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How Sony's Development of the Cell Processor Benefited Microsoft 155

The Wall Street Journal is running an article about a recently released book entitled "The Race for a New Game Machine" which details Sony's development of the Cell processor, written by two of the engineers who worked on it. They also discuss how Sony's efforts to create a next-gen system backfired by directly helping Microsoft, one of their main competitors. Quoting: "Sony, Toshiba and IBM committed themselves to spending $400 million over five years to design the Cell, not counting the millions of dollars it would take to build two production facilities for making the chip itself. IBM provided the bulk of the manpower, with the design team headquartered at its Austin, Texas, offices. ... But a funny thing happened along the way: A new 'partner' entered the picture. In late 2002, Microsoft approached IBM about making the chip for Microsoft's rival game console, the (as yet unnamed) Xbox 360. In 2003, IBM's Adam Bennett showed Microsoft specs for the still-in-development Cell core. Microsoft was interested and contracted with IBM for their own chip, to be built around the core that IBM was still building with Sony. All three of the original partners had agreed that IBM would eventually sell the Cell to other clients. But it does not seem to have occurred to Sony that IBM would sell key parts of the Cell before it was complete and to Sony's primary videogame-console competitor. The result was that Sony's R&D money was spent creating a component for Microsoft to use against it."
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How Sony's Development of the Cell Processor Benefited Microsoft

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  • E_TOO_VAGUE (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday January 01, 2009 @06:04AM (#26289763)

    What parts of the processor did IBM pass on to Microsoft? The XBox 360 processor Xenon is basically a three core hyperthreaded PowerPC. The Playstation 3 has a single PowerPC core (not hyperthreaded) and 7 (or 8) simpler SPU processors.

  • That's Disgusting... (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday January 01, 2009 @06:15AM (#26289801)

    in so many levels.

    Can't believe Sony would be so negligent not obtaining any exclusivity agreements against its competitors.

    Can't believe IBM would permit such an arrangement; and carry out the release of the Cell Processor designs w/o Sony and Toshiba's willful consent. Bad Practice, Bad PR. I don't give a rip about making money at any costs. Now which major Japanese Company would be foolish enough to approach IBM's hardware team after this?

    That's what happens when you delegate too much R&D, I guess...

  • It also helped MS (Score:4, Informative)

    by Sycraft-fu ( 314770 ) on Thursday January 01, 2009 @06:22AM (#26289825)

    Because it was a really misdirected effort when it came to a console. Sony really had no idea what the hell they were doing as far as making a chip for their console. Originally, they thought the Cell would be the graphics chip. Ya well turned out not to be near powerful enough for that, so late in the development cycle they went to nVidia to get a chip. Problem was, with the time frame they needed, they couldn't get it very well customized.

    For example in a console, you normally want all the RAM shared between GPU and CPU. There's no reason to have them have separate RAM modules. The Xbox 360 does this, there's 512MB of RAM that is usable in general. The PS3 doesn't, it had 256MB for each CPU and GPU. Reason is that's how nVidia GPUs work in PCs and that's where it came from. nVidia didn't have the time to make them a custom one for the console, as ATi did for Microsoft. This leads to situations where the PS3 runs out of memory for textures and the 360 doesn't. It also means that the Cell can't fiddle with video RAM directly. It's power could perhaps be better used if it could directly do operations at full speed on data in VRAM but it can't.

    So what they ended up with is a neat processor that is expensive, and not that useful. The SPEs that make up the bulk of the Cell's muscle are hard to use in games given the PS3's setup, and often you are waiting on the core to get data to and from them.

    It's a neat processor, but a really bad idea for a video game console. Thus despite the cost and hype, the PS3 isn't able to outdo the 360 in terms of graphics (in some games it even falls behind).

    I really don't know what the hell Sony was thinking with putting a brand new kind of processor in a console. I'm willing to bet in 10 years there are compilers and systems out there that make real good use of the Cell. However that does you no good with games today.

    Thus we see the current situation of the PS3 having weak sales as compares to the 360 and Wii. It is high priced, with the idea that it brings the best performance, but that just doesn't bare out in reality.

