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Big Blue murders Cell blade servers

Power chips live on. In game consoles

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IBM was unwilling to confirm these rumors. But the rumors fit the data. There's a reason why Los Alamos, which has zillions of Cell processors and code that has been tuned to run on it, is fronting the Hybrid Core Consortium, which seeks to make it easier to program hybrid supercomputers using a mix of CPUs and co-processors and which wants to use the leverage of the big HPC centers in government and academia as well as software developers who write code for supers to compel companies to make certain technologies and support them based on the results they get in the field.

You can parse IBM's statement above in a number of different ways. First, Cell was a collaborative design by IBM, Sony, and Toshiba, and all three companies put hundreds of millions of dollars into the Cell design and the processes to make it. IBM has made billions of dollars making Cell chips and Sony has made its billions selling PlayStation 3 consoles; heaven knows what Toshiba has made, but the Cell chips are in TVs, apparently. If Sony wants a faster or different Cell chip, you can bet IBM will make it. And it might even be something like the 2x32 Cell chip that got canceled, provided it is compatible with Sony's software.

Heaven only knows what Microsoft is thinking for its future game consoles, which are based on its own "Xenon" three-core variant of the Cell chip, or what Nintendo has planned for its future consoles, which use the "Broadway" single-core Power chip. Software compatibility is key for these consoles - up to a point. Getting consumers to buy new consoles and new games is sometimes more important, which means the console biz could be up for grabs.

But what is perfectly clear is that IBM, which had high hopes for using Cell chips as adjunct processors for commercial systems, is no longer interested in this approach and is taking Cell concepts and adding them to more mainstream Power processors.

That said, it seems very unlikely that the future Power7 chips, due in the first half of next year, will sport SPEs like the Cell did. (IBM certainly hasn't talked about this, and the eight-core chips already have decimal and multiple vector math units per core). But given the more flexible nature of the SPEs compared to relatively static math units, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Power7+ or Power8 chips have SPEs.

Ditto for future BlueGene massively parallel supercomputers. IBM already packs four 850 MHz PowerPC 450 processors onto a single ceramic processor card, linked by symmetric multiprocessing, so they can share 2 GB of DDR2 memory in the current BlueGene/P supers.

The future "Sequoia" massively parallel super that is going into Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory - with over 1.6 million cores and packing over 20 petaflops of performance when it is delivered in 2011, as we told you when the deal was announced this past February - is not based on Cell or an x64-Cell combo, but what appears to be a packaging of eight PowerPC chips on a single piece of ceramic (not eight cores on a single chip, but eight chips in a package). It is possible that IBM might add SPEs to these cores or math co-processors of some other kind to the package.

Whatever Big Blue is really up to when it talks about hybrid computing with Power chips, it ain't saying - not yet. But the company is telling customers that the current QS22 is the last Cell-based blade it will make. And when you do the math, this means that future 2x32 Cell chip is kaput, fini, no mas, null. Unless Sony, Toshiba, Microsoft, or Nintendo wants to help pay for its development costs. ®

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