Mercury Computer pitches game processor for military use

Although now chiefly known as the next-generation chip that will power the Sony PlayStation, the Cell processor may pick up additional duties in the U.S. military. Defense embedded systems vendor Mercury Computer Systems Inc. has incorporated the processor in a number of new blade servers and embedded units.

The Chelmsford, Mass., company is confident that the Cell Broadband Engine, as it is properly known, cannot only replace existing signal-processing technologies, but also introduce real-time radar, sonar and signals intelligence processing into the battlefield itself.

The gaming machine processor 'is a glimpse of the future,' enthused Craig Lund, Mercury chief technology officer. 'It's a disruptive change.'

IBM Corp., Sony Corp. of Tokyo, and Toshiba Corp. of Tokyo led the alliance to create the Cell BE. They wanted to create a high-performance chip that could be used in digital media devices such as game consoles and interactive televisions. However, the processor's visual crunching abilities make it well-suited for other signal and image processing duties as well, particularly those tasks involving multiple floating-point calculations, Lund said.

The Cell is a multicore processor: One core is a IBM Power Architecture chip that orchestrates processing. It is tethered to eight digital signal processors by a bus that can carry 96 bytes per cycle. This basic unit is capable of 192 GFLOPs.

As the military increases its reliance on ground sensors and unmanned aerial vehicles, Cell-based systems could help digest all the data they produce, Lund said.

Such systems could digest multiple video streams simultaneously, while executing video stabilization, tiling, motion analysis, target tracking, change detection and video compression. Thanks to its relatively conservative power and space requirements, the Cell can execute such tasks in tactical ground station or even mobile deployments, Lund said.

'Cell fits enough computation into a small space that it becomes practical to put in vehicles. You can take algorithms that might have been historically [computed remotely] from the battlefield'such as advance target recognition'and actually put them in the theater of battle,' Lund said.

Mercury has packaged the Cell into a number of offerings, making it the first vendor to commercially offer the processor to end users. The PowerBlock 200 packages a Cell processor in a ruggedized military Automatic Target Recognition package, offering 200 GFLOPs of performance. Turismo is a modular unit that could be added to a workstation, offering up to 4 Cell processors and a performance rate of 25 TFLOPs. Mercury also offers a Blade server with two 3-GHz Cell processors.

Like any new technology, the Cell BE will require some new skills to operate. Since it is a multicore processor, experience in parallel programming would be needed to get the full benefit from the hardware'and such experience is now in short supply. Mercury itself has developed an expertise in this area, particularly with what Lund called 'hard-concurrency' problems, or those tasks that involve using more than one processor to speed up a single process. (The company also builds embedded systems using Field Programmable Gate Arrays and Graphical Processor Units.)

Mercury has also started a training program to help software developers work with the Cell BE. The training program offers an overview of the processor and associated development tools. Mercury offers the classes in house as well as on site.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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