  • Re:It also helped MS (Score:3, Informative)

    by master_p ( 608214 ) on Thursday January 01, 2009 @07:08AM (#26289921)

    I don't think the PS3 has the problem you mention (SPEs not being able to work directly on VRAM). It has a huge bus and it can easily stream huge amount of texture data from the SPE cores to the GPU.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday January 01, 2009 @07:12AM (#26289933)

    Actually PowerPC is descendant of IBM's POWER2 processor. POWER and POWER2 processors were used in supercomputers and servers.

  • Re:It also helped MS (Score:5, Informative)

    by Sycraft-fu ( 314770 ) on Thursday January 01, 2009 @07:39AM (#26289985)

    Specs on it I see show the system bus as being around 2GB/sec. That's comparable to PCIe (about the same as an 8x connection). While that's fine, it isn't really enough to do much in terms of back and forth operations. You'll find on a PC if you try that things get real slow. You need to send the data to the graphics card and have it work on its own RAM.

    Now that isn't to say that you can't do things to the data before you send it, but then that's of limited use. What I'm talking about is doing things like, say, you write code that handles some dynamic lighting that the CPU does. So it goes in and modifies the texture data directly in VRAM. Well you can't really do that over a bus that slow. 2GB sounds like a lot but it is an order of magnitude below the speed that the VRAM works at. It is too slow to be doing the "read data, run math, write data, repeat a couple million times a frame" sort of thing that you'd be talking about.

    You see the same sort of thing on a PC. While in theory PCIe lets you use system memory for your GPU transparently, in reality you take a massive hit if you do. The PCIe bus is just way too slow to keep up with higher resolution, high frame rate rendering.

    So while it's fine in terms of the processor getting the data ready and sending it over to the GPU (which is what is done) it isn't a fast enough bus to have the SPEs act as additional shaders, which is what they'd probably be the most useful for.

  • Re:It also helped MS (Score:2, Informative)

    by hptux06 ( 879970 ) on Thursday January 01, 2009 @08:01AM (#26290035)

    2Gb/s? The RSX is on the FlexIO bus, giving it ~20Gb/s to play with according to specs [ign.com].

  • Re:Hmm, really? (Score:3, Informative)

    by IamTheRealMike ( 537420 ) on Thursday January 01, 2009 @08:03AM (#26290039)

    The XBox360 cores don't have any superscalar features, things like branch prediction, instruction re-ordering or speculative execution. That means they use much less power than a regular core (and so generate less heat), but only run branchy game logic type code at around half the speed.

  • Re:It also helped MS (Score:5, Informative)

    by Zixx ( 530813 ) on Thursday January 01, 2009 @08:04AM (#26290043)

    For example in a console, you normally want all the RAM shared between GPU and CPU. There's no reason to have them have separate RAM modules. The Xbox 360 does this, there's 512MB of RAM that is usable in general. The PS3 doesn't, it had 256MB for each CPU and GPU. Reason is that's how nVidia GPUs work in PCs and that's where it came from. nVidia didn't have the time to make them a custom one for the console, as ATi did for Microsoft. This leads to situations where the PS3 runs out of memory for textures and the 360 doesn't. It also means that the Cell can't fiddle with video RAM directly. It's power could perhaps be better used if it could directly do operations at full speed on data in VRAM but it can't.

    Being a (former) PS3 and 360 dev, I have to say this is not true. Let's start with the memory split. Both consoles have about 20GB/s of memory bandwidth per memory system. Only the PS3 has two of them, giving it twice the memory bandwidth. The 360 compensates for that by having EDRAM attached to the GPU, which removes the ROP's share from your bandwidth budget. Especially with a lot of overdraw, the bandwidth needed by the ROPs can get huge (20GB/s, anyone?), so this would be a nice solution where it not for two things: the limited EDRAM-size and the costs of resolving from EDRAM to DRAM.
    The RSX can also read and write both to XDR (main memory) and DDR (VRAM), giving it access to all of memory. The reason it is tighter on texture memory is because the OS is heavier.

