PDA

View Full Version : The sky is falling down (this time its serious)



Airmail109
04-17-2005, 10:20 AM
CHECK THE LINKhttp://www.blachford.info/computer/Cells/Cell4.html

The Cell Processor Explained, Part 4: Cell V's the PC

To date the PC has defeated everything in it's path [PCShare]. No competitor, no matter how good has even got close to replacing it. If the Cell is placed into desktop computers it may be another victim of the PC. However, I think for a number of reasons that the Cell is not only the biggest threat the PC has ever faced, but also one which might actually have the capacity to defeat it.

The Sincerest Form of Flattery is Theft

20 years ago an engineer called Jay Miner who had been working on video games (he designed the Atari 2600 chip) decided to do something better and produce a desktop computer which combined a video game chipset with a workstation CPU. The prototype was called Lorraine and it was eventually released to the market as the Commodore Amiga. The Amiga had hardware accelerated high colour screens, a GUI based multitasking OS, multiple sampled sound channels and a fast 32 bit CPU. At the time PCs had screens displaying text, a speaker which beeped and they ran MSDOS on a 16 bit CPU. The Amiga went on to sell in millions but the manufacturer went bankrupt in 1994.

Like many other platforms which were patently superior to it, the Amiga was swept aside by the PC.

The PC has seen off every competitor that has crossed paths with it, no matter how good the OS or hardware. The Amiga in 1985 was years ahead of the PC, it took more than 5 years for the PC to catch up with the hardware and 10 years to catch up with the OS. Yet the PC still won, as it did against every other platform. The PC has been able to do this because of a huge software base and it's ability to steal the competitors clothes, low prices and high performance were not a factor until much later. If you read the description of the Amiga I gave again you'll find it also describes a modern PC. The Amiga may have introduced specialised chips for graphics acceleration and multitasking to the desktop world but now all computers have them.

In the case of the Amiga it was not the hardware or the price which beat it. It was the vast MSDOS software base which prevented it getting into the business market, Commodore's ability to shoot themselves in the foot finished finished them off. NeXT came along next with even better hardware and an even better Unix based OS but they couldn't dent the PC either. It was next to be dispatched and again the PC later caught up and stole all it's best features, it took 13 years to bring memory protection to the consumer level PC.

The PC can and does take on the best features of competitors, history has shown that even if this takes a very long time the PC still ultimately wins. Could the PC not just steal the Cell's unique attributes and cast it aside also?

Cell V's x86

This looks like a battle no one can win. x86 has won all of it's battles because when Intel and AMD pushed the x86 architecture they managed to produce very high performance processors and in their volumes they could sell them for low prices. When x86 came up against faster RISC competitors it was able to use the very same RISC technologies to close the speed gap to the point where there was no significant advantage going with RISC.

Three of what were once important RISC families have also been dispatched to the great Fab in the sky. Even Intel's own Itanium has been beaten out of the low / mid server space by the Opteron. Sun have been burned as well, they cancelled the next in the UltraSPARC line, bought in radical new designs and now sell the Opteron which threatened to eclipse their low end. Only POWER seems to be holding it's own but that's because IBM has the resources to pour into it to keep it competitive and it's in the high end market which x86 has never managed to penetrate and may not scale to.

To Intel and AMD's processors Cell presents a completely different kind of competition to what has gone before. The speed difference is so great that nothing short of a complete overhaul of the x86 architecture will be able to bring it even close performance wise. Changes are not unheard of in x86 land but neither Intel or AMD appear to be planning a change even nearly radical enough to catch up. That said Intel recently gained access to many of Nvidia's patents [Intel+Nvidia] and are talking about having dozens of cores per chip so who knows what Santa Clara are brewing. [Project Z]

Multicore processors are coming to the x86 world soon from both Intel and AMD [MultiCore], but high speed x86 CPUs typically have high power requirements. In order to have 2 Opterons on a single core AMD have had to reduce their clock rate in order to keep them from requiring over a hundred watts, Intel are doing the same for the Pentium 4. The Pentium-M however is a (mostly) high performance low power part and this will go into multi-core devices much easier than the P4, expect to see chips with 2 cores arriving followed by 4 & 8 core designs over the next few years.

Cell will accelerate many commonly used applications by ludicrous proportions compared to PCs. Intel could put 10 cores on a chip and they'll match neither it's performance or price. The APUs are dedicated vector processors, x86 are not. The x86 cores will no doubt include the SSE vector units but these are no match for even a single APU.

Then there's the parallel nature of Cell. If you want more computing power simply add another Cell, the OS will take care of distributing the software Cells to the second or third etc processor. Try that on a PC, yes many OSs will support multiple processors but many applications do not and will need to be modified accordingly - a process which will take many, many years. Cell applications will be written to be scalable from the very beginning as that's how the system works.

Cell may be vastly more powerful than existing x86 processors but history has shown the PC's ability to overcome even vastly better systems. Being faster alone is not enough to topple the PC.

Cell V's Software

The main problem with competing with the PC is not the CPU, it's the software. A new CPU no matter how powerful, is no use without software. The PC has always won because it's always had plenty of software and this has allowed it to see off it's competitors no matter how powerful they were or the advantages they had at the time. The market for high performance systems is very limited, it's the low end systems which sell.

Cell has the power and it will be cheap. But can it challenge the PC without software? The answer to this question would have been simple once, but PC market has changed over time and for a number of reasons Cell is now a threat:

The first reason is Linux. Linux has shown that alternative operating systems can break into the PC software market against Windows, the big difference with Linux though is that it is cross platform. If the software you need runs on linux, switching hardware platforms is no problem as much of the software will still run on different CPUs.

