Sony, IBM, Toshiba to bring supercomputers home

Announcing their plans in Tokyo, the three companies committed to investing more than $US400 million into the scheme to produce a 1-teraflop-class consumer microprocessor over the next five years. An IBM facility in Austin, Texas, will serve as base for the ambitious research project, which aims to put as many as 300 engineers total from all three companies to work in getting the equivalent of a supercomputer on a single microchip.

To do this, the team will have to engineer the chip at sub-0.1 micron levels. In this type of chip manufacturing, the tracks and spaces in a chip can be made smaller than one-tenth of a micron. A micron is one one-thousandth of a millimetre. The smaller the tracks and spaces on a chip, the more components can be squeezed onto a chip and the more faster the chip can be. Current cutting-edge microchips are produced at 0.11-micron or 0.13-micron and commercial production at sub 0.1-micron levels has not been introduced yet.

Nevertheless, the partners are confident that they can achieve their goals. "If we were not confident, we wouldn't make the announcement," said Kenichi Sugiyama, a spokesman for Toshiba.

Pursuant to this goal, SCEI said Monday it has agreed to license 0.1 micron SOI (silicon on insulator) process technology from IBM for use in future broadband processors. The license will allow SCEI to build more advanced production lines in Japan for manufacturing microprocessors for its PlayStation series of games consoles and other future devices. Toshiba is already working on developing its own 0.1-micron process technology.

"Even though broadband is having some stumbling issues rolling out right now, we believe that four to five years from now, broadband is going to be ubiquitous," said Bill O'Leary, director of communications for IBM's Microelectronics Division. That division is handling the project for IBM.

Code name Cell

The new microprocessor has already been given a code name: Cell. The chip will be designed from the start to work on broadband networks and thus be able to function as part of a larger network of processors. The chip will function at supercomputer speeds, using broadband connections operating at far higher rates than are in common use today, employing the future broadband that O'Leary referred to.

The microprocessor will work as part of a system, and, given the girth of the three companies involved could wind up being used in millions of consumer products globally.

"Just as biological cells in the body unite to form complete physical structures, Cell-based products of all types will be more closely linked, making a network of systems act more as one, unified 'supersystem,' " said Ken Kutaragi, president and chief executive officer (CEO) of SCEI, in a statement.

"In the future, all devices will be linked by a broadband network so under the umbrella of broadband, a lot will be linked," Sugiyama said. "This processor is not just for the PlayStation but for all types of devices."

Besides being used in future gaming systems, the microprocessor is likely to be part of PDAs (personal digital assistants), Web phones "and a lot of other things that haven't been envisioned yet," O'Leary said. He declined to say specifically that the new chip will be part of Playstation 3, noting that it is up to Sony to make such announcements and decisions about the microprocessor's use.

The project with Sony and Toshiba extends the division's goal of supporting IBM's electronic-business strategy, he said.

According to a report published online Monday by The Wall Street Journal and quoting anonymous sources, the deal could be worth $US2 billion to $US3 billion in revenue over three years.

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