The Cell Processor – Where’s The Beef?

The amount of hot air blowing about on the subject of the Cell Processor is incredible. To echo Walter Mondale: “Where’s the Beef?”

(As an aside, that’s got to be one of my favorite Simpsons quotes, one where Homer suddenly has a deep and inexplicable knowedge of the ins and outs of the 1984 democratic primaries:

Marge: I saved this newspaper from the day Lisa was born.
Lisa: “Mondale to Hart: [confused] Where’s the beef?”
Bart: “Where’s the beef?” What the hell that’s supposed to mean?
Homer: Heh heh heh heh heh. “Where’s the beef”…No wonder he won


OK, so the Cell Processor is in the Playstation 3. We all know that.

OK, so the Los Alamos’ Roadrunner supercomputer was announced as the first cell-accelerated supercomputer. A lot of us will know that. A question for anyone out there though: Where are the double-precision SPE cell processors at? Because they sure as hell aren’t in the real system yet. By real system, I mean the one that exists in the data center, and not in press releases. You’ll notice that they’ve not yet passed through the ominous-sounding “Phase 2”. Phase 2 is a technology refresh and assessment of the final system. So by the sounds of it, despite the press releases, they’re still not committed to having Cells in the final system at all.

So despite all the hype, I want to ask the cell: what have you done for me lately? What is really going on, and is anyone really doing anything with this thing. I mean, really. At this point I’d like to invite PS3 fanboys not to comment. Your comments will not appear. No-one wants to hear about Folding @ Home. I’m not about to try to argue on the merits or otherwise of the Cell’s compute architecture, or its performance potential. I want to axe you this: Is it viable commercially?

If you want to use a cell processor for accelerated computing you have two options:

1. Muck around with a PS3, or

2. Buy a proper cell compute board from Mercury/IBM.

1. is fine if all you want to do is evaluate the technology, but it’s not going to do the job for any system that has serious memory capacity, bandwidth, latency needs.

So, if you’re doing serious compute work with Cell, you’ll need to get one of Mercury/IBM products. Mercury have a couple of Bladecenter blades and a PCI Express compute card. IBM have the Qs20 blade. The obvious similarities to the Mercury stuff, this press release and this forum post lead me to the conclusion that all non-PS3 products using the cell on the market are being sold by Mercury (though IBM may be taking a share in some revenues).

Now, I haven’t even bothered to try fishing through IBMs SEC filings to try to find the Cell revenues. I don’t think I’ll find them, big companies don’t work that way. They don’t have to go into that level of detail, so they usually don’t.

Mercury on the other hand have been surprisingly candid in their latest 10-Q. Fishing through it I’ve pulled out Cell revenues and R&D costs for the quarter ended March 31st 2007. Because Cell revenues made up 10% of revenues, I’m assuming that they also made up 10% of revenue cost and operating expenses for which no specific “Cell” references were made in the 10-Q. I think this is fair, if anything it might well put costs and expenses lower than they are in reality. So for the cell, for the quarter ended March 31st 2007, we have:

Revenues: $5.6m

Cost of Revenues: $2.5m (est’d)

Gross Profit: $3.1m

Operating Expenses:

Selling, General & Administrative: $2.1m (est’d)

R&D: $5.3m

Other Costs: $0.2m

Net Profit: -$4.5m

So if my logic holds, all general-purpose cell processor revenues, outside of PS3 sales added up to little more than a measly $5.6m, and those revenues led to a whopping $4.5m loss.

I can’t split the figures for the cell out because they’ve not filed the 10-Q yet, but the bottom-line results for the most recent quarter, show that things haven’t improved at Mercury in the last quarter.

So, if the Cell is all that, then why aren’t Mercury making money from it?


1 Comment »

  1. anon said

    hmm – very valid points.
    My impression is, that the price-sensitivity in HPC has actually killed off nearly all non-commodity/non-x86 based archs approaches.
    I’ve never looked at Cell programming, but if you cannot develop/debug stuff on your workstation – and just later submit a job on a larger cluster – things will not fly. – that’s the problem of Cell IMHO.
    (and of those “massive FPGA blah blah”)
    With GPUs – you can have one in your workstation to develop/debug at a reasonable price – that’s why it will fly some miles …

    If you cannot buy your “HPC gear” from Dell – it has no chance – on price in the long run.
    Regardless what huge market HPC is, the volume to bring the prices down – are those markets, where Dell/HP/IBM sells 99.9% of their gear.
    If your technology exceeds the price of the basic node – tough luck.

    In the opposite this also means, that as long as your junk is cheap enough (see GPUs) – a lot of people are willing to give it a try – even with the most awkward/broken ide/toolchain.

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