SAN JOSE, Calif. The three developers of the Cell processor are preparing to release full chip specifications and software libraries in an effort to rally the open-source community around the device that powers the Sony Playstation 3. With the outlook for the multicore chip's use beyond Sony's internal systems cloudy at best, the partners are hoping to spark its uptake in applications ranging from HDTVs to supercomputers.
The IBM Corp. fellow who led the design team said his company currently has no plans to make Cell-based chips for its own systems or for the merchant market. Instead, IBM has set up a team in its engineering services division to help others custom-design versions of Cell that could be made in IBM's fabs.
A representative of Toshiba Corp., the development partner most likely to pursue the merchant market with Cell-based designs, said the company will release hardware reference designs and a software development platform for Cell. Details about the cost and timing of those products were not available. Toshiba has said it would use the chip in a television set in 2006.
In this light, IBM, Toshiba and the third Cell partner, Sony Corp., are turning to the open-source community to drum up interest in the architecture.
"Our intention is to open up the Cell software architecture. The idea is to get the industry to help us evolve the basic software layers," said IBM's Jim Kahle, the Cell team leader.
The three companies are now doing a final review of a Cell architecture specification that could be released to software developers by the end of May. It will include details of more than 200 new instructions used in the specialized cores inside Cell. The group also plans to release open-source software libraries for Cell as early as this fall.
"We're not yet sure about the right licensing terms for the libraries. It can be hard to give stuff away for free," Kahle said in an interview after a presentation at the Spring Processor Forum here.
The trio is almost done with an application binary interface and language extensions for Cell. A system-level simulator is also nearly complete. Yet to come is a full-fledged Linux implementation for the CPU.
"Our plan is to open-source the software for Cell and productize different parts as we go along," said Kahle.
Cell could be used in a wide variety of applications, he said, including video processing, medical imaging and high-performance computing. Although IBM is not planning any immediate Cell-based designs, Kahle said the company is considering how it might apply ideas from Cell in its future CPUs and is evaluating the chip's potential for future servers. In November, the company announced a workstation prototype built around the Cell.
Going to the open-source community is a good move as the partners try to attract users, said Kevin Krewell, editor in chief of the Microprocessor Report. "IBM is eager to find other opportunities for Cell, but it's going to take a lot of software work," he said. "Going to the open-source community makes sense, because they could attract a lot of pretty smart programmers who could spin out software and applications for Cell."
However, Cell must overcome problems of being a new and potentially difficult chip to program, as well as one that's relatively power-hungry.
"I think it's an interesting architecture, once you get the tools out there. But it could scare off people who want something more symmetrical or lower power," Krewell said.
Cell operates in a range from 0.9 to 1.3 volts, Kahle of IBM said, but the developer trio hopes to keep it at the low end of that range to get power consumption down to something that can be cooled with a fan. Kahle would not disclose performance or power consumption figures.
"I once told them I estimated the architecture would consume 80 watts at 4 GHz, and they didn't blink," said Microprocessor Report's Krewell.