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I.B.M. Powers Business Computer With PlayStation Chip ! - 2/9/2006 5:57:55 AM   

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I.B.M. is betting on videogame technology to bring supercomputer-caliber visualization tools to its mainstream corporate market and to reduce the computing costs of daunting tasks like hunting for oil, discovering new drugs and exploring the human body.

I.B.M. today introduced server computers powered by microprocessors, using an innovative design called Cell, which was created first for videogames. A Cell chip is the processing engine for Sony's new PlayStation 3 videogame console, expected to go on sale later this year. I.B.M., Sony and Toshiba jointly developed the Cell technology.

The move by I.B.M. is an example of a reversal of the conventional trend of technology adoption. In the past, advanced technology was used first by large corporations and the Pentagon. Today, the consumer market often leads as the cost of computing continues to drop sharply.

The I.B.M. Cell server, analysts say, will likely be used first to reduce the cost of applications that now require processing massive amounts of data and presenting the results visually on a screen. Those applications include converting seismic data into simulated underground images to help petroleum companies look for oil and gas deposits; biological simulations to aid in understanding disease and suggest therapies; and fluid dynamics simulations to improve the aerodynamic design and reduce fuel consumption of jetliners.

The Cell technology, at least initially, is mostly suited for a fairly tailored set of tasks, unlike the broadly general-purpose microprocessors that power personal computers. The Cell chip will be best at what might be thought of as "multimedia physics," computing chores that depend on processing huge volumes of mathematical calculations, known as floating point operations, at lightning speed.

I.B.M. demonstrated two such applications at a gathering in New York today. One was to blend satellite photographs with geological data on landscape contours and elevation data. The result was to be able to do a simulated "flyover," shifting the perspective by moving a joystick, of Mount Rainier in Washington.

Another was to assemble multiple scans inside the body. Three-dimensional images that would have taken minutes or longer to render, even at hospital centers, were presented almost instantly with the Cell technology. Analysts said the Cell systems open the door to using real-time imaging technology during patient consultations or during surgery.

The Cell-based server computers will be available this summer. The machines, an I.B.M. official said, will be priced at $25,000 to $35,000, while full-fledged supercomputers can cost millions of dollars.

The Cell servers will run mostly on the Linux operating system, which is popular in high-performance computing. I.B.M. plans to make the Cell technology widely available to universities and software companies interested in developing applications that will run on Cell chips.

"We want to see how far we can take Cell technology beyond games, and the biggest challenge to making that work is the software tools for building new applications," said William M. Zeitler, senior vice president for I.B.M.'s systems and technology group.

Visualization can provide a picture of a massive amount of information, often enabling a human user to absorb and understand more information rapidly. That is the practical reason for applications from medical imaging for physicians to terrain mapping for fighter pilots.

Video games work on much the same principle. More and more of computing, according to I.B.M. researchers, may be presented visually to users in the future. "We're hoping that this gaming stuff will get us to the next level of user interfaces," said James A. Kahle, the chief technologist for Cell systems and an I.B.M. research fellow.

That may be only a hope today, but industry analysts say the Cell approach looks promising. "If you see the future of computing as "give me the answer now,' it favors something like Cell, a computer platform designed for photorealistic modeling," said Richard Doherty, president of Envisioneering, a technology research firm.

Source : NY Times
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