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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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  • by Sarusa ( 104047 ) on Thursday January 01, 2009 @06:19AM (#26289817)

    This is really kind of misleading. The PowerPC, which is at the core of the Cell and is what MS uses as the cores of the Xbox 360, has been IBM's baby for years.

    The Xbox 360 uses 3 of the cores. The Cell uses one of the cores plus 8 SPEs (6 of which you can actually use in a game). If you will recall, the Wii uses a PowerPC too, a slightly beefed up Gamecube CPU which IBM made for Nintendo even before they made Cell. And of course Apple used to use PowerPCs (and IBM itself did and does, for servers).

    Anyhow, without the Cell's SPEs, there's not a lot to really 'steal'. The lack of SPEs is what makes the Xbox 360 so easy to program for, but the SPEs are what really define the Cell and make it such a floating point crunching monster (better suited for supercomputing than writing video games for in my opinion, and that's not intended as a dis here).

  • OTOH (Score:3, Insightful)

    by symbolset ( 646467 ) on Thursday January 01, 2009 @06:21AM (#26289821) Journal

    It looks like the engineers who actually make stuff are in charge. I know that's not as good to you as lawyer-based engineering, but some of us prefer physics-based engineering, for spice. OK?

    Please don't sue me.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday January 01, 2009 @06:23AM (#26289829)

    I don't see how "Sonys" research money was used or really in question for any this.
    the PowerPC both CPUs are based on is the PowerPC 970, the Processor Apple used in their G5 series- but from there the difference is that they disabled out of order execution- implemented SMT from the Power5, on sonys behalf they added 8 newly developed SIMD coprocessors known as SPEs.
    For microsoft well they wrote a new version av VMX called VMX-128, something not to be found on the Cell which still uses the old VMX (Mostly Apples design)

    If any thing worked against Sony it's been their high unit cost, their total failure to meet up with the advertising (full hd at 60 fps, etc)
    Absent of games etc.

    I bought a PS3 myself, but still today 3 years later the only reason I ever kept it was the ability to install linux so it could be put to some use in the absence of the games.

  • by sleeponthemic ( 1253494 ) on Thursday January 01, 2009 @08:04AM (#26290041) Homepage

    Sony's payback comes when Playstation3 programmers learn to fully utilize the Cell architecture.

    That statement is fast becoming another hallowed urban myth of gaming.

    Techspecs aside, do you really believe the hype when absolutely nothing has come out on ps3 that blows the 360's capabilities away? Haven't they had enough time? Where is the practical proof? Folding at home performance? Not really applicable.

    Not to mention the fact that no developer making cross platform games is going to go very much further on a ps3 version. There's just simply no point.

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

    by MemoryDragon ( 544441 ) on Thursday January 01, 2009 @08:20AM (#26290103)

    I agree here as well, there is nothing from the Cell design which went into the Microsoft PowerPC core. IBMs processor business nowadays is mostly to customize power pc processors for various customers. The design which went in from Microsoft is basically just a trimmed down G5 core with three cores, while the Cells, is a trimmed down G5 core with a load of SIMD units!

  • by Otis_INF ( 130595 ) on Thursday January 01, 2009 @10:03AM (#26290497) Homepage

    Well the idea of sony was to advance the PS2 design further, in my opinion a broken design having two SIMD Vector processors doing everything

    It's not broken, it's just an advanced system so a developer who wants to write really fast code has to know how it works. If you look at God of war 2 for example, what the engine can do on a system with 32MB of ram and a pretty slow CPU, it really shows that a skilled developer who knows what s/he's doing can get the results desired.

    I.o.w.: a 'lamer' can't get the performance desired. Well, what a shame, ain't it? If one really understands what it takes to write 3D engine code, it shouldn't be hard to understand that what the PS3 offers is in theory not really broken, but an opportunity to really get results which are beyond what one could imagine.

    Sure it's hard to write that code, but that's no different from writing solid, performing, scalable data-access code for example. It doesn't require thousands of developers to write that code: only a few are required, they can write the hard part, the rest of the developers can build on top of that. After all, a game is often mostly written in a script-like language of the engine or C/C++ utilizing engine libraries, not a lot of people developing games are really writing engine cores.

  • by drinkypoo ( 153816 ) <> on Thursday January 01, 2009 @10:23AM (#26290573) Homepage Journal

    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.

