Three very interesting things happened over the past couple of weeks here at AnandTech:
  1. Intel’s Spring IDF 2005 turned out to be a multi-core CPU festival, with Intel being even more open than ever before about future plans for their multi-core microprocessor architectures.   Intel has over 10 multi-core CPU designs in the works, and they made that very clear at IDF.
  2. At GDC 2005, AGEIA announced that they had developed a Physics Processing Unit (PPU) that could be used to enable extremely realistic physics and artificial intelligence models.
  3. Johan De Gelas went one step further in his quest for more processing power earlier this week to find that there’s quite a lot of potential for multi-core CPUs in the gaming market, at the expense of increasing development times.
So, what do these three things have in common?   The aggregate of the three basically summarize what we’ve come to know as the Cell microprocessor - a multi-core CPU, part of which is designed for parallel physics/AI processing for which it will be quite difficult to program.

Cell, at a high level, isn’t too difficult to understand; it’s how the designers got there that is most intriguing.   It’s the design decisions and building blocks of Cell that we’ll focus on here in this article, with an end goal of understanding why Cell was designed the way it was.

A joint venture between IBM, Sony and Toshiba, the Cell microprocessor is the heart and soul of Sony’s upcoming Playstation 3.   However, this time around, Sony and Toshiba are planning to use Cell (or parts of it) in everything from consumer electronics to servers and workstations.   If you don’t already have the impression, publicly, Cell has been given some very high aspirations as a microprocessor, especially a non-x86 microprocessor.

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  • Houdani - Friday, March 18, 2005 - link

    I think I missed something fundamental.

    Can the SPEs be addressed directly by software, or do they have to be fed all of their instructions by the PPE?

    If they DO have to be fed be the PPE, I fail to see how the PPE can possibly feed them enough to keep them all working concurrently.

    Someone throw me a bone here.
  • suryad - Friday, March 18, 2005 - link

    I thought the G5 was a POWER5 proc. But I could of course be wrong. All I can say is the Cell definitely intriguing as it may be will have a rough road ahead of it and I am quite surprised that these large corporations invested so much in it, cutting edge though it might be. And as for the current forseeable future, I think when multi-core FX processors from AMD comes out, I do not believe there will be anything more devastating than that. Especially once they hit the 3 Ghz barrier with multi-cores enabled and faster DDR2-3 or even RAMBUS memory capabilities. Reply
  • tipoo - Thursday, December 03, 2015 - link

    No, G5 was 970 based. Reply
  • Questar - Friday, March 18, 2005 - link

    Yes the G5 is a POWER4 derivitive.

    Since you were wrong on that, don't think that you know what is significant about the design of POWER5. There were major architechture changes made to the processor.
  • fitten - Friday, March 18, 2005 - link

    The only things new about Cell is its target market and being a single chip. The article mentions the TI DSP chip, but there were other similar architectures as well. One example that I'm familiar with is the MAP1310 board by CSPI. Back then, processes weren't good enough to put all the cores on a single chip but the basic architecture is the same - a PPC core to do the 'normal' stuff and two quad-core DSPs (SHARC) to do the 'work'. This board wasn't successful because it was considered too hard to program to get the performance it promised.... and this opinion is from people who live/breathe real-time systems and multiprocessing codes.

    The only thing new about Cell is that a) it's all on one chip now and b) the target market is a general marketplace and not a niche.
  • scrotemaninov - Friday, March 18, 2005 - link

    #48. OK, I was under the impression that the G5 was based on the POWER5. You're saying it's based on the POWER4 instead?

    And the POWER4 and POWER5 aren't really "completely different chips" in the same way that the P4 and P3 are different chips, or in the way that the P4 and the Opteron are different chips. I can give you a list of the differences if you want. Start at

    The POWER5 is designed to not only be completely compatible with the POWER4 but to also to support all the optimisations from the POWER4. The only things of significance they've done is a) move the L3 cache controller on chip; b) change the various branch predictors to bimodal instead of 1-bit; c) increase the associativity and size of the caches.

    Anyway, this is going off topic now...
  • Jacmert - Friday, March 18, 2005 - link

    Rofl. Computer engineering and VLSI design. Gotta love those NMOS/PMOS transistor circuits.

    I never thought that I'd see stuff from my textbook explained on
  • saratoga - Friday, March 18, 2005 - link

    "#38. You're right that the G5 is a derivative of the POWER5. The POWER5 is dual core, each core with 2way SMT giving a total of 4 'visible' cpus to the OS. The G5 is simply a single core version of the same thing."

    Err no its not. POWER4 != POWER5. Hence the different names ;)

    They're completely different chips.

    "Well scrotemaninov I am not disputing that the POWER architecture by IBM is brilliantly done. IBM is definitely one of those companies churning out brilliant and elegant technology always in the background.

    But my problem with the POWER technology is from what I understand very limitedly, is that the POWER processors in the Mac machines are a derivative of that architecture right? Why the heck are they so damn slow then?

    I mean you can buy an AMD FX 55 based on the crappy legacy x86 arch and it smokes the dual 2.5 GHz Macs easily!! Is it cause of the OS? Because so far from what I have seen, if the Macs are any indication of the performance capabilities of the POWER architecture, the Cell will not be a big hit.

    I did read though at benchmark reviews of the POWER5 architecture with some insane number of cores if I recall correctly and the benchmarks were of the charts. They are definitely not what the Macs have installed in them..."

    There are slow memeory systems and then theres the one used on the G5. I've heard that you can put 8 Opterons together and still get average access times across all 8 cores that are better then a single G5. Thats probably a good part of the reason the G5 was so much slower then many people thought it would be. The rest is mainly IBM's trouble making them, and their inability to ramp clock speed like they planned on.
  • scrotemaninov - Friday, March 18, 2005 - link

    #38. You're right that the G5 is a derivative of the POWER5. The POWER5 is dual core, each core with 2way SMT giving a total of 4 'visible' cpus to the OS. The G5 is simply a single core version of the same thing.

    As for the performance, Opteron is pretty much unbeatable for integer-bound applications. Itanium2 is unbeatable for FP applications. POWER5 is somewhere in the middle.

    Most desktop applications are going to be integer bound. So it's not at all surprising that you find the G5 'slow' in that respect in comparison to the FX55. Plus, and this is the whole problem with the CELL, there's no point putting dual CPUs in there unless you can utilise them properly. If you have one process going flat out trying to run a heavy application and it's single threaded then you're only using about 1/4 of the CPUs you've bought for that application (for a dual G5 2.5), whereas the Opterons and FX55 stuff is more designed around quick, single threaded applications.
  • dmens - Friday, March 18, 2005 - link

    psuedo-pmos wtf? That's domino logic, it's been around forever, and it's definitely not efficient in terms of power. Oh, and it takes forever to verify timing. Reply

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