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Feel the power!

How supercomputing technology is beginning to appear at the desktop. By David Boothroyd.

When commercial computers first emerged in the 1950s, they were vast, mysterious things attended by boffins, who fed them punched tape. For a long time, there were only thousands in the world: a situation unrecognisable today.
But one kind of computer has remained similar to the first machines: the supercomputer. These large, rare, hugely expensive machines provide vast computing resources to tackle esoteric problems like molecular simulation, climate modelling or particle physics. Yet that is about to change: in a series of projects around the world, the techniques and architectures of supercomputers are being implemented in single chips. Some see the underlying themes behind this move as one of the key trends in the whole of computing for the next decade and more.
Probably the best known supercomputer on a chip (SoaC) is the Cell, developed by IBM, Sony and Toshiba. This multithreading, multicore chip has a 64bit Power processor core and eight specialised coprocessors called Synergistic Processor Units, which provide massive floating point processing capability – up to 256Gflops operating in 32bit mode. It has a memory bandwidth of 25.6Gbyte/s and an I/O bandwidth of 76.8Gbyte/s.
Implemented in 90nm silicon on insulator technology, Cell is optimised for intensive workloads and broadband media applications, like computer entertainment, movies and other forms of digital content. It will be at the heart of Sony’s Playstation 3 (PS3) games console, when that finally emerges.

David Boothroyd

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