   The problem grows in complexity once you start factoring in porting to multiple platforms in a timely manner while still attempting to achieve maximum performance.

As a potential contender in the PC market, Cell has a very tall ladder to climb before even remotely appearing on the AMD/Intel radars.   The biggest strength that the x86 market has is backwards compatibility, which is the main thing that has kept alternative ISAs out of the PC business.   Regardless of how much hype is drummed up around Cell, the processor is not immune to the same laws of other contenders in the x86 market - a compatible ISA is a must.   And as Intel’s Justin Rattner put it, “if there are good ideas in that architecture, PC architecture is very valuable and it will move to incorporate those ideas.”

Once again, what’s most intriguing is the similarity, at a high level, of Intel’s far future multi-core designs to Cell today.   The main difference is that while Intel’s Cell-like designs will be built on 32nm or smaller processes, Cell is being introduced at 90nm - meaning that Intel is envisioning many more complex cores on a single die than Cell.   Intel can make that kind of migration to a Cell-like design because their microprocessors already have a very large user base. IBM, Sony and Toshiba can’t however - Cell must achieve a very large user base initially in order to be competitive down the road.   Unfortunately, seeing a future for Cell far outside of Playstation 3 and Sony/Toshiba CE devices is difficult at best.

The first thing you have to keep in mind is that Cell’s architecture is nothing revolutionary, it’s been done before.   TI’s MVP 320C8X is a multi-processor DSP that sounds a lot like Cell: http://focus.ti.com/docs/military/catalog/general/general.jhtml?templateId=5603&path=templatedata/cm/milgeneral/data/dsp_320c80&familyId=44.   So, while Cell is the best mass-market attempt at a design approach that has been tried before, it doesn’t have history on its side for success beyond a limited number of applications.

Regardless of what gaming platform you’re talking about, Cell’s ability to offer an array of cores to handle sophisticated physics and AI processing is the future.   AGEIA’s announcement of the PhysX PPU (and the fact that it’s been given the “thumbs up” by Ubisoft and Epic Games) lends further credibility to Cell’s feasibility as a high performance gaming CPU.

The need for more realistic physics environments and AI in games is no illusion; the question is will Intel’s forthcoming dual and multi-core CPUs (with further optimized SIMD units) offer enough parallelism and performance for game developers, or will the PPU bring Cell-like architecture to the desktop PC well ahead of schedule?   The answer to that question could very well shape the future of desktop PCs even more so than the advent of the GPU.

Blueprint for a High Performance per Transistor CPU
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  • AndyKH - Thursday, March 17, 2005 - link

    Great article.
    Anand, Could you please clarify something:
    I had the impression that the PPE was a SMT processor in the sense that it had to be executing 2 threads in order to issue 2 instructions per clock. In other words: I didn't think the PPE control logic could decide to issue 2 instructions from the same thread at any given clock tick, but rather that it absolutely needed an instruction from each thread to issue two instructions.

    After reading the article, I don't assume my impression is right, but a comment from you would be nice.

    As I come to think about it, my impression is rather identical to 2 seperate single thread in-order cores. :-)
    Reply
  • Koing - Thursday, March 17, 2005 - link

    Cell looks VERY interesting.

    Any of you guys seen Devil May Cry 3 on the PS2? Looks great imo same with T5 and GT4.

    Cell at first will be tough like most consoles. BUT eventually THE developers will get around it and make some very solidly good looking games.

    Lets hope they are innovative and not just rehashed graphics and nothing else.

    Thanks for the great article.

    Koing
    Reply
  • scrotemaninov - Thursday, March 17, 2005 - link

    I really hate just dumping loads of links, but this basically is the available content on the CELL.

    http://arstechnica.com/articles/paedia/cpu/cell-1....
    http://arstechnica.com/articles/paedia/cpu/cell-2....
    http://realworldtech.com/page.cfm?ArticleID=RWT021...
    http://www.blachford.info/computer/Cells/Cell0.htm...

    http://www.realworldtech.com/page.cfm?ArticleID=RW...

    http://www.hpcaconf.org/hpca11/papers/25_hofstee-c...
    http://www.hpcaconf.org/hpca11/slides/Cell_Public_... (slides)
    Reply
  • mrmorris - Thursday, March 17, 2005 - link

    Brilliant article, there are few places for in-depth hardcore technology presentations but Anandtech never fails. Reply
  • scrotemaninov - Thursday, March 17, 2005 - link

    Real concurrency is hard to do for the programmers. It's a real pain to get it right and it's hard to debug. Systematic analysis just gets too complex as there are just too many states, you end up with a huge graph/markov-model and it's just impossible to solve it tractably.

