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Thoughts about IBM’s PowerPC

December 27, 2005 on 6:03 am | In Technology | No Comments

Is anybody noticing how IBMs PowerPC architecture is catching on the market?

The usual market for the PowerPC (PPC) architecture was usually high end IBM servers, and those “few” Macs sold by Apple, but now the picture is changing, and we see more and more PowerPC devices coming to the market.

First, take a look at the upcoming Play Station 3 Cell processor. Its based on a PPC core to power its general rocessing requirements. True that the cell processor is being advertised as as an IBM, Sony, and Toshiba, but if you look really closely you will see that IBM’s contribution in the design is more or less limited to the PPC core that the Cell processor is based on. Now, if you look really close at the Cell processor project, you will see that its a win-win situation for IBM. First, the got a good amount of money from Sony and Toshiba for licensing their PPC arcitecture. Then, Sony paid IBM a nice $600M to expand their FishKill fab, which will be the main fab that manufactures the Cell processors powering the upcoming PS3. So, in the end, whether the Cell processor is a financial success for Sony and Toshiba or not, IBM is on the safe side here. They already got paid for making extra room in their fab to make the Cell, so they arent sacrificing any production capacity to make the Cell, which could have affected IBMs contracts with its other clients, and they will get a new good base of developers who will be getting their hands on developing new code targeted to the new PPC based Cell architecture, whether that is in the form of games for the PS3, or for any other devices built around the new Cell platform.

Now, lets take a look at the other rival of Sony’s PS3, namely Microsoft’s Xbox 360, which has migrated from Intel’s x86 based architecture (used for the original Xbox) to IBM’s PPC architecture, and what a move that was. Microsoft convinced IBM to make them a nice custom tripple core PPC based chip running at an even nicer 3.2GHz. Its still to be seen if IBM will use that custom chip, dubbed Xenon, to make other products, namely servers and probably even some workstations, but the point is like the PS3, the Xbox 360 will too get a good deal of developers to work on the PPC architecture and write new code, new libraries, and get familiar with this nice, efficient, and often left in the shadows architecture.

Finally, in the summer of 2006, we should see the debut of a new processor, a new computing platform coming from a new player in the buisness, but nevertheless based on a not so new processing architecture. Of course, I am talking about none other than PA Semi’s PWRficient not so “embedded platform”. I say not so embedded because while the upcoming chip does fit as an embedded platform in terms of power consumption and high level of integration, its desn’t really feel like your average embedded processing platform when it comes to performance. Again, this new piece of silicon will be based on a couple of PPC cores running at a nice 2GHz clock speed, and carrying an even nicer 2MB cache. I already went into some depth about the design specifics of the PWRficient, so I wont delve into that here, other than to note the power envelope at which the upcoming chip will run. The designers estimate the chip to have a mere 13W TDP. Now just think about having one of those powering a notebook. This piece of silicon will be capable of beating the best offering from Intel, AMD, and any other company i terms of processing power and power consumption. When you consider the level of integration of the chip which translates in a highly reduced bill of components, which translates into even more savings in the price tag, and much less total power consuption from the whole device, the PWRficient gets even more attractive. The only hardle that needs to be overcome is getting a nice OS to run on top of such a notebook (actually, its not so much of a hardle if you think of Linux). It would be really nice to see a a Mac OS version targetted at the PWRficient (if his Jobliness agrees to make a “port” of the Mac OS targetted at this platform). Such a notebook could easily get 6-8hrs when paired with your average 60-70W notebook battery. Now that is what I call a true mobile platform.

Another very good use of the PWRficient platform is in the blade server sement, where a large number of PWRficient based servers could be squeezed into a very small volumes thanks to the high level of integration and low power consumption figures of this chip. It wouldn’t be so hard to design a rather capable server that consumes under 50W of power under full load.

So, at the end of the day, we see more and more companies moving to the PowerPC platform. If this trend continues, this arcitecture may be the most serious contender to the dominance of the x86 architecture in the not so far future. Maybe Steve Jobs did have a vision that was ahead of his time back when he switched from Motorola’s 680×0 to the PPC back in the 90s (or maybe not, as he is dumping PPC in favor of Intel’s x86 processors now).

