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Cell processor goes commando

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The soldiers of today and the soldiers of tomorrow can now hone their killing skills on the same hardware thanks to a new Cell processor-based box from Mercury Computer Systems.

Mercury has taken the multi-core Cell chip from IBM and plunked it into a compact, ruggedized server appliance meant for military vehicles. This marks the third - and certainly most manly - Cell-based system to date from Mercury. Away from Mercury, the Cell chip is best known for its place in Sony's Playstation 3 gaming console.

So, youngsters can now blast away at their enemies on Sony gear and then graduate to an actual Cell-powered tank.

"The Cell BE processor was originally designed for the volume home entertainment market, but its architecture of nine heterogeneous on-chip cores is well-suited to the type of distributed, real-time processing that will power tomorrow's digital battlefield," said Craig Lund, CTO at Mercury. "At 200 GFLOPS, the Cell BE processor is an order-of-magnitude higher in performance than other processors. In defense computing, the availability of the Cell BE processor is an industry milestone akin to the introduction of AltiVec into the PowerPC architecture."

So far, Mercury is the only company to reveal Cell-based server designs. It has a blade server that slots into IBM's BladeCenter chassis and the more compact Turismo server coming in early 2007.

Customers will also have to wait until 2007 to purchase the PowerBlock 200 hardware, but the kit should impress.

Mercury estimates that a single PowerBlock 200 box will deliver as much horsepower as 20 PowerPC processors or 45 of Intel's Pentium 4 chips. It will perform at this level despite taking up only as much space as a toaster.

Photo of the compact PowerBlock 200 in a military truck"(The PowerBlock 200) contains a single Cell BE processor and has Gigabit Ethernet, Fibre Channel, RS-232 and GPIO front panel interfaces," Mercury said. "Other I/O options are available via open-standard mezzanine card expansion sites. The entire chassis will consume less than 400 W and support a self-contained cooling infrastructure that will conduct heat to the chassis walls."

Mercury is never shy about admitting the Cell's rather limited use. Due to its design, the Cell only outperforms more standard processors on specific software tasks.

For military use, Mercury expects the PowerBlock 200 to help out with missions such as target recognition, tacking, geo-location, mapping, terrain rendering, video processing and communications. Not a bad list at all.

These types of demanding, often floating point-intensive applications fall right into the Cell's wheelhouse.

"In general, the nature of Cell does not lend itself to generic IT applications," Lund told us in a recent interview. "It's very much meant for high-bandwidth, single precision floating point types of software loads."

This means that Mercury's early customers almost all fall into the high-performance computing market.

So far, Yellow Dog Linux has the only flavor of Linux tweaked to run on the Cell chip.

You can see more on the PowerBlock 200 here. ®

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