    About access to VRAM, it is true that reading from VRAM is something you don't want the Cell to do. It's a 14MB/s bus, so it is of no practical use for texture data. Writing into VRAM is actually pretty ok, as it's at 5GB/s, which is more or less achievable without trouble. At 60fps that's more than 80MB per frame.

    In general, both design teams made sound decisions. The 360 has a significant ease-of-use advantage to PC developers with DirectX experience. The PS3 on the other hand is a lot more to-the-metal, but allows for some pretty crazy stuff. Sadly, most development these days is cross-platform, so you won't see a lot Cell-specific solutions. It's just not cost-effective.

  • Re:It also helped MS (Score:2, Informative)

    by hptux06 ( 879970 ) on Thursday January 01, 2009 @08:13AM (#26290081)

    The SPEs that make up the bulk of the Cell's muscle are hard to use in games given the PS3's setup, and often you are waiting on the core to get data to and from them.

    While I agree the SPEs are a pain in the neck to program for, one of their redeeming features is that they use asynchronous IO when writing/reading to/from main memory. One of the key design points with Cell was that modern processors spend an enormous amount of time waiting on memory operations to complete, something that gets worse when you introduce extra processors competing for memory cycles. An individual SPE can be reading in one set of data, writing back another, and processing a third all at the same time, there's no need to wait on data transfers.

    Granted though, this is only actually useful in limited situations, they're rubbish for general logic operations.

  • by TheRaven64 ( 641858 ) on Thursday January 01, 2009 @08:53AM (#26290211) Journal

    They are very different approaches. The 360's CPU is basically a 3-core, 6-context, in-order variant of the POWER4 with a vector unit. In terms of pure number crunching ability, it's pretty pathetic next to the Cell. On the other hand, it is based on a model that we have spent 30 years building compilers for. You only need to write slightly-parallel, conventional code to get close to 100% of the theoretical performance out of it.

    In contrast, the Cell has one PPU which is roughly equivalent to one context on the 360's CPU (somewhere between 1/3 and 1/6 of the speed). It also has 7 SPUs. These are very fast, but they're basically small DSPs. They have very wide vector units and are limited to working on 256KB of data at a time. You can use them to implement accelerator kernels for certain classes of algorithm, but getting good performance out of them is hard.

    In terms of on-paper performance, the Cell is a long way out in front, but it is a long way behind in ease of programming, meaning that you generally get a much smaller fraction of the maximum throughput.

  • Re:E_TOO_VAGUE (Score:3, Informative)

    by CronoCloud ( 590650 ) <<moc.liamg> <ta> <noruaduolconorc>> on Thursday January 01, 2009 @11:01AM (#26290735)

    Cell is Hyperthreaded, as any Linux on the PS3 user can show you:

    [CronoCloud@mideel ~]$ cat /proc/cpuinfo
    processor : 0
    cpu : Cell Broadband Engine, altivec supported
    clock : 3192.000000MHz
    revision : 5.1 (pvr 0070 0501)
    processor : 1
    cpu : Cell Broadband Engine, altivec supported
    clock : 3192.000000MHz
    revision : 5.1 (pvr 0070 0501)
    timebase : 79800000
    platform : PS3
    model : SonyPS3

  • by ZosX ( 517789 ) <zosxavius AT gmail DOT com> on Thursday January 01, 2009 @12:25PM (#26291173) Homepage

    It was the same problem with the PS2. It took developers a few good years to really start to push the hardware. Look at some of the later games that really push the envelope like say Final Fantasy XII or Shadow of Colossus. The PS2 was certainly capable of some nice visuals but the other consoles were ultimately superior while basically using off the shelf hardware. Developers were pushing the Xbox and the Gamecube almost nearly from day one. I think the cell has backfired, but not for the reason that Microsoft shares aspects of their core. Parallel processing is indeed the future, but not in the form of vector units, but rather general purpose chips. The one size fits all approach is inefficient but at the same time it has been the approach that has worked to fit the needs of modern computer users. Hardware should get easier to program on over time, certainly not harder. What happened to those predictions that in the future the average user will be able to code just by throwing some GUI elements together and maybe even describing the program to the computer a bit and having it generate the program for you? How far away are we from that day? (It seems an awfully long way away and the visual IDE is not the same as what I am describing here)

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday January 01, 2009 @01:56PM (#26291749)

    Indeed. There's really no reason why the 256 KB of memory should be any particular obstacle, as long as you have decent access to main memory, and if you program correctly. It's bigger than a lot of L1 caches, after all, and it's on chip so it's very high speed memory.