    Superscalar and SMT just try to increase ILP at the CPU level without burdening the programmer or compiler-writer. However, we've pretty much come to the end of getting a CPU to go faster - at 5GHz, LIGHT travels 6cm between clocks, and an electic PD will travel slower. As it is, in the P4 pipeline, there are at least 2 stages which are simply there to allow signals to propogate across the chip. Clearly, going faster in Hz isn't going to make the pipeline go faster.

    So the ONLY thing that they can do now is to put lots of cores on the same chip and then we're going to have to deal with real concurrency. IBM/Sony are doing it now with CELL and Intel will do it in a few years. It's going to happen regardless. What we need is languages which can support real concurrency. The Java Memory Model is an almost ideal fit for the CELL, but other aspects don't work out so well, maybe. We need Pi-calculus/Join-calculus constructs in languages to be able to really deal with these cpus efficiently.

    Your comments about CELL not being general purpose enough are a little wrong. IBM /already/ has the CELL in workstations and are evaluating applications that will work well. Given the speed of the interconnect and the fact that it is cache-coherant, I think we'll be seeing super-computers based on many CELLs, it's an almost ideal fit (as it is, you've almost got ccNUMA on a single chip). Also, bear in mind that this is IBM's 5th (or 6th?) generation of SMT in the PPE - they've been at it MUCH longer than Intel - IBM started it in the mid-90s around the same time that the Alpha crew were working on the EV8 which was going to have 8-way thread-level parallelism (got canned sadly).

    Also, if you look at IBMs heavy CPUs - the POWER5, that has SMT and dispatches in groups of 8 instructions, not the 3/4 that AMD/Intel manage.

    What I'm saying here, is that sure, the SPEs don't have BPTs of BTBs, they're all 2-way dispatch and not greater, but, they all run REALLY fast, they have short pipelines (so the pain of the branch misprediction won't be so bad), and, IBM have had software branch prediction available since the POWER4, so they've been at it a few years and must have decided that compilers really can successfully predict branch directions.

    Backwards compatibility doesn't matter. Sure, Microsoft took several years to support AMD64 but that didn't stop take up of the platform - everyone just ran Linux on it (well, everyone who wanted to use the 64bit CPU they'd bought). It'll only be a few months after the CELL is out that we'll have to wait until Linux can be built on it. 100quid says Microsoft will never support it.

    Frankly, considering that it's far more likely to go into super-computer or workstation environments, no one there gives a damn about backwards compatibility or Windows support. No one in those environments /wants/ a damn paper clip.
    Reply
  • Reflex - Thursday, March 17, 2005 - link

    #14: Replace 'lazy developers' with 'developers on a budget' and you will have a true statement. Its not an issue of laziness, its an issue of having the budget to optimize fully for a platform. Reply
  • GhandiInstinct - Thursday, March 17, 2005 - link

    Wow Super CPU and SUPER RAMBUS? AHHHH!

    This will replace my computer. PS3 that is.
    Reply
  • ceefka - Thursday, March 17, 2005 - link

    Rambus'Revenge Reply
  • Locut0s - Thursday, March 17, 2005 - link

    Great article Anand!! Yeah I actually get to bring my Comp150 knowledge to bear in reading this article! If this had come out 6 months ago I would have been totally lost. It will indeed be interesting to see what headway Cell can make, however unfortunately as Anand alludes to the x86 architecture is just too heavily entrenched for anything to budge it except the Big 2 (AMD and Intel). I can't wait to see what type of power the Playstation 3 will have though, and especially how that power will be utilized in games. I bet there will be some jaw dropping graphics awaiting us there. That is if Cells limitations don't hold back lazy game developers and lead to a string of mediocre games punctuated by a few amazing titles made by independent developers who really care to utilize the architecture. Didn't the Playstantion 1 suffer something similar? Reply
  • knitecrow - Thursday, March 17, 2005 - link

    The real world technology article on the cell, states that it gives up single thread performance in favour of runing many parallel threads. That sounds like a terrible difficult processor to development games for.

    I for one think it will be easier to put the burden on the hardware rather than on the software side.

    Can we see another repeat of PS2? Technically impressive, but hard to code for.
    Reply

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