IBM puts Cell chip to work in supercomputer

The Cell processor isn't just for games consoles — in IBM's blades it will work on serious computing
Written by Peter Judge, Contributor

A new blade-based IBM system could use the economics of the games industry to slash the cost of supercomputing.

IBM has delivered a "supercomputer-like" blade system based on the Cell processor it co-designed for Sony's PlayStation. The device, which ZDNet saw in prototype form in March, is intended for applications in fields such as aerospace, oil and gas, and medicine.

The Cell Broadband Engine (Cell BE) processor was developed by IBM, Sony and Toshiba for games consoles, starting from IBM's Power architecture. However, the multi-core architecture and high-speed communications designed to power realistic shoot-'em-ups for kids have turned out to be equally useful in serious high-performance computing, IBM says. The Cell-based BladeCenter QS20 will be part of IBM's System Cluster 1350, Linux supercomputer.

"The IBM BladeCenter QS20 has the potential to give us significantly improved performance, take up less space and consume less power," said WT Hewitt, director of research computing, at the University of Manchester, where the system will provide resources to staff and students. "High-performance computing systems built from blade systems based on the Cell Broadband Engine have the potential to change the economics associated with supercomputing."

At the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Mathematics in Germany, the system will improve visualisation applications, according to doctor Franz-Josef Pfreundt. "The powerful development environment allows for our Institute to run mathematical, medical visualisation and GraPA-based in-house applications at lightning-fast speed, processing millions of pieces of data in just seconds, allowing us to process, interpret and deliver research results faster."

Other applications will include 3D animation rendering, compression, encryption, and seismic and medical imaging.

The Cell processor is already being used as part of a specially built supercomputer called RoadRunner, commissioned by the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Linux support was shown in March

With half a million IBM BladeCenter systems shipped in the past four years, IBM claims to be the number-one blade vendor in the world.

The price for a single QS20 Blade starts at $18,995 (£10,130).

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