The second reason is cost, other platforms have often used expensive custom components and have been made in smaller numbers. This has put their cost above that of PCs, putting them at immediate disadvantage. Cell may be expensive initially but once Sony and Toshiba's fabs ramp up it will be manufactured in massive volumes forcing the prices down, the fact it's going into the PS3 and TVs is an obvious help for getting the massive volumes that will be required. IBM will also be making Cells and many companies use IBM's silicon process technologies, if truly vast numbers of Cells were required Samsung, Chartered, Infineon and even AMD could manufacture them (provided they had a license of course).

The third reason is power, the vast majority of PCs these don't need the power they provide, Cell will only accentuate this because it will be able to off load most of the intensive stuff to the APUs. What this means is that if you do need to run a specific piece of software you can emulate it. This would have been impossibly slow once but most PC CPUs are already more than enough and with today's advanced JIT based emulators you might not even notice the difference.

The reason many high end PCs are purchased is to accelerate many of the very tasks the Cell will accelerate. You'll also find these power users are more interested in the tools and not the platform, apart from Games these are not areas over which Microsoft has any hold. Given the sheer amount of acceleration a Cell (or set of Cells) can deliver I can see many power users being happy to jump platforms if the software they want is ported or can be emulated.

Cell is going to be cheap, powerful, run many of the same operating systems and if all else fails it can emulate a PC will little noticeable difference, software and price will not be a problem. Availability will also not be a problem, you can buy playstations anywhere. This time round the traditional advantages the PC has held over other systems will not be present, they will have no advantage in performance, software or price. That is not to say that the Cell will walk in and just take over, it's not that simple.

Attack

IBM plan on selling workstations based on the Cell but I don't expect they'll be cheap or sold in any numbers to anyone other than PlayStation developers.

Cell will not just appear in exotic workstations and PlayStations though, I also expect they'll turn up in desktop computers of one kind or another (i.e. I know Genesi are considering doing one). When they do they're going to turn the PC business upside down.

Even with a single Cell it will outgun top end multiprocessor PCs many times over. That's gotta hurt, and it will hurt, Cell is going to effectively make traditional general purpose microprocessors obsolete.

Infection inside
Of course this wont happen overnight and there's nothing to stop PC makers from including a Cell processor on a PCI / PCIe card or even on the motherboard. Microsoft may be less than interested in supporting a competitor but that doesn't mean drivers couldn't be written and support added by the STI partners. Once this is done developers will be able to make use of the Cell in PC applications and this is where it'll get very interesting. With computationally intensive processing moved to the Cell there will be no need for a PC to include a fast x86, a low cost slow one will do just fine.

Some companies however will want to cut costs further and there's a way to do that. The Cell includes at least a PowerPC 970 grade CPU so it'll be a reasonably fast processor. Since there is no need for a fast x86 processor why not just emulate one? Removing the x86 and support chips from a PC will give big cost savings. An x86 computer without an x86 sounds a bit weird but that's never stopped Transmeta who do exactly that, perhaps Transmeta could even provide the x86 emulation technology, they're already thinking of getting out of chip manufacturing [Transmeta].

Cell is a very, very powerful processor. It's also going to become cheap. I fully expect it'll be quite possible to (eventually) build a low cost PC based around a Cell and sell it for a few hundred dollars. If all goes well will Dell sell Cells?

Game on
You could argue gamers will still drive PC performance up but Sony could always pull a fast one and produce a PS3 on a card for the PC. Since it would not depend on the PC's computational or memory resources it's irrelevant how weak or strong they are. Sony could produce a card which turns even the lowest performance PC into a high end gaming machine, If such a product sold in large numbers studios developing for PS3 already may decide they not need to develop a separate version for the PC, the resulting effect on the PC games market could be catastrophic.

While you could use an emulated OS it's always preferable to have a native OS. There's always Linux However Linux isn't really a consumer OS and seems to be having something of a struggle becoming one. There is however another very much consumer ready OS which already runs on a "Power Architecture" CPU: OS X.

Cell V's Apple

The Cell could be Apple's nemesis or their saviour, they are the obvious candidate company to use the Cell. It's perfect for them as it will accelerate all the applications their primary customer base uses and whatever core it uses the the PU will be PowerPC compatible. Cells will not accelerate everything so they could use them as co-processors in their own machines beside a standard G5 / G6 [G6] getting the best of both worlds.

The Core Image technology due to appear in OS X "Tiger" already uses GPUs (Graphics Processor Units) for things other than 3D computations and this same technology could be retargeted at the Cell's APUs. Perhaps that's why it was there in the first place...

If other companies use Cell to produce computers there is no obvious consumer OS to use, with OS X Apple have - for the second time - the chance to become the new Microsoft. Will they take it? If an industry springs up of Cell based computers not doing so could be very dangerous. When the OS and CPU is different between the Mac an PC there is (well, was) a big gap between systems to jump and a price differential can be justified. If there's a sizeable number of low cost machines capable of running OS X the price differential may prove too much, I doubt even that would be a knockout blow for Apple but it would certainly be bad news (even the PC hasn't managed a knockout).

PC manufacturers don't really care which components they use or OS they run, they just want to sell PCs. If Apple was to "think different" on OS X licensing and get hardware manufacturers using Cells perhaps they could turn Microsoft's clone army against their masters. I'm sure many companies would be only too happy to get released from Microsoft's iron grip. This is especially so if Apple was to undercut them, which they could do easily given the 400% + margins Microsoft makes on their OS.