    It IS a bit hilarious isn't it? The Playstation murdered the Saturn in part because it was easier to develop for, with one CPU (a MIPS core at that!) and one graphics chip. Then Sony completely blew it with the PS2, made the most complicated video game console to program for ever and Microsoft made huge inroads. Then they blew it again with the PS3. A majority of developers willing to speak on such issues despise both systems. Sony would be out of the video game market completely at this point if it weren't for Xbox 360 RROD.

  • Yes but.... (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday January 01, 2009 @11:01AM (#26290733)

    All very interesting how much more powerful the PS3 is, however, it is of diminished relevance if games creators write software for the xbox (because it was out earlier, larger user base etc) and then just port it to the PS3. They need to write specifically for it, and im sure the majority will be creating commercial suicide to do that. Most (all?) PS3 games creators dont even bother to support mouse/keyboard input...bad show!

    I bought one, for HD graphics etc etc...and to be honest I should have just upgraded the Graphics card on my pc (which I have now done). Result is HD+ games usable with mouse and keyboard. At least the PS3 looks good under the telly, although the dust is starting to build up.

  • by EXTomar ( 78739 ) on Thursday January 01, 2009 @03:02PM (#26292177)

    Japan has always been like this. Take a look at the PS3 and Wii. Both offer highly proprietary, custom built, in ways convoluted technology to the same problem. But for some reason Sony is treated as idiots while the author sort of forgets Wii takes the prize. For whatever reason Japanese engineers like doing this: When there is no technology that exists that exactly fits to solve a problem, their engieneers tend to build a new one even if there are other pre-existing solutions that almost achieve it. Just like other capital projects, it sometimes pays off and sometimes fails.

    Another thing not considered is the fact the XBox 360 is most conservative console out of the three. The software and hardware technology in the Wii and PS3 are dramatically different then their predecessors where they have features that simply don't exist in the ancestors. On the other hand the XBox 360 is more like a beefier XBox. I think the real story is that Sony gambled on some fundamental technology shifts and it didn't pan out. Microsoft on the other hand "played safe" and iterated. There is nothing wrong with that but to claim its some technology shift or special insight, especially given their production and software problems is a bit much.

  • by faragon ( 789704 ) on Thursday January 01, 2009 @04:24PM (#26292851) Homepage

    Microsoft's 512MB memory runs at a very slow speed compared to the 3ghz frequency the PS3 cpu memory runs on. It's not a surprise why this is: the bus is shared: display hardware, video chip, main cpu, all have to utilize a bus to the same memory. To schedule all these requests, you have to use even/odd cycle schemes or similar, you can't use the bus all for one chip.

    RAM access cycle interleaving works for pre-burst memories (e.g. DRAM, SRAM). Current synchronous RAMs (since late nineties SDRAM) operate in bursts, i.e., the address is set in the bus, and then, at every clock a read (or write) operation is performed, being the next address is increased implicetely (burst transfer). So my bet is that there is not RAM cycle interleaving for modern synchronous DRAMs, as it would be very complex and nonsens to add a "interleaving logic" in between the DRAM controller and the CPUs or DMA controllers.

  • by SuiteSisterMary ( 123932 ) <slebrun AT gmail DOT com> on Sunday January 04, 2009 @02:37PM (#26321557) Journal

    Almost every console that has ever failed, has failed because they screwed the developers.

    Developers jumped ship from Nintendo to Sony because Nintendo was still requiring carts, huge lead times, limited number of titles to each company, certification, and so on. Sony removed these restrictions, and developers didn't let the door hit their asses on the way out.

    Sega had a history of screwing up with developers; random hardware addons like the Sega CD, 32X and so on; if the Dreamcast had come out without several years of beaten-puppy-syndrome affecting the devs, it would have done much better against the PS2.

    When the Xbox came out, it was widely acknowledged as having the best dev tools, hands down. However, it was the new kid on the block. But Microsoft has always known that developers make the world go 'round; just ask Steve Ballmer.

    Now, Sony has become Nintendo, dictating rather than asking. There's a reason why so many formerly Sony exclusives are winding up on the 360, just like so many Nintendo exclusives wound up on the PS1.

    Of course, it also helps that the 360 is a better game machine than the PS3, for reasons other posters have pointed out; unified memory, better GPU, and so on.

Q: How many IBM CPU's does it take to execute a job? A: Four; three to hold it down, and one to rip its head off.