IBM signs outside customer for Cell

Derivatives of the chips that will go into Sony's next game console will be used in MRI machines and military computers.

Michael Kanellos
Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
2 min read
Mercury Computer Systems, which makes machines for petroleum companies and defense contractors, will adopt Cell processors for future computers, a first step in IBM's efforts to popularize the chip's architecture.

Under the multiyear deal, Mercury will craft computers for various industrial applications--such as processing seismic data or creating images out of MRI data--based around Cell chips.

"This will be the exact same chip as in the PlayStation" said Craig Lund, Mercury's CTO, although the I/O structure and other elements of Mercury's computers will be much different.

The Cell chip--which consists of a Power processing core surrounded by several helper processors--was created by IBM, Sony and Toshiba. Sony will use the chip inside the PlayStation3, while Toshiba has said it will incorporate Cell into TV sets.

The three companies also want to sell the chip to third parties, a task partly complicated by the size and power consumption of the chip as well as the nature of the semiconductor industry.

Though Mercury is not one of the world's largest computer makers--annual revenues come to about $250 million--it has carved out a niche in the high end by creating computers that can perform tasks better than, or earlier than, generic PCs or workstations but at a lower price than custom-made computers. Mercury has turned a profit for several years in a row.

"We live in the gray area between custom and product," Lund said. "There are an awful lot of algorithms in the wild. They can make your medical images clearer, but just because you can make them clearer doesn't mean a hospital will buy them."

The company also creates systems that can endure unusual environmental conditions. The PowerStream 7000, for instance, is a teraflop computer designed for planes, boats or land vehicles and sold primarily to military customers.

"This fits exactly into their market," said Kevin Krewell, editor-in-chief of the Microprocessor Report. "The Cell processor is really designed to work like an image processing system."

Some current Mercury systems employ Power architecture chips, but the company also makes computers based on digital signal processors and Intel chips.