Licensing OS X wouldn't necessarily destroy Apple's hardware business, there'll always be a market for cooler high end systems [Alien]. Apple also now has a substantial software base and part of this could be used to give added value to their hardware in a similar manner to that done today. Everyone else would just have to pay for it as usual.

In "The Future of Computing" [Future] I argued that the PC industry would come under threat from low cost computers from the far east. The basis of the argument was that in the PC industry Microsoft and Intel both enjoy very large margins. I argued that it's perfectly feasible to make a low cost computer which is "fast enough" for most peoples needs and running Linux there would be no Microsoft Tax, provided the system could do what most people need to do it could be made and sold at a sufficiently low price that it will attack the market from below.

A Cell based system running OS X could be nearly as cheap (depending on the price Apple want to charge for OS X) but with Cell's sheer power it will exceed the power of even the most powerful PCs. This system could sell like hot cakes and if it's sufficiently low cost it could be used to sell into the low cost markets which PC makers are now beginning to exploit. There is a huge opportunity for Apple here, I think they'll be stark raving mad not to take it - because if they don't someone else will - Microsoft already have PowerPC experience with the Xbox2 OS...

Cell will have a performance advantage over the PC and will be able to use the PC's advantages as well. With Apple's help it could also run what is arguably the best OS on the market today, at a low price point. The new Mac mini already looks like it's going to sell like hot cakes, imagine what it could do equipped with a Cell...

It looks like the PC could finally have a competitor to take it on, but the PC still has a way of fighting back, PC's are already considerably more powerful than you might think...

The PC Retaliates: Cell V's GPU

The PC does have a weapon with which to respond, the GPU (Graphics Processor Unit). On computational power GPUs will be the only real competitors to the Cell.

GPUs have always been massively more powerful than general purpose processors [PC + GPU][GPU] but since programmable shaders were introduced this power has become available to developers and although designed specifically for graphics some have been using it for other purposes. Future generations of shaders promise even more general purpose capabilities[DirectX Next].

GPUs operate in a similar manner to the Cell in that they contain a number of parallel vector processors called vertex or pixel shaders, these are designed to process a stream of vertices of 3D objects or pixels but many other compute heavy applications can be modified to run instead [EE-GPU].

With aggressive competition between ATI and Nvidia the GPUs are only going to get faster and now "SLI" technology is being used again to pair GPUs together to produce even more computational power.

GPUs will provide the only viable competition to the Cell but even then for a number of reasons I don't think they will be able to catch the Cell.

Cell is designed from the ground up to be more general purpose than GPUs, the APUs are not graphics specific so adapting non 3D algorithms will likely mean less work for developers.

Cell has the main general purpose PU sharing the same fast memory as the APUs. This is distinct from PCs where GPUs have their own high speed memory and can only access main system memory via the AGP bus. PCI Express should speed this up but even this will be limited due to the bus being shared with the CPU. Additionally vendors may not fully support the PCI Express specification, existing GPUs are very slow at moving data from GPU to main memory.

There is another reason I don't think Nvidia or ATI will be able to match the Cell's performance anytime soon. Last time around the PC rapidly caught up with and surpassed the PS2, I think it is one of Sony's aims this time to make that very difficult so, as such Cell has been designed in a highly aggressive manner.

The Cray Factor


The "Cray factor" is something to which Intel, AMD, Nvidia and ATI may have no answer to.

What is apparent from the patent is the approach the designers have taken in developing the Cell architecture. There are many compromises that can be taken when designing a system like this, in almost every case the designers have not compromised and gone for performance, even if the job of the programmers has been made considerably more difficult.

The Cell design is very different from modern microprocessors, seemingly irremovable parts have been changed radically or removed altogether. The rule of computing, fundamental to modern computing - abstraction - is abandoned altogether, no JITs here, you get direct access to the hardware. This is a highly aggressive design strategy, much more aggressive than you'll find in any other system, even in it's heyday the Alpha processor's design was nowhere near this aggressive. In their quest for pure, unadulterated, raw performance the designers have devised a processor which can only be compared to something designed by Seymour Cray [Cray].

To understand why the Cell will be so difficult to catch you have to understand a battle which started way back in the 1960s.

From the 60s to the 90s IBM and Cray battled each other in trying to build the fastest computers. Cray won pretty much every time, he raised the performance bar to the point that the only machines which eventually beat Cray's designs were newer Cray designs.

IBM made flexible business machines, Cray went for less flexible and less feature rich designs in the quest for ultimate speed. If you look at what is planned for future GPUs [DirectX Next] it is very evident they are going for a flexible-features approach - exactly as you'd expect from a system designed by a software company. They are going to be using virtual memory on the GPU and already use a cache for the most commonly used data, in fact GPUs look like they are rapidly becoming like general purpose CPUs.

The Cell approach is the same as the Cray's. Virtual memory takes up space and delays the access to data. Virtual memory is present in the Cell architecture but not at runtime, the OS keeps addresses virtual until a software Cell is executed at which point the real addresses are used for getting to and from memory. Cell also has memory protection but in a limited and simple fashion, a small on-chip memory holds a table indicating which APU can access which memory block, it's small and never flushed, this means it's also very fast.

CPUs and GPUs use a cache memory to hide access to main memory, Cray didn't bother with cache and just made the main memory super fast. Cell uses the same approach, these is no cache in the APUs, only a small but very fast local memory is present. The local RAM does not need concurrency and is directly addressable, the programmer will always know what is present because they had to specify the load. Because of this reduced complexity and the smaller size the local RAM will be very fast, much faster than cache. If it can transfer 2 (256bit) words per cycle at the clock speed they have achieved (4.6GHz) they'll be working at 147 Gigabytes per second - and they'll never have a cache miss...

