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PlayStation 3 Cell chip aims high

The Cell processor, to be introduced at a research conference next week, implements some radical changes from current chip design.

Engineers from Sony, IBM and Toshiba are set to provide fresh details on the Cell processor that will power the next version of Sony's PlayStation video game machine, but at least one analyst already has a pretty clear idea of what's coming.

Tom Halfhill of the Microprocessor Report has studied patents and other documents relating to Cell, which will be unveiled Monday at the International Solid-State Circuits Conference in San Francisco. He sees a number of chip breakthroughs likely to dramatically boost computing power in everything from game machines to cell phones.

Chip giants such as Intel have already started working on dual-core chips, but Cell goes several steps further by giving processing units a measure of independence. Current multicore chips typically chop a single computing task into parts, which are distributed among processing units. Cell's processing units--called "software cells"--can handle completely separate jobs.

"The software cells are designed to be kind of self-contained--they can kind of roam around," Halfhill said.

Cells can even roam over a network, allowing the processor to perform a type of distributed or grid computing, an increasingly popular enterprise technique in which demanding tasks are divvied up among a gang of networked computers. A PlayStation 3 could borrow unused processing power from other consoles on a network, for example, to complete a demanding task such as delivering streaming video.

"The Cell architecture is designed to make grid computing almost universal," Halfhill said. "It makes distributed processing part of the design. If you have several of these machines on a network, the work can be spread across a network."

Cell also implements a number of on-the-chip security measures, mostly aimed at preventing unauthorized copying or distribution of copyright content, Halfhill said. Such functions typically are handled by software that sits on top of the chip, but Cell bakes security into the silicon with innovations such as a memory design that allocates memory into secure chunks. That way, only an authorized application can access a protected piece of content.

"A lot of (piracy) techniques rely on one application being able to access the same memory region as another application," Halfhill said. "With Cell, you can't do that because memory regions are locked down by the application."

The trick, Halfhill said, will be finding a way to implement such security measures without drastically undercutting chip performance. "What they're doing to fence off this memory requires a lot of memory access," he said. "It looks to me like a pretty cumbersome system. There's got to be some performance hit, and they're going to have to optimize the final design to get around that."

While PlayStation 3 will be the first major piece of hardware to use the Cell, the chip's designers have proposed a range of applications. Halfhill said it will take time for the market to sort out markets where the Cell design provides an advantage.

"They're pitching it as an architecture for everything--all the way down to cell phone and all the way up to servers," he said. "We've never seen one architecture that's good for such a wide range, so it may be a bit pie-in-the-sky on their part."