Game processor in warfighting apps

Cell technology has potential in defense

The advanced processor technology that lets Sony PlayStation 3 jet jockeys blow enemy fighters out of the sky in games such as “Warhawk” might soon help real warfighters do the same in combat.

The Cell Broadband Engine Architecture that IBM created in partnership with Sony and Toshiba has great potential for military, aerospace and defense applications that benefit from rapid signal processing, including precision radar and satellite imaging systems.

Known as Cell, the technology had its first commercial application in delivering fast, rich graphics for the PlayStation 3 game console. Cell technology is a different approach to multicore-processor design. Rather than placing multiple identical cores on a chip, one primary processor core teams with eight specialized cores that offer streamlined processing of vector math computations common to imaging and other signal-processing applications.

IBM uses a PowerPC processor as the primary core, or power processor element. That core farms tasks to the eight other cores, called synergistic processing elements, and integrates the results. Cell technology offers vast speed improvements for applications ranging from games and virtual worlds to synthetic-aperture radar (SAR) processing.

For example, one IBM partner, software development tools vendor Gedae, was able to show a 116-fold speed increase on a standard SAR processing benchmark by running the test on a Cell processor rather than a quad-core processor board. SAR processing produces a highly textured radar image, and reconnaissance and space science applications use the technology. Its speed makes the technology useful for in-flight systems.

William Lundgren, Gedae’s chief executive officer, said that for applications such as radar imaging, “there are a lot of algorithms people have proposed over the years that have had to wait until we have sufficient memory and processors to do the computations.”

Cell technology is helping bring those applications within reach, he added.

IBM and its partners say the aerospace and defense industries have shown the most interest in Cell processors, but there are no public examples of military deployments of the technology. A Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency spokeswoman said she knows of no active military research projects that use the technology.

However, Ronald Billau, a distinguished engineer at IBM’s Systems and Technology Group, said the company has been talking to DARPA officials. “I don’t know if we’re at liberty to talk about all the things [we are] doing with them, to be honest, but basically, they’re looking at where Cell fits into their research on large sensor arrays,” he said.

Although hardening of the technology is an issue, IBM is already working on it. “I’ve gone round and round with the lawyers about what I can say and can’t say about Cell,” Billau said.

Billau said he can’t comment on how much progress the company has made in producing versions of the processor that can withstand the temperature and altitude extremes of a fighter jet environment. “I can tell you that we have a number of people asking for that information because they want to put it in that type of environment, and the feedback from our point of view has been pretty positive,” he added. Rob Gibson, a manager at IBM’s customized embedded solutions group who has been working with defense and aerospace firms interested in the technology, said military applications might be in an early stage of development — but not all that early. “Systems integrators are now targeting Cell for specific programs, and some of that work is quite advanced,” he said.

In addition to intelligence and defense imaging applications, the technology could be used for training, simulations and virtual warfare, Gibson said.

Besides marketing the technology directly, IBM has partnered with Mercury Computer Systems to produce Cell-based systems for defense, aerospace and other markets.

Randy Dean, vice president of business and technology development at Mercury, said he also sees systems development projects moving forward. “You will start seeing announcements in the not-sodistant future about where it’s getting adopted,” he said.

One obstacle to broad adoption might be developing software sophisticated enough to take advantage of the Cell architecture. It is not a general-purpose processor, and existing software can’t easily work with Cell technology, Dean said.

IBM has created a software development kit around a series of Linux-based tools and is working with independent software vendors such as Gedae to develop tools for the Cell environment. Wind River is also developing a version of its real-time operating system for embedded systems to run on the technology.

The programming challenge of efficiently distributing code among multiple cores is hard enough, but the Cell architecture makes it even more challenging because of the specialization of the additional synergistic processing element cores, Lundgren said. Gedae provides a visual development environment for dragging and dropping blocks of code and assigning them to different cores, and it offers a specialized compilation system for distributing code in multicore environments, he added.

Lundgren said his developers have spent the past year working on a more automated way of addressing certain memory and data movement issues raised by the trade-offs IBM made in the design of the Cell chip. It is only one of the multicore environments Gedae addresses with its development tools, but it’s one that has generated a significant amount of interest, he added.

For example, European defense contractor Selex, which is using Gedae’s tools to develop software for the Eurofighter aircraft, has also retained the company to help assess Cell’s potential. Gedae is investigating other advanced multicore designs, such as the 64-core Tile64 chip from Tilera, a start-up company founded to exploit technologies developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

However, the Cell architecture has the advantage of already shipping in some readily available hardware, Lundgren said. “When I go on the road, I take a PlayStation with me, and I use it to build a pulse compression algorithm for radar in a 15- to 20-minute demo,” he said. “And if I wasn't distracted by having to talk while I did it, I could probably take care of it in a couple of minutes.”

So the PlayStation 3 might not be only a toy for much longer.

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