The aggressiveness in the design of the Cell architecture means that it is going to be very, very difficult to produce a comparably performing part. x86 has no hope of getting there, they ultimately need to duplicate the Cell design in order to match it. GPUs will also have a hard time, they are currently at a 10 fold clock speed disadvantage, generate large amounts of heat and the highest performance parts are made in tiny numbers compared to what cell will be made. It will require a complete rethink of the GPUs design in order to get even close to the Cell's clock rate.

The Cell designers have not made their chips out of gallium arsenide or dipped them in a bath of fluorinert so they're not quite as aggressive as Seymour Cray, but then again there's always the PlayStation 4...

The Alternative
There is the possibility that some company out there will produce a high power multi core vector processor using a different design philosphy. This could be done and may get close to the Cell's power. It is possible because the Cell has been designed for a high clock rate and this poses some limitations on the design. If an alternative used a lower clock rate, it would allow the use of slower and more importantly smaller transistors. This means the number of vector units included could be increased and more importantly the amount of on-chip memory could be made much greater. These will make up for the higher clock rate and the smaller memory bandwidth necessary would allow slower but lower cost RAM.

This may not be as powerful as the Cell but could get fairly close due to the processors being better fed with all the additional RAM. Power consumption would be lower than Cell and the scalability wouldn't be needed for all markets. There are plenty of companies in the embedded space who stand to lose a lot from the Cell so we may see this sort of design coming from that sector. The companies in the PC CPU and VPU are certainly capable of this sort of design but how it could be made to work in the existing PC architecture is open to question.

The Result


Cell represents the largest threat the PC has ever faced. The PC can't use it's traditional advantage of software because the Cell can run the same software. It can't get an advantage in price or volume as Cell will also be made in huge volumes. Lastly it can't compete on the basis of Cell being proprietary because it's being made be a set of companies and they can sell to anyone. x86 is no less propriety than Cell. It looks like the PC may have finally met it's match.

The effect on Microsoft is more difficult to judge, if Cells take off MS will have difficulty supporting them as it will not allow the same level of control. Because Cells are a distributed architecture you could end up using a Windows machine as a client and having everything else running Linux or some other OS. Multiple machines not running Windows? I don't think that's something Microsoft is going to like.

Then there's also the issue that the main computations may be performed by the Cell with Windows essentially providing an interface. Porting the interface may take time but anything which runs on the Cell's itself is separate and will not need porting to different OSs, software cells are OS agnostic. I can't see that Microsoft are going to like this either.

Nothing is certain and it's not even clear if going up against the PC is something the STI partners are even interested in. But we can be sure Cell and the PC will eventually clash in one way or another.

However even if Cell does take over as the dominant architecture it's going to do so in a process which will take many years or even decades. Then there are areas where Cells may not have any particular advantage over PCs so irrespective of the outcome you can be sure x86 will still be around for a very, very long time.

Cell threatens the current Wintel dominance of the PC industry. The traditional means Intel and Microsoft have used to defend their turf may not prove effective but that's not to say it's a done deal, these companies should never be underestimated. If nothing else, it's certainly going to be an interesting fight.

Airmail109
04-17-2005, 10:20 AM
CHECK THE LINKhttp://www.blachford.info/computer/Cells/Cell4.html

The Cell Processor Explained, Part 4: Cell V's the PC

To date the PC has defeated everything in it's path [PCShare]. No competitor, no matter how good has even got close to replacing it. If the Cell is placed into desktop computers it may be another victim of the PC. However, I think for a number of reasons that the Cell is not only the biggest threat the PC has ever faced, but also one which might actually have the capacity to defeat it.

The Sincerest Form of Flattery is Theft

20 years ago an engineer called Jay Miner who had been working on video games (he designed the Atari 2600 chip) decided to do something better and produce a desktop computer which combined a video game chipset with a workstation CPU. The prototype was called Lorraine and it was eventually released to the market as the Commodore Amiga. The Amiga had hardware accelerated high colour screens, a GUI based multitasking OS, multiple sampled sound channels and a fast 32 bit CPU. At the time PCs had screens displaying text, a speaker which beeped and they ran MSDOS on a 16 bit CPU. The Amiga went on to sell in millions but the manufacturer went bankrupt in 1994.

Like many other platforms which were patently superior to it, the Amiga was swept aside by the PC.

The PC has seen off every competitor that has crossed paths with it, no matter how good the OS or hardware. The Amiga in 1985 was years ahead of the PC, it took more than 5 years for the PC to catch up with the hardware and 10 years to catch up with the OS. Yet the PC still won, as it did against every other platform. The PC has been able to do this because of a huge software base and it's ability to steal the competitors clothes, low prices and high performance were not a factor until much later. If you read the description of the Amiga I gave again you'll find it also describes a modern PC. The Amiga may have introduced specialised chips for graphics acceleration and multitasking to the desktop world but now all computers have them.

In the case of the Amiga it was not the hardware or the price which beat it. It was the vast MSDOS software base which prevented it getting into the business market, Commodore's ability to shoot themselves in the foot finished finished them off. NeXT came along next with even better hardware and an even better Unix based OS but they couldn't dent the PC either. It was next to be dispatched and again the PC later caught up and stole all it's best features, it took 13 years to bring memory protection to the consumer level PC.

