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Cell is no longer HPC material

IBM signs up for GPGPU
Fri Nov 27 2009, 11:12

AS THE NEWS BROKE at, you could almost feel the Cell collective - that is, the Sony PS3 developer community and gamers - reel in shock at the sharp, jagged bits of an interview with IBM's Deep Computing VP, David Turek, saying Cell was to be no more. Of course, since he is the VP of HPC at IBM he was just talking about HPC rather than everything else.

According to the IBM executive's crystal ball, Cell is now no longer the right platform on which to develop HPC computing and so IBM will be shifting its focus from Cell-based co-processing to OpenCL-based co-processing - AMD's GPU stuff, in not so many words. This means that while Cell served its purpose in proving parallel processing was the way to go, development costs of further Cell based products become pointless as GPGPU computing becomes more widespread. Considering AMD is one of IBM's closest research partners this hardly comes as a surprise.

We rang up IBM PR but, rather unsurprisingly, its message queue was full. So we'll give you our view on the matter.

So far, IBM's latest supercomputing solutions, such as Roadrunner, revolved around AMD's Opteron processors with Cell as a co-processor unit. The latter, a cell unit dubbed PowerXCell 8i, is capable of delivering massive FPU performance, greater than that of AMD's x86 CPUs by a factor of 100. What IBM wants now is to move this model to CPU plus GPGPU by signing on to the OpenCL express as another brand of parallel computing to accomplish such tasks as nuclear weapons simulations.

There are two wide-ranging implications in IBM's new stance. First, there will be no further development on the Cell architecture on IBM's HPC side. There will be further solutions and support from IBM using Cell, and other products in other lines with the current Cell chips. It's good, it works, so why not? What Turek has said is that the future is GPGPU either with APU solutions, as AMD calls them, or with CPUs closely coupled to discrete GPGPU coprocessing units - essentially what AMD's been going on about for the past year.

Second, IBM's Deep Computing division is precisely the real estate that Nvidia is looking to conquer. Turek had previously stated that the future of supercomputing will be a 'hybrid' solution - simple enough, as x86 plus GPGPU computing is hybrid enough. However, siding with OpenCL effectively puts Nvidia in a pinch. This is a first class IBM and AMD tag team against Nvidia.

Notwithstanding all of this, the future of the Cell processor is uncertain. It hasn't made a hit with consumer electronics devices as Toshiba and Sony had promised, and the encroachment of GPGPU processing definitely throws a spanner in the works. PS3 will live out its usefulness, but in all likelihood, and with the path taken by CPU and GPU developers, the PS4 will be a far cry from its predecessor. µ


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