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Sony vs. Microsoft - the mighty sword of Unix

Link: PS3 to Support Unix Based Operating Systems.

That amused me. Sony's PS3 competes with Microsoft's Xbox, but that's not the only place the two are bumping heads: Sony is trying to prevent Microsoft from dominating Digital Rights Management. So blowing a raspberry at Bill and the boys with Unix on PS3 is a pretty small part of this sumo wrestling match.

An Xbox can run Linux, but I was curious about the reference to Mac OS X for the PS3. It would seem that Apple's move to Intel stops that idea dead in its tracks, but who knows?

Oh well: I don't have an Xbox or a PS3 and aren't likely to be getting either. As I've aged, I've lost interest in gaming. I guess there's just too much else to do. Maybe Sony will release a "Dark Warlords of the Net" game with a heroic Johnny Appleseed and his penguin sidekick battling a nasty corporation.. oh, wait, we're playing that game in real life, aren't we?



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© Tony Lawrence







Thu Sep 22 09:04:36 2005: 1108   anonymous


Sony released a version of Linux for PS2 also.. but it was plagued as a japan-only (originally) option and required special bootloader and hardware kit to go along with it. Demand made it available state-side by it was never really hacker-friendly enough and not available in enough numbers to make it much more then a curiosity.

Xbox was interesting thing. Microsoft time and time again actively setup new ways to block Linux being installed on the stupid thing. Unlike PS2, which was a unique MIPS-based architecture that Sony designed specifically for the game market (called the "emotion engine"), Xbox is just your run-of-the-mill 733MHz celeron PC stuffed into a (not so) small box. Hell even the Xbox controllers used just standard USB interface.. they just used a proprietary plug. You can literally cut the end off of it and soldier on a regular USB end and plug it into any modern Linux box and have it work.

Trying to make it mod-proof was like waving a red flag in front of a bull when it comes to hardware/Linux geeks.

The PS3 should make a interesting Linux computer to say the least. A Sony VP or maybe the CEO or something like that came out point-blank and said in a interview that they were going to release Linux pre-installed on every hard drive add-on kit they sell for the PS3... but article I read said the guy had a long history of heavy overstatement.

The PS3's "Cell processor" is very unique. It consists of a chip with 8 "SPE" cores and one general purpose core (although I think that Sony's version will only use 7 of the spe cores.). It was developed thru a joint partnership with IBM, Sony, and Toshiba. It's designed specifically for multimedia work in the current incarnation, but there is nothing stopping IBM and friends from modifying it to suite different purposes.

The general purpose core is a PowerPC-compatible cpu core with Altivec extensions. It's compatible with the IBM "POWER" arch so that any code compiled to run on a regular power machine such as a Apple Ibook will work, although it's mainly 64bit, I believe. To keep the core small it