The PC can and does take on the best features of competitors, history has shown that even if this takes a very long time the PC still ultimately wins. Could the PC not just steal the Cell's unique attributes and cast it aside also?

Cell V's x86

This looks like a battle no one can win. x86 has won all of it's battles because when Intel and AMD pushed the x86 architecture they managed to produce very high performance processors and in their volumes they could sell them for low prices. When x86 came up against faster RISC competitors it was able to use the very same RISC technologies to close the speed gap to the point where there was no significant advantage going with RISC.

Three of what were once important RISC families have also been dispatched to the great Fab in the sky. Even Intel's own Itanium has been beaten out of the low / mid server space by the Opteron. Sun have been burned as well, they cancelled the next in the UltraSPARC line, bought in radical new designs and now sell the Opteron which threatened to eclipse their low end. Only POWER seems to be holding it's own but that's because IBM has the resources to pour into it to keep it competitive and it's in the high end market which x86 has never managed to penetrate and may not scale to.

To Intel and AMD's processors Cell presents a completely different kind of competition to what has gone before. The speed difference is so great that nothing short of a complete overhaul of the x86 architecture will be able to bring it even close performance wise. Changes are not unheard of in x86 land but neither Intel or AMD appear to be planning a change even nearly radical enough to catch up. That said Intel recently gained access to many of Nvidia's patents [Intel+Nvidia] and are talking about having dozens of cores per chip so who knows what Santa Clara are brewing. [Project Z]

Multicore processors are coming to the x86 world soon from both Intel and AMD [MultiCore], but high speed x86 CPUs typically have high power requirements. In order to have 2 Opterons on a single core AMD have had to reduce their clock rate in order to keep them from requiring over a hundred watts, Intel are doing the same for the Pentium 4. The Pentium-M however is a (mostly) high performance low power part and this will go into multi-core devices much easier than the P4, expect to see chips with 2 cores arriving followed by 4 & 8 core designs over the next few years.

Cell will accelerate many commonly used applications by ludicrous proportions compared to PCs. Intel could put 10 cores on a chip and they'll match neither it's performance or price. The APUs are dedicated vector processors, x86 are not. The x86 cores will no doubt include the SSE vector units but these are no match for even a single APU.

Then there's the parallel nature of Cell. If you want more computing power simply add another Cell, the OS will take care of distributing the software Cells to the second or third etc processor. Try that on a PC, yes many OSs will support multiple processors but many applications do not and will need to be modified accordingly - a process which will take many, many years. Cell applications will be written to be scalable from the very beginning as that's how the system works.

Cell may be vastly more powerful than existing x86 processors but history has shown the PC's ability to overcome even vastly better systems. Being faster alone is not enough to topple the PC.

Cell V's Software

The main problem with competing with the PC is not the CPU, it's the software. A new CPU no matter how powerful, is no use without software. The PC has always won because it's always had plenty of software and this has allowed it to see off it's competitors no matter how powerful they were or the advantages they had at the time. The market for high performance systems is very limited, it's the low end systems which sell.

Cell has the power and it will be cheap. But can it challenge the PC without software? The answer to this question would have been simple once, but PC market has changed over time and for a number of reasons Cell is now a threat:

The first reason is Linux. Linux has shown that alternative operating systems can break into the PC software market against Windows, the big difference with Linux though is that it is cross platform. If the software you need runs on linux, switching hardware platforms is no problem as much of the software will still run on different CPUs.

The second reason is cost, other platforms have often used expensive custom components and have been made in smaller numbers. This has put their cost above that of PCs, putting them at immediate disadvantage. Cell may be expensive initially but once Sony and Toshiba's fabs ramp up it will be manufactured in massive volumes forcing the prices down, the fact it's going into the PS3 and TVs is an obvious help for getting the massive volumes that will be required. IBM will also be making Cells and many companies use IBM's silicon process technologies, if truly vast numbers of Cells were required Samsung, Chartered, Infineon and even AMD could manufacture them (provided they had a license of course).

The third reason is power, the vast majority of PCs these don't need the power they provide, Cell will only accentuate this because it will be able to off load most of the intensive stuff to the APUs. What this means is that if you do need to run a specific piece of software you can emulate it. This would have been impossibly slow once but most PC CPUs are already more than enough and with today's advanced JIT based emulators you might not even notice the difference.

The reason many high end PCs are purchased is to accelerate many of the very tasks the Cell will accelerate. You'll also find these power users are more interested in the tools and not the platform, apart from Games these are not areas over which Microsoft has any hold. Given the sheer amount of acceleration a Cell (or set of Cells) can deliver I can see many power users being happy to jump platforms if the software they want is ported or can be emulated.

Cell is going to be cheap, powerful, run many of the same operating systems and if all else fails it can emulate a PC will little noticeable difference, software and price will not be a problem. Availability will also not be a problem, you can buy playstations anywhere. This time round the traditional advantages the PC has held over other systems will not be present, they will have no advantage in performance, software or price. That is not to say that the Cell will walk in and just take over, it's not that simple.

Attack

IBM plan on selling workstations based on the Cell but I don't expect they'll be cheap or sold in any numbers to anyone other than PlayStation developers.

Cell will not just appear in exotic workstations and PlayStations though, I also expect they'll turn up in desktop computers of one kind or another (i.e. I know Genesi are considering doing one). When they do they're going to turn the PC business upside down.

Even with a single Cell it will outgun top end multiprocessor PCs many times over. That's gotta hurt, and it will hurt, Cell is going to effectively make traditional general purpose microprocessors obsolete.

