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Swift, Small, "Cell" Broadband Chip; Applications in Higher Education

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Author: David Geer

Lead: An "advanced chip architecture for a new wave of devices in the emerging broadband era" is coming from Sony, Toshiba and IBM (according to a Toshiba news release).

How Fast?

How fast will the STI (Sony, Toshiba, and IBM) Cell chip cruise? Figures are flying, from 100 times to thousands of times the speed of a Pentium 4 processor (a 2.5GHz Pentium 4 is what is specifically referred to in order to arrive at these numbers). An IBM news release touts that the consumer electronics that will carry these wafer-like, "system-on-a-chip" processors will be faster than its own Deep Blue supercomputer is today.

Big Picture, Little Cell

The new chip will use "the world's most advanced research technologies and chip-making techniques, including copper wires, silicon-on-insulator (SOI) transistors and low-K dielectric insulation, with features smaller than 0.10 microns -- 1,000 times thinner than a human hair. The result will be consumer devices that operate at low power and access the broadband Internet at ultra high speeds," (says a release from the STI partnership).

Sony's Atsuo Omagari ( of Sony Electronics Corporate Communications provided some background on behalf of Sony HQ CCOM, Tokyo concerning the Cell chips. Initially, Cell is slated to support the high performance needs of future consumer electronics products. The coming consumer electronics and network products that will use broadband - products like games, movies, music, digital broadcasting, and even PCs - will be enabled by Cell. Sony, Toshiba, and IBM will benefit by developing each their own products that will rely on the Cell processors and technology.

The STI triumvirate recently poured $2 Billion into the Cell project in the form of upgrades to wafer chip plants in Japan (this is in addition to the companies' initial commitment of $400 million over five years starting back in 2001, according to a Toshiba press release). Specifically, in April of last year Sony announced that they would invest "200 billion yen over three fiscal years from 2003 to 2005 in the installation of a semiconductor fabrication line to build chips with 65 nanometer processors on 300-mm wafers. With this investment, SCEI will manufacture the new microprocessor for the broadband era, code-named "Cell"," (according to a Sony press release). The result of this effort will be an unprecedented, small, powerful and stackable processor.

Cell will be offered at an affordable, static price, which it must be in order to be included in PlayStation 3, one of the first products in which it is expected to appear. Cell will integrate communication, power and teraflop processing. It will be capable of collecting huge stores of information, and processing and communicating that information. It makes computer systems on a chip scalable at the chip-level, simply by adding more Cells one to another.

"The processor platform that people have only been able to imagine is now going to become a reality," said Ken Kutaragi, president and CEO of SCEI. "The new broadband processor, code-named Cell, that we are going to create, will raise the curtain on a new era in high-speed, network-based computing. With built-in broadband connectivity, microprocessors that currently exist as individual islands will be more closely linked, making a network of systems act more as one, unified 'supersystem.' Just as biological cells in the body unite to form complete physical systems, Cell-based electronic products of all types will form the building blocks of larger systems."

How Cell Technology Will Catapult Higher Education

Intelligence Everywhere

Innumerable technologies, devices and applications can be astonishingly enhanced, from cell phones to security. New technologies such as intelligent buildings can be introduced.

The Cell chip will enable intelligence throughout the campus, inside and out. Everything built as separately functioning devices and applications - from access points to broadband connections to projectors, smart phones and laptops will share intelligence. Monitoring for security and recording monitored activities are also applications that will acquire intelligence.

According to published timelines, which the Sony, Toshiba, IBM partnership is exceeding, the technology to accomplish all this will be available in at least two years, if not sooner. (There were reports again as recently as year end 2003 that development of the chip was progressing ahead of schedule.)

"Our work with SCEI and Toshiba on the Cell broadband processor has progressed extremely well," said Dr. John Kelly, senior vice president and group executive for the IBM Technology Group. "We believe the Cell design, and the advanced technologies like SOI with which it will be manufactured, will help change the way people work, play and communicate. This announcement by SCEI/Sony is a confirmation of the progress we've made with the Cell design itself, of our advances in semiconductor technology to help it reach its full potential and of Cell's far-reaching implications for a wide variety of applications."


Devices, many of which will also be in use for home entertainment, will be applicable for university collaboration, communication and access to learning materials. These include high graphics units similar to PlayStation, TV and HDTV sets, and Internet access devices that merge technologies. Cell technology will make it possible to integrate several IP-addressable devices into one.

How Soon?

If mass production can push these chips into the market as quickly and as cheaply as Sony did with PlayStation 2, universities will have them and be exploring them very shortly.

Cell Sells Grid

When Cell chips proliferate and are joined through the Internet, wired or wireless, there comes an economic incentive to move more quickly toward a global computer grid. The grid will be complete with grid databases and other valuable and incumbent grid technologies (sensors, mass massaging of the world's data collected by these sensors, and the list goes on).

Suddenly the grid insinuates itself into our lives beyond our wildest dreams. It isn't just working across traditional computers but cell phones can share processing power and information as well as can any other device or appliance.

The Utility

Some Universities lease computers for a few weeks out of the year, for the heavy load that comes at certain times (processing registrations, grades, and graduation). They outsource this work to computers at data centers and then often have to find a use for all that extra processing power they've bought into for the rest of the year.

More on Cell, the Global Grid and U.

This much processing power, this ubiquitous, this small brings all devices in range of the worldwide computer grid. For people who never thought of grid computing as invading the world of consumer electronics and that of university constituents' personal devices, remember that this technology, this Cell chip, will likely appear first on the PlayStation 3. So why not at the university as well?

Imagine all the university TVs, refrigerators, even university owned fleets of trucks and cars (however small in number) all doing grid computing together? Saving on power, reporting information on what needs upgraded, repaired, purchased or replaced from gas to parts to food stuffs, these are just a few of the savings, precisions and conveniences of using Cell to bring grid computing to every machine on campus.

Devices that run on batteries can be enabled with the Cell, and the grid can be introduced to them. These include communications, security and health applications devices.


Institutions that experiment with and apply Cell technology will certainly discover its true benefits in this setting. As has been seen with other developments like wireless, if these applications prove themselves out, it won't take long for this little wafer to spread virally across the nation's campuses.


ACUTA Member Presents Alternative

Rather than creating new devices around the Cell chip, ACUTA member, Derek Abrams, information systems technologist, Oregon State, envisions a chip that is an add-on. Dubbing his idea the openCHIP™ Technology Platform, Abrams envisions "a kit that can be used to enable any device".

The openCHIP™ platform would include an openKIT™ hardware kit, distributed with an openAPI™. An openIDE™ or openSCRIPT™ development platform could also be used with the API to adapt the chip to literally any device.

Derek's Concept"Both DALLAS Semiconductor and SONY have products that head down this path as do other "systems-on-a-chip" manufacturers. What is envisioned here is a complete package that would allow anyone to attach intelligent computing to any device in order to "enable" the device to be controlled or managed," says Derek Abrams, information systems technologist at Oregon State (

According to Abrams, what he calls "PLUGS", hardware and software adapters, would be required on the devices in order to use the chips. "If OEM's are not interested in incorporating these PLUGS into their products maybe an after-market manufacture could create these PLUGS for the OEM's product line and even for legacy devices," says Abrams.

Such a technology could be used to save the expense of simply discarding current devices. The question remains whether this would be a short-lived, transitional technology, existent only until new devices emerged with the Cell as an integral component.

About the Author

David Geer writes for national and international publications like Computerworld, certain IEEE Computer Society publications and dozens more. E-mail him at, call him at 440-964-9832 or visit his Web site at

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