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Big Blue murders Cell blade servers

Power chips live on. In game consoles

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IBM's QSZ2 Cell-based blade server received nary a mention at last week's SC09 supercomputing trade show in Oregon. And for good reason.

Top brass in IBM's Systems and Technology Group killed the product off about 18 months ago, according to sources familiar with situation.

The QSZ2 blade server was slated to use a future version of the PowerXCell hybrid processor sporting two 64-bit Power cores and 32 of the synergistic processing element (SPE) co-processors that give the Cell chips their number-crunching and graphics processing power. But IBM never admitted it existed. So it's certainly not going to admit it has now ceased to exist.

"IBM, along with partners Sony and Toshiba, created the Cell processor and Cell technologies became a critical step in IBM’s hybrid and multicore computing strategy," explained Ron Favali, a spokesperson for IBM's Systems and Technology Group, in a statement.

"The Cell processor has had significant success in Sony's game console and cell technology served as the foundation for IBM's "Roadrunner" supercomputer, the first system to break the petaflop barrier and one of the most energy efficient systems in the world. Based on our experience gained from Cell, we now believe that the next generation of computing will rely heavily on the integration of multicore and hybrid technologies," Favali continued.

"IBM continues to invest in Cell technologies as part of this hybrid and multicore strategy, including in new Power7-based systems expected next year. IBM continues to manufacture the Cell processor for use by Sony in its PlayStation3 and we look forward to continue developing next-generation processors for the gaming market."

IBM has had several iterations of its Cell chips. The first was implemented in a 90 nanometer chip process and was baked at Big Blue's wafer factory in East Fishkill, New York, using the one Power core and eight SPE setup. In March 2007, the Cell chip was shrunk to a 65 nanometer process, and in February 2008, it was moved to a 45 nanometer process (a chip that Sony is now using in its latest PlayStation 3 Slim game console).

Later that year, the 65 nanometer version of the chip, dubbed the PowerXCell 8i, came out with significantly improved double-precision floating point math. It is this chip that is providing most of the math oomph for the Roadrunner massively parallel Opteron-Cell hybrid installed at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The future Cell chip that was supposed to be integrated on the QS2Z blade was on roadmaps dating from 2007, when IBM was ramping up the idea of using Cell-based blades as co-processors for mainframe, RISC, and x64 servers. That blade was expected to pack two of the unnamed dual-core, 32 SPE Cell chips (calling it the Power2XCell 32i would have made sense, but El Reg has never seen that name anywhere) onto a single blade, yielding up 1 teraflops of double precision floating point performance (about 500 gigaflops per Cell complex) or about five times the current QS22 blades (and five times the PowerXCell 8i chip complex).

That is about as good as Nvidia is going to be able to deliver early next year with the "Fermi" Tesla 20 GPU co-processors. A single Fermi GPU with 512 cores will offer 520 or 630 gigaflops of performance, depending on the model.

The QSZ2 blade was slated for delivery in the first half of 2010, according to some old IBM roadmaps, but as I pointed out two months ago last month when Oak Ridge National Laboratory said it was going to embrace GPUs for future supers, Big Blue hasn't said anything about the QSZ2 for years - and certainly didn't want to talk about it last week.

According to sources that have the inside story, that's because the top brass in Systems and Technology Group, who were hell bent on making cuts in servers delivered, decided around 18 months ago that the Cell-based blades were not carrying their weight in terms of revenues and profits.

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Next page: Los Alamos front

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