Infection inside
Of course this wont happen overnight and there's nothing to stop PC makers from including a Cell processor on a PCI / PCIe card or even on the motherboard. Microsoft may be less than interested in supporting a competitor but that doesn't mean drivers couldn't be written and support added by the STI partners. Once this is done developers will be able to make use of the Cell in PC applications and this is where it'll get very interesting. With computationally intensive processing moved to the Cell there will be no need for a PC to include a fast x86, a low cost slow one will do just fine.

Some companies however will want to cut costs further and there's a way to do that. The Cell includes at least a PowerPC 970 grade CPU so it'll be a reasonably fast processor. Since there is no need for a fast x86 processor why not just emulate one? Removing the x86 and support chips from a PC will give big cost savings. An x86 computer without an x86 sounds a bit weird but that's never stopped Transmeta who do exactly that, perhaps Transmeta could even provide the x86 emulation technology, they're already thinking of getting out of chip manufacturing [Transmeta].

Cell is a very, very powerful processor. It's also going to become cheap. I fully expect it'll be quite possible to (eventually) build a low cost PC based around a Cell and sell it for a few hundred dollars. If all goes well will Dell sell Cells?

Game on
You could argue gamers will still drive PC performance up but Sony could always pull a fast one and produce a PS3 on a card for the PC. Since it would not depend on the PC's computational or memory resources it's irrelevant how weak or strong they are. Sony could produce a card which turns even the lowest performance PC into a high end gaming machine, If such a product sold in large numbers studios developing for PS3 already may decide they not need to develop a separate version for the PC, the resulting effect on the PC games market could be catastrophic.

While you could use an emulated OS it's always preferable to have a native OS. There's always Linux However Linux isn't really a consumer OS and seems to be having something of a struggle becoming one. There is however another very much consumer ready OS which already runs on a "Power Architecture" CPU: OS X.

Cell V's Apple

The Cell could be Apple's nemesis or their saviour, they are the obvious candidate company to use the Cell. It's perfect for them as it will accelerate all the applications their primary customer base uses and whatever core it uses the the PU will be PowerPC compatible. Cells will not accelerate everything so they could use them as co-processors in their own machines beside a standard G5 / G6 [G6] getting the best of both worlds.

The Core Image technology due to appear in OS X "Tiger" already uses GPUs (Graphics Processor Units) for things other than 3D computations and this same technology could be retargeted at the Cell's APUs. Perhaps that's why it was there in the first place...

If other companies use Cell to produce computers there is no obvious consumer OS to use, with OS X Apple have - for the second time - the chance to become the new Microsoft. Will they take it? If an industry springs up of Cell based computers not doing so could be very dangerous. When the OS and CPU is different between the Mac an PC there is (well, was) a big gap between systems to jump and a price differential can be justified. If there's a sizeable number of low cost machines capable of running OS X the price differential may prove too much, I doubt even that would be a knockout blow for Apple but it would certainly be bad news (even the PC hasn't managed a knockout).

PC manufacturers don't really care which components they use or OS they run, they just want to sell PCs. If Apple was to "think different" on OS X licensing and get hardware manufacturers using Cells perhaps they could turn Microsoft's clone army against their masters. I'm sure many companies would be only too happy to get released from Microsoft's iron grip. This is especially so if Apple was to undercut them, which they could do easily given the 400% + margins Microsoft makes on their OS.

Licensing OS X wouldn't necessarily destroy Apple's hardware business, there'll always be a market for cooler high end systems [Alien]. Apple also now has a substantial software base and part of this could be used to give added value to their hardware in a similar manner to that done today. Everyone else would just have to pay for it as usual.

In "The Future of Computing" [Future] I argued that the PC industry would come under threat from low cost computers from the far east. The basis of the argument was that in the PC industry Microsoft and Intel both enjoy very large margins. I argued that it's perfectly feasible to make a low cost computer which is "fast enough" for most peoples needs and running Linux there would be no Microsoft Tax, provided the system could do what most people need to do it could be made and sold at a sufficiently low price that it will attack the market from below.

A Cell based system running OS X could be nearly as cheap (depending on the price Apple want to charge for OS X) but with Cell's sheer power it will exceed the power of even the most powerful PCs. This system could sell like hot cakes and if it's sufficiently low cost it could be used to sell into the low cost markets which PC makers are now beginning to exploit. There is a huge opportunity for Apple here, I think they'll be stark raving mad not to take it - because if they don't someone else will - Microsoft already have PowerPC experience with the Xbox2 OS...

Cell will have a performance advantage over the PC and will be able to use the PC's advantages as well. With Apple's help it could also run what is arguably the best OS on the market today, at a low price point. The new Mac mini already looks like it's going to sell like hot cakes, imagine what it could do equipped with a Cell...

It looks like the PC could finally have a competitor to take it on, but the PC still has a way of fighting back, PC's are already considerably more powerful than you might think...

The PC Retaliates: Cell V's GPU

The PC does have a weapon with which to respond, the GPU (Graphics Processor Unit). On computational power GPUs will be the only real competitors to the Cell.

GPUs have always been massively more powerful than general purpose processors [PC + GPU][GPU] but since programmable shaders were introduced this power has become available to developers and although designed specifically for graphics some have been using it for other purposes. Future generations of shaders promise even more general purpose capabilities[DirectX Next].

GPUs operate in a similar manner to the Cell in that they contain a number of parallel vector processors called vertex or pixel shaders, these are designed to process a stream of vertices of 3D objects or pixels but many other compute heavy applications can be modified to run instead [EE-GPU].

With aggressive competition between ATI and Nvidia the GPUs are only going to get faster and now "SLI" technology is being used again to pair GPUs together to produce even more computational power.

GPUs will provide the only viable competition to the Cell but even then for a number of reasons I don't think they will be able to catch the Cell.

Cell is designed from the ground up to be more general purpose than GPUs, the APUs are not graphics specific so adapting non 3D algorithms will likely mean less work for developers.

Cell has the main general purpose PU sharing the same fast memory as the APUs. This is distinct from PCs where GPUs have their own high speed memory and can only access main system memory via the AGP bus. PCI Express should speed this up but even this will be limited due to the bus being shared with the CPU. Additionally vendors may not fully support the PCI Express specification, existing GPUs are very slow at moving data from GPU to main memory.

There is another reason I don't think Nvidia or ATI will be able to match the Cell's performance anytime soon. Last time around the PC rapidly caught up with and surpassed the PS2, I think it is one of Sony's aims this time to make that very difficult so, as such Cell has been designed in a highly aggressive manner.

The Cray Factor


The "Cray factor" is something to which Intel, AMD, Nvidia and ATI may have no answer to.

What is apparent from the patent is the approach the designers have taken in developing the Cell architecture. There are many compromises that can be taken when designing a system like this, in almost every case the designers have not compromised and gone for performance, even if the job of the programmers has been made considerably more difficult.

The Cell design is very different from modern microprocessors, seemingly irremovable parts have been changed radically or removed altogether. The rule of computing, fundamental to modern computing - abstraction - is abandoned altogether, no JITs here, you get direct access to the hardware. This is a highly aggressive design strategy, much more aggressive than you'll find in any other system, even in it's heyday the Alpha processor's design was nowhere near this aggressive. In their quest for pure, unadulterated, raw performance the designers have devised a processor which can only be compared to something designed by Seymour Cray [Cray].

To understand why the Cell will be so difficult to catch you have to understand a battle which started way back in the 1960s.

From the 60s to the 90s IBM and Cray battled each other in trying to build the fastest computers. Cray won pretty much every time, he raised the performance bar to the point that the only machines which eventually beat Cray's designs were newer Cray designs.

IBM made flexible business machines, Cray went for less flexible and less feature rich designs in the quest for ultimate speed. If you look at what is planned for future GPUs [DirectX Next] it is very evident they are going for a flexible-features approach - exactly as you'd expect from a system designed by a software company. They are going to be using virtual memory on the GPU and already use a cache for the most commonly used data, in fact GPUs look like they are rapidly becoming like general purpose CPUs.

The Cell approach is the same as the Cray's. Virtual memory takes up space and delays the access to data. Virtual memory is present in the Cell architecture but not at runtime, the OS keeps addresses virtual until a software Cell is executed at which point the real addresses are used for getting to and from memory. Cell also has memory protection but in a limited and simple fashion, a small on-chip memory holds a table indicating which APU can access which memory block, it's small and never flushed, this means it's also very fast.

CPUs and GPUs use a cache memory to hide access to main memory, Cray didn't bother with cache and just made the main memory super fast. Cell uses the same approach, these is no cache in the APUs, only a small but very fast local memory is present. The local RAM does not need concurrency and is directly addressable, the programmer will always know what is present because they had to specify the load. Because of this reduced complexity and the smaller size the local RAM will be very fast, much faster than cache. If it can transfer 2 (256bit) words per cycle at the clock speed they have achieved (4.6GHz) they'll be working at 147 Gigabytes per second - and they'll never have a cache miss...

The aggressiveness in the design of the Cell architecture means that it is going to be very, very difficult to produce a comparably performing part. x86 has no hope of getting there, they ultimately need to duplicate the Cell design in order to match it. GPUs will also have a hard time, they are currently at a 10 fold clock speed disadvantage, generate large amounts of heat and the highest performance parts are made in tiny numbers compared to what cell will be made. It will require a complete rethink of the GPUs design in order to get even close to the Cell's clock rate.

The Cell designers have not made their chips out of gallium arsenide or dipped them in a bath of fluorinert so they're not quite as aggressive as Seymour Cray, but then again there's always the PlayStation 4...

The Alternative
There is the possibility that some company out there will produce a high power multi core vector processor using a different design philosphy. This could be done and may get close to the Cell's power. It is possible because the Cell has been designed for a high clock rate and this poses some limitations on the design. If an alternative used a lower clock rate, it would allow the use of slower and more importantly smaller transistors. This means the number of vector units included could be increased and more importantly the amount of on-chip memory could be made much greater. These will make up for the higher clock rate and the smaller memory bandwidth necessary would allow slower but lower cost RAM.

This may not be as powerful as the Cell but could get fairly close due to the processors being better fed with all the additional RAM. Power consumption would be lower than Cell and the scalability wouldn't be needed for all markets. There are plenty of companies in the embedded space who stand to lose a lot from the Cell so we may see this sort of design coming from that sector. The companies in the PC CPU and VPU are certainly capable of this sort of design but how it could be made to work in the existing PC architecture is open to question.

The Result


Cell represents the largest threat the PC has ever faced. The PC can't use it's traditional advantage of software because the Cell can run the same software. It can't get an advantage in price or volume as Cell will also be made in huge volumes. Lastly it can't compete on the basis of Cell being proprietary because it's being made be a set of companies and they can sell to anyone. x86 is no less propriety than Cell. It looks like the PC may have finally met it's match.

The effect on Microsoft is more difficult to judge, if Cells take off MS will have difficulty supporting them as it will not allow the same level of control. Because Cells are a distributed architecture you could end up using a Windows machine as a client and having everything else running Linux or some other OS. Multiple machines not running Windows? I don't think that's something Microsoft is going to like.

Then there's also the issue that the main computations may be performed by the Cell with Windows essentially providing an interface. Porting the interface may take time but anything which runs on the Cell's itself is separate and will not need porting to different OSs, software cells are OS agnostic. I can't see that Microsoft are going to like this either.

Nothing is certain and it's not even clear if going up against the PC is something the STI partners are even interested in. But we can be sure Cell and the PC will eventually clash in one way or another.

However even if Cell does take over as the dominant architecture it's going to do so in a process which will take many years or even decades. Then there are areas where Cells may not have any particular advantage over PCs so irrespective of the outcome you can be sure x86 will still be around for a very, very long time.

Cell threatens the current Wintel dominance of the PC industry. The traditional means Intel and Microsoft have used to defend their turf may not prove effective but that's not to say it's a done deal, these companies should never be underestimated. If nothing else, it's certainly going to be an interesting fight.

Deedsundone
04-17-2005, 10:28 AM
Ahhhh,stopped readin halfway http://forums.ubi.com/groupee_common/emoticons/icon_biggrin.gif..anyway,I had a Atari 1040 STE http://forums.ubi.com/groupee_common/emoticons/icon_wink.gifand how can something like the sky fall down?? http://forums.ubi.com/images/smilies/16x16_smiley-tongue.gif

CAPT_COTTON
04-17-2005, 03:25 PM
http://forums.ubi.com/images/smilies/1072.gif

If ti works and it is cheap and i dont have to be a rocket inventor to work it i will buy it and there in you have the story of why the pc is still here
If the cell is good and replaces the pc in the next few years i will be on a cell if it is another pipe dream oh well to bad

if ford had not put doors on there cars ??? they would have put chevy out of the market place? http://forums.ubi.com/images/smilies/88.gif

VW-IceFire
04-17-2005, 10:33 PM
*sigh*

This is a carryover from the HL discussion. Problems with this:
1) I don't agree with the notion of cell VS personal computing
2) This is just one article supported by one opinion...presumably of someone who is very much infavor of this technology
3) I have heard (although I have yet to read the article) that the PS3 is in big trouble because the Cell processor doesn't work or doesn't work very well. We'll see if there is truth to this...but its new, very new. We'll see.
4) Finally...you gave the impression in HL that Cell processor = end of PC's and therefore = end of flight sims which is a very unfortunate and unlikely set of events.

The sky is not falling...nothing has changed...

Badsight.
04-17-2005, 11:02 PM
yes the PS3 & Xbox2 are going to be good

but with all new tech , it wont be fully utilised at all to begin with

besides , no-one really knows exactly what the final config of either machines will be , first look we get is at E3

but the next gen consoles are going to be pretty decent gaming machines for sure

Tully__
04-18-2005, 07:03 AM
It should be good for gaming, weather modelling and so forth, but wont provide much advantage for normal office applications.

There may not be enough demand in those types of applications where it's an advantage for it to make a rapid entry into the desktop market. At any rate, there'll be a 2-5 year market lead (minimum), giving us plenty of time to make up our minds when (or if) we need to re-equip for this technology.

VW-IceFire
04-18-2005, 07:43 AM
Next question...if it throws out the X86 architecture then we need all new software and a new operating system.

Cell may be adopted by Apple before anyone else for that reason...

AWL_Spinner
04-18-2005, 07:56 AM
...not necessarily, if it's got enough horsepower to emulate effectively.

The size of the installed user-base / software back catalogue is certainly going to make it lucrative enough for someone to try.

tjaika1910
04-18-2005, 08:09 AM
I think that the CPU will be lesser and lesser important in pc-gaming. CPU+GPU+FPU will together give the performance. The later is said to be implementet in Ubi games (maybe even BOB?)

Also the GPU will do a lot of the computing, like todays pixel shader 3.

If the PC dies, it will not be of a console, maybe a mobile phone? :-) Mobile "humanly"/AI interacting with voice, and immense computing power. Wireless input to stationary input/output devices you get nearby.

OldMan____
04-18-2005, 08:16 AM
<BLOCKQUOTE class="ip-ubbcode-quote"><font size="-1">quote:</font><HR>Originally posted by Tully__:
It should be good for gaming, weather modelling and so forth, but wont provide much advantage for normal office applications.

There may not be enough demand in those types of applications where it's an advantage for it to make a rapid entry into the desktop market. At any rate, there'll be a 2-5 year market lead (minimum), giving us plenty of time to make up our minds when (or if) we need to re-equip for this technology. <HR></BLOCKQUOTE>

these applications represent 80-85% of sales of high end processors. So there is more than room for a rapid insertion.


I am praying to a successfull Cell and finnaly end this damm x86 era.

Tully__
04-18-2005, 08:46 AM
<BLOCKQUOTE class="ip-ubbcode-quote"><font size="-1">quote:</font><HR>Originally posted by OldMan____:

these applications represent 80-85% of sales of high end processors. So there is more than room for a rapid insertion.


I am praying to a successfull Cell and finnaly end this damm x86 era. <HR></BLOCKQUOTE>

The high end market accounts for only a small portion of the general PC market, hence my estimate that it will be a slow process.

Don't get me wrong though, I'd very much like to see this be succesful. It's a variation of the old "massively parallel processor" principle, which would be ideal for flight sim processing and excellent for game processing in general.