    Yes, you'll sacrifice some performance over purely streamable problems, but that would happen anyway. It's just making the trade-off explicit.

    The problem, of course, is that you have to do your own cache management, and most programmers haven't had to think about that since the day hardware caches were invented.

  • by CTho9305 ( 264265 ) on Thursday January 01, 2009 @03:53PM (#26292595) Homepage

    At first glance, the Xbox CPU [ctho.ath.cx] doesn't really resemble Cell [ctho.ath.cx], but if you just compare Cell's PPE to one of Xenon's three cores the similarity is striking: Xenon [ctho.ath.cx], Cell [ctho.ath.cx]

  • by Ilgaz ( 86384 ) on Thursday January 01, 2009 @04:43PM (#26293017) Homepage

    Programming issue as result of development tools? I am a Symbian user since Nokia 7650 (first S60) and I keep getting amazed at the developers love for iPhone, how a very advanced application like Fring can ship in matter of months without any kind of help from Apple and how wisely OpenGL (ES) acceleration was used while it is ignored on my poor UIQ3 Sony Ericsson P1i for years until Opera 9.5 beta.

    People say SSE could just reach the point of Altivec after new Xeons and yet as a G5 owner, I kept wondering why Altivec was not used many times even by Apple themselves in certain parts. Or SMP (I got Quad G5) is just to be seen in full potential after OS X Leopard. It has easy answer. Intel and AMD does offer great support to developers, the entire gnu compiler family and OS developers.

    If it is a programming issue and both IBM and Sony involved, I would look to Development tools. Somehow I suspect the development tools and support for them offered way better on XBox 360. Compare the Symbian UIQ3 market to way more premature (in terms of coding/ui) Nokia S60 and finally compare Symbian S60 to iPhone. Development tools really makes huge difference and Sony is a hardware company, IBM doesn't really have clue about end user etc.

  • by Michael Hunt ( 585391 ) on Thursday January 01, 2009 @09:13PM (#26295413) Homepage

    Do you have even a vague understanding of what 'transform' and 'lighting' actually mean? Allow me to elucidate.

    'transform' refers to the act of converting vertex positions in model space (the coordinate system used in the vertex buffers) to clip (camera) space. This is typically one matrix * vector multiplication per vertex; the vertex's position in model space is multiplied by the world-view-projection matrix. On modern hardware, this is generally done in the vertex program (other things may be done to the vertex's position before or after the co-ord transform, mind you, such as multiplication by a set of bone matrices for hardware animation, etc.)

    'lighting' refers to the process of deciding the colour of each fragment ('potential pixel'). Before programmable graphics hardware, this was done by taking the dot product of the vertex normal and the light vector (or position, depending on light type), and multiplying it by the light's diffuse colour. The resulting colour intensity was then linearly interpolated across the face between vertices, and used to light the texture in conjunction with the ambient term. With modern programmable hardware, lighting is usually done per-fragment based on a normal map, which is input as a second texture to the fragment program. The light position is converted from object (or world) space into 'tangent' space, which is a coordinate system whose basis vectors are parallel and orthogonal to the plane being lit, and the surface is lit based on the dot product of the light vector in tangent space and the normal from the normal map.

    Back in the bad old days, when men with beards owned IRIX boxes and everybody else had a TNT2 or worse, transform and lighting were done in software for most folks, by a client of the rendering system, before the primitives were submitted as draw calls to the rendering system. Post-about-2001, cards with hardware T&L, such as Geforce 256, showed up in the PC space. These cards were the first consumer 3D hardware to perform fixed-function transform and lighting (roughly as I've described it above) in silicon. The API didn't change much, although there was a DirectX version bump (6 to 7). OpenGL programmers didn't really notice; the library itself, obviously, had to know if it was talking to a fixed-function card or a dumb card, but most OpenGLs were provided by hardware vendors in any event, so this wasn't a factor.

    Fast forward to today, everybody's using hardware which allows parts (most, these days) of the rendering pipeline to be replaced entirely with programs written by the engine developer (or even the artist, in some cases.) Transforming vertices can be done in conjunction with all manner of other crap, and lighting can be done using whatever model the programmer/artist desire. Regardless, however, it's all done in the same pipeline on the GPU. If the SPUs, as you suggest, were pre-transforming and pre-lighting vertices before writing them to 3d hardware's vertex buffers, then all you'd get is some really confused 3d hardware. RSX (the 3D chip loosely based on nvidia's G70 architecture) has 8 vertex pipelines and 24 fragment pipelines, all programmable. This is more than enough power to do significantly more with each vertex than simple transformation, and enough power to perform even complex effects such as steep parallax-mapped lighting in the fragment pipeline.

    In conclusion, while Xenos (360's GPU) may or may not be better than RSX, RSX is CERTAINLY more than powerful enough to handle its own T&L. Cell's SPEs are, at least on some level, a compromise between the massively data-parallel yet somewhat braindead pipelines of a GPU and the more-or-less serial yet significantly intelligent threads of a modern CPU. They'd be great for accelerating physics (Bullet, i believe, has a Cell backend) or AI, but really add fuck all to the 3D rendering side of the console.

  • Re:It also helped MS (Score:4, Informative)

    by TheNetAvenger ( 624455 ) on Friday January 02, 2009 @01:33AM (#26297119)

    Ya well turned out not to be near powerful enough for that, so late in the development cycle they went to nVidia to get a chip.

    The funny part about the NVidia chip Sony is using in the PS3 only exists because of Microsoft and Microsoft funding.

    On the original XBox MS Engineers worked with NVidia to create what was the technology behind the Geforce4ti. The GPU created for the XBox was the first (NVidia at least) GPU that had Pixel Shader technology.

    It was the work from the MS engineers and NVidia that created this custom GPU that NVidia took on to become the Geforce4ti (high end) and the GeforceFX (5xxx series) line of GPUs.

    It wasn't until the 8xxx series of NVidia GPUs did they abandon the architecture that was co-designed and funded by Microsoft originally.

    This is why when NVidia was asking for more money per GPU for MFR on the XBox GPU, MS basically told them to pound sand, as they had already help to create and fund their entire line of PC GPUs that was giving NVidia the success they were having.

    So not only did Sony screw themselves by shoving a 'slower' Geforce 7900 into the PS3 that caused their own delays, the Geforce 7900 in the PS3 is based on designs from Microsoft engineers and MS funding that NVidia got during the original XBox development.

    Besides adding the GPU into the PS3 at a late date, Sony screwed themselves with their own problems that were beyond anything IBM was doing.

    Look at the PS3 Development tools. Even if Sony was waiting on parts from IBM, they could have at least had a mature set of development tools, instead even 'after' waiting on IBM or whatever their excuses are, their development tools sucked ass and can be argued to this day still don't properly harness the power of the Cell processor.

    So if it was just waiting on IBM, the development tools would have been done and waiting, instead, the hardware was available before even a realistic or solid set of development tools were available.

    In contrast, MS's development tools for the XBox 360 were ahead of the hardware and developers were using two G5 Macs running a custom version of Windows2003 x64 with a full set of development tools. And when the REAL XBox 360 hardware was made available to developers, they again got updated development tools from Microsoft that directly targeted the tri-core PowerPC and the MS designed ATI GPU that was optimized for the actual hardware.

    Basically MS didn't even have the XBox 360 hardware, but had development tools in the hands of game developers and even found a way to provide these on an emulated hardware configuration. - Sony could have done this, instead they screwed developers and still do, and not they blame IBM for delaying their 'precious' chip. Holy lord of the rings...

    With regard to the poster I am replying to, they are spot on with many things. The PS3 GPU is a slower version of the NVidia 7900 - this means laptops from 2005 have faster GPUs in them than a PS3. How is that for sad and scary...

    Additionally, it was MS designs (that they kept ownership to this time) on the ATI based GPU technology in the XBox 360 that set the standard for all current GPUs on the market today. It was a unified shader technology, with on chip cache for AA, and also was designed to use the shared memory architecture that the Vista WDDM model is built around.

    So every time you see a video card from ATI or NVidia with DX10, the design comes from MS engineers. (Yes NVidia didn't have access to, but used the design specifications behind the DX10 hardware specifications designed and written by Microsoft for their 8xxx and newer GPUs.)

    Technically the GPU in the XBox 360 is a DX11 based GPU that is ahead of the current generation of GPU architectures still, and won't see desktop PC equivalents until you see DX11 GPUs on the shelves. (As it has hardware WDDM 1.1 hooks that current desktop GPUs do not have.)

    I actually think the PS3 is a good gaming system for what it is. It is a good Blu-Ray player too.

    It was

  • by Glonk ( 103787 ) on Friday January 02, 2009 @01:55AM (#26297247) Homepage

    While it certainly sounds like you know what you're talking about, it's pretty clear to anyone with a game-dev background you do not.

    Cell's SPEs are actually PRIMARILY used as aids to graphics processing (T&L) by most developers. Look into how games like Heavenly Sword use the SPEs as part of its "faux" HDR or games like Killzone 2 use SPEs to implement deferred rendering for awesome smoke effects. The SPEs are, in PRACTICAL TERMS to PS3 game developers, very essential to the 3D rendering side of the console.

    While RSX is "powerful enough" to do its own T&L, it cannot compare to the standalone power of the 360's Xenos chip. There are many reasons for this (6 fixed vertex shaders on RSX vs the unified shaders on the 360 which permit far higher vertex workloads, to the RSX's limited bandwidth vs the 360's eDRAM bandwidth, to triangle setup rates). On the PS3, developers need to leverage Cell in intelligent ways to draw comparable graphics to the 360. If an intelligent and determined PS3 developer really leverages Cell, it can make unparalleled graphic in the console world. The problem is, it costs a fortune in time and money to do it and very few developers can. It's simply not worth it to even attempt it for most developers.

    As a sidenote, Cell is not at all good for most game AI for many reasons (not the least of which is the lack of branch predictors in the SPEs).

    Additionally, people keep making the mistake of assuming the PPU in the Cell is basically the same as each core in the 360's CPU. That's not at all true. There are some significant differences, including native Direct3D format support in the 360's CPU to the new VMX128 vector units (which have 128 registers per context per core [6 total], vs 32 on the PPU) as well as additional instructions specifically tailored towards 3D games (like single-cycle dot-product instructions). The combined triple VMX-128 units on the 360 are still faster than most quad-core Core i7 in vector processing, so I'm perplexed by the notion that it's somewhat slow or underpowered from what I've read from some people.

    If you're truly interested in how PS3 games use Cell, check out the Beyond3D community where PS3 developers post in detail about how they do what they do. And Cell is a major factor in 3D rendering on the PS3. It has to be.

  • Re:It also helped MS (Score:3, Informative)

    by rtechie ( 244489 ) * on Friday January 02, 2009 @04:13AM (#26297767)

    most complicated video game console to program for ever

    Actually, the Saturn was probably the most difficult console to program for ever. Sega basically told developers "Here's some of the system calls and incomplete design docs. Have fun." and it NEVER got any better. To this day there are parts of the Sega Saturn that are basically totally undocumented. Notice how you've never seen any Saturn emulators? This is why.

    The first 2 years of the PS2 were painful, and then much better development tools arrived on the scene that handled much of the fiddly crap. Nowadays it's easy to develop for the PS2.

Man is an animal that makes bargains: no other animal does this-- no dog exchanges bones with another. -- Adam Smith