It is no secret that the chip inside the Sony’s Playstation 3 holds enormous potential for gaming applications. Less known is the fact that the architecture of the Cell Broadband Engine – the product of a joint effort by Sony, IBM, and Toshiba- facilitates massive parallel computing power that can be used in all sorts of compute intensive tasks. Cell/B.E. is already being used on the enterprise level to great effect. The processor has also proven itself on the distributed computing front, as Playstation 3 consoles are second only to ATI’s R5XX-based GPUs in TFLOP performance in Stanford’s [email protected] operation. However, since the Cell/B.E. works optimally in tandem with the not-so-standard XDR memory interface from Rambus, nobody really expects to see mainstream PCs based on the processor anytime soon.
For consumers who find themselves twiddling their thumbs while processing full-quality HD video on modern computer hardware, Toshiba brings a reprieve. The SpursEngine SE1000 is the first commercially available implementation of the Cell/B.E. technology, and will allow for greatly enhanced performance through the use of four Synergistic Processing Elements (SPEs). The slightly dumbed-down version of the processor found in the Playstation 3 has been placed on a PCB with a PCI-Express edge connector that is compatible with PCI-E x1 slots on current mainboards. The add-in card also features 128MB of its own XDR DRAM, with a physical bandwidth of 12.8GB/s. Toshiba reports that the processing performance of this card maxes out at 48GFlops, which is just a tiny bit less than even the most powerful quad-core x86 CPUs. Although realized performance will undoubtedly be quite different from the listed value, the advantage of the SpursEngine SE1000 co-processor will lie in its parallel architecture.
As we see it, the SpursEngine SE1000 has two really big things going for it: compatibility with existing Cell/B.E. development environments, and assumed low price. Toshiba is reporting that since the co-processor is derived from the same technology as the Cell/B.E., programs can be written for it based on the existing and somewhat-understood develop environment. Also, since this expansion card is effectively a nerfed Playstation 3 Cell/B.E. without NVIDIA’s RSX, I/O resources, significant heat concerns, and provisions for external appearance, we expect it to be rather inexpensive. Toshiba expects to move 6 million SpursEngine SE1000 parts in its first three years, which also leads us to believe it will be priced right.
Though its initial usage intent is for video processing, we can definitely see this technology get put to use in all sorts of general computing tasks. Since a [email protected] client already exists for the Cell/B.E., we don’t think it is too unreasonable to expect a tweaked version for the SE1000 once the user base reaches a relevant size. The card has already entered the sampling phase and is expected to be commercially available in the coming months.