Gaming Chip Leaps Into the Military Arena

December 2006
By Rita Boland
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The Cell Broadband Engine, or Cell processor, developed by IBM Corporation, Sony Group and Toshiba Corporation, combines eight processors on a single computer chip.
Innovative microprocessor needs less space to produce more power.

Developers are using an ultra-fast broadband engine designed to make video games faster and more realistic to improve warfighting tools. This breakthrough capability—called the next disruptive technology by some experts—is smaller and more powerful than its predecessors and is causing the military and defense contractors to rethink the way they design systems.

The Cell Broadband Engine, commonly referred to as the Cell processor, functions as a supercomputer on a chip with eight processors that perform actions simultaneously, leading to faster results. By combining the processors on one chip, developers can create smaller, lighter products that fit onto new platforms. For example, with the Cell processor, systems that are too bulky for jet aircraft or ground troops could be reduced to a usable size without sacrificing speed or power.

Computer developers realized the need for improved processing more than a decade ago when current methods for augmenting semiconductor speeds reached their limits. The developers had been using higher frequencies and smaller parts to increase power, but reducing the size of semiconductors eventually ceased to provide better performance. In fact, performance began to slow, and the systems became so overheated that they could not be cooled.

To remedy these problems, developers turned their attention to multiprocessor units. Work on the Cell processor began three years ago as a result of the need for increased computing power for online gaming. IBM Corporation, Armonk, New York; Toshiba Corporation, Tokyo; and Sony Group, Tokyo, partnered to develop a supercomputer on a chip. “Gaming is now driving the need for computing power,” explains Raj Desai, vice president, aerospace and defense, IBM.

Games drive innovation in part because they need realism, graphics and quick interaction time between commands and screen reactions. “Let’s say it’s a war game of some kind,” Desai says. “You take an action through the controls, and then changes on the computer happen very fast. The amount of computer power needed for those kinds of games is far more than [the power needed for] running a spreadsheet, for example.”

Desai believes that the Cell processor is a disruptive technology and that such creations are feasible only when companies converge their resources. “It is very rare in new inventions, or innovation especially, that one company can do this alone,” he shares. “It’s just impossible. The best example I can give you is that to put a person on the moon, it takes a lot of companies and collaborations.”

To attain the computing speed they needed, the three companies placed several processors on a single chip. “The unique approach in creating the Cell processor was that we pulled together that concept of multiple processors running in parallel simultaneously, and we put that on one silicon chip,” Desai states.

The multiple processors result in a large amount of power on a small chip. “This Cell processor is 10 times faster than anything that is out there,” Desai explains. If the processors were separated, the computer they powered would be as tall as a person and half as wide. For even faster computing, developers could put multiple Cell processors onto one board and produce a more advanced parallel system. “You could create the world’s fastest supercomputer,” Desai says. He adds that the Cell processor not only represents a significant technical accomplishment, it also incorporates the business side of innovation because of its application to gaming, which results in a large volume demand. The gaming installation base brings the product price down significantly, making it more affordable for public sector uses, including military systems, and for industries such as medicine. 

“The whole idea is to use it because it has a price point now that was unimaginable before,” Desai observes. To keep the cost low, the Cell processor used for games is the same one available for other applications. In the medical world, the processor will improve the clarity of images created during procedures such as mammograms, computed tomography (CT) scans and even surgeries.

When IBM, Sony and Toshiba began to develop the Cell processor, Desai says IBM already was looking ahead to the technology’s military applications. One military use for the product would improve radar. “Radar is about collecting the data—the images—and moving those images quickly within the system, then constructing the images to display so you can take action,” Desai states. With the Cell processor, radar users could manage data and display images more quickly and with better resolution than current technologies allow.

“So imagine if it was a missile,” Desai explains. “The speed at which you could see that data and display it is the difference between which actions you could take.” He notes that the technology’s 10-times-faster performance will significantly change the way radar is designed for warfare. Other military applications that could be affected by the processor include sensor systems and signals intelligence. 

The product also could transform the field of communications. Richard C. Schaeffer Jr., information assurance director at the National Security Agency, believes the Cell processor will be the next disruptive technology to have a dramatic effect on the communications world.

Desai adds that military personnel are working with the Cell processor already, although he cannot go into specifics. However, he says the technology will change warfare. The smaller size and increased power of the Cell processor will permit the creation of smaller systems that can travel aboard aircraft or on the ground. The military could use the processor to move tools farther into the field. In addition, the product will allow users to deploy algorithms that could not have been deployed previously because they took too long to compute.

While Sony and Toshiba have focused on the gaming aspect, IBM has been working with companies in the medical and defense industries to bring them Cell processor capabilities. Mercury Computer Systems Incorporated, Chelmsford, Massachusetts, is using the technology in several of its products such as the Dual Cell-Based Blade, the Turismo Cell-Based System, the PowerBlock 200 System, the 1U Dual Cell-Based Server and the Cell Accelerator Board. Mercury primarily sells computer products to companies in several sectors, including medicine and defense, with defense constituting more than half its business. Mercury serves as the bridge between systems developers at prime contractors and the detailed product specifications required at the board level.

Craig Lund, chief technology officer, Mercury, says that the company at one time built a board that looked very similar to the Cell processor and describes the processor as the board condensed to chip level. He adds that every few years something much better than current technology emerges in the field of microprocessors. “Cell is the discontinuity for this block of years,” he explains.

According to Lund, the Cell processor allows decision makers to rethink which sensors and algorithms they can deploy. He adds that other high-end microprocessors often exceed the reach of modest projects because of their high costs. “We’re just lucky that the game console markets evolved with requirements very close to the markets we need and are producing technologies that, with a little bit of work, we can leverage,” Lund states.

Mercury personnel are working on using the Cell processor to improve existing infrastructure and to enable some applications to move to smaller spaces. For example, space and weight are common constraints for radar. By providing a data center with a computer that is 20 to 30 times faster but not larger or heavier than currently available technology, military users will be able to see radar images more quickly and in greater detail. The Cell processor also can increase troops’ situational awareness by making tools smaller and putting them at the fingertips of the dismounted warfighter instead of attaching them to a platform.

Mercury has received positive feedback from major defense contractors and the U.S. Defense Department regarding Cell processor applications, Joel Radford, the company’s vice president of strategic marketing and alliances, shares. “The one subtlety is that, from our perspective, this is no longer speculative, this is happening,” he says. “Prime contractors at this stage are in the process of designing Cell-based technology into their solutions.” Radford and Lund expect these systems to go into production in one to three years.

Desai believes that once products are created using the processor, people will want to purchase them because of the significant difference the technology will make. Radars will detect more quickly, and medical imaging will be more accurate. He explains that with a breakthrough like the Cell Broadband Engine, industries have to adjust because customers will not want outdated technology. “If you can better something significantly, why wouldn’t you?” he asks.


Web Resources
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Mercury Computer Systems Incorporated:
Sony Group:
Toshiba Corporation: