Mercury expects boost from IBM's Cell blade

Mercury Computer Systems plans a Cell blade server of its own--but Big Blue is a partner in the business, not a direct competitor. Images: Mercury's blade mock-up

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Stephen Shankland
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Mercury Computer Systems could have been the company least happy to hear IBM's plans to build blade servers based on Big Blue's unusual Cell processor.

The Chelmsford, Mass.-based company, which builds high-end computing systems for tasks such as radar signal processing and medical imaging, plans a Cell blade server of its own. But IBM is a partner in the business, not a direct competitor.

"The blade announced by IBM is a direct outcome of collaboration with IBM for a year-plus. We're very excited their sales force will get behind that product," said Joel Radford, Mercury's vice president of strategic marketing and alliances. He declined to detail the partnership's terms, but said Mercury has a financial interest in IBM's blade sales.

Mercury Cell blade

IBM announced this week that its own Cell blades will ship in the third quarter. Blades plug into an IBM BladeCenter chassis. Each blade has dual Cell chips, and each Cell chip has a primary processing core supplemented by eight special-purpose engines. The chip was co-developed by Sony, Toshiba and IBM; it's due to ship this year in Sony and Toshiba high-definition TVs and in Sony's PlayStation 3 game console.

"It's a power-hungry chip" compared with other processors, Radford said. "But you can do a lot more with one chip."

High-end video games simulate physical laws to create a realistic experience, and that processing ability is directly useful for the technical computing tasks in which Mercury specializes, Radford said. Among those jobs are processing radar antenna signals, helping weapons with targeting, and compiling thousands of two-dimensional slices in a medical scan into a 3D image.

Mercury has sold several test systems to military and commercial customers, but it plans to release its first production-quality Cell blades by the end of June, Radford said. Two other designs are coming in early 2007: the PowerBlock 200, a rugged bricklike device intended for military environments such as tanks, and a system code-named "Turismo" that's designed to boost the performance of desktop workstations or be housed in a data center rack.

Turismo could be useful for computer-aided design or digital animation work, but the company has yet to refine the sales pitch. "That's less familiar turf for Mercury," Radford said.

In addition, the company plans to announce "some standard form-factor products" this summer, but he declined to share details.

Mercury hopes to apply its programming expertise to Cell--a difficult chip to program since each of its eight special-purpose cores can house their own mini-programs that must be coordinated. "Cell is a pretty unique beast," Radford said, but the company believes it can adapt existing software that coordinates jobs spanning several processors.

Mercury's systems use a version of Linux for PowerPC chips created and modified by Terra Soft Solutions, Radford said.