First build of my Linux router

December 14, 2005 on 6:39 am | In Linux | 2 Comments

I have built a new linux router mini-distro/project that fits into a 16MB compact flash card. To read more about this click HERE.

What can an Xbox 360 running Linux do?

December 5, 2005 on 2:00 am | In Linux | 1 Comment

I wonder how long, we will have to wait until the Xbox 360 is hacked, and some form of Linux port is run on this machine. Itís just a matter of time until someone figures out a way to hack the Xbox 360 protection, and figures out a way to get Linux up and running on this gaming console. We may even get a whole Linux distribution targeted at the Xbox 360.

While the Xbox 360 is sold as a gaming console, under the hood, it packs a lot of processing power that is on par with a powerful server that costs about 30 times the price of this $299 console. Its true that a server costing $10,000 will pack much more RAM, a hell lot more storage space, and be designed from the ground up for reliability and 24/7 availability, but I will bet that the Xbox 360 with its IBM powered triple cores running at 3.2GHz will give a lot of those servers a run for their money when it comes to processing power, even though it only runs on 512MB of RAM.

If we look a little closer at game consoles, while they may not be designed by the same high standards as the server market products, they are still designed with enough robustness to tolerate extremely long operation hours. Think of 12+ hours a day. Generally speaking, your average piece of hardware reaches thermal equilibrium about after 20 minutes of operation. If any component wants to fail, it will fail not so long after that, mostly due to thermal stress. Gaming consoles are generally manufactured with pretty high standards, probably even higher than many brand name computers which cost a lot more. In fact, gaming consoles are designed to tolerate a lot more abuse, require minimum to no maintenance, and survive a longer life cycle than your average PC. After all, no one will buy a console that fails after a few months of hard core gaming.

Personally, I think that the Xbox 360 makes for a better and more practical hardware platform than the Play Station 3 will make. This is mainly due to the choice of processing platform that each console uses. While both will be powered by an IBM made chip, the Cell processor on the PS3 with its 8 SPEs (Synergic Processing Elements) and one general purpose processing core is a much harder platform to work with, and being a new idea, we will have to wait to see how well this combination performs. On the other hand, the Xbox 360 is powered by three general purpose processing cores, which is very similar to having a regular computer with three processors installed (take a look at this article from Tom’s Hardware) is relatively easy to deal with when developing new code or when porting applications from other architectures, or platforms.

Think of having an Xbox 360 running Linux with three 500GB drives attached through USB 2.0 running in a software RAID 5 configuration, for a redundant 1TB of storage, protecting your network from all the evils on the internet, converting all those music tracks you have, compressing all that vacation footage for DVD burning, acting as a centralized repository for all those files you have, storing all those backup images of all your home boxes, acting as your home asterisk VOIP PBX, while folding all those proteins, all while playing that DVD you want to watch on your TV without dropping a single frame.

Some may argue that the Xbox 360 processor beast may be limited by its not so impressive 512MB of RAM, which is not upgradeable (at least not as far as I know), but I think this is more than compensated for by its blazing fast memory interface running at 700MHz DDR, delivering a stunning 22.4GB per second of data for the IBM CPU to work with. This fast memory interface reduces the impact of having a large cache on the CPU because it greatly reduces the penalty of a cache miss on the CPU.

Considering that Linux and Linux applications and services arenít as memory intensive as Windows, 512MB may turn to be plenty of memory to work with. There are a lot of examples on the net of people running a hell lot of servers on an old box with 128MB or less RAM on an old 200MHz Pentium box, and never complaining of lack responsiveness.

If we look at the majority of applications and services that users run on their home computers such as media encoding, watching DVDs, listening to music, and others, they arenít bound by the amount of RAM available, but rather by the speed of your storage sub-system, and the amount of processing power available. This is where the Xbox 360 shines. In theory, the three cores on the Xbox 360 processor can run up to 6 threads concurrently. At 3.2GHz per core, and factoring in how efficient the PowerPC architecture is, and you get an idea of how much stuff you could do with a hacked Xbox 360 running Linux.

So, what can the Xbox 360 do with Linux on board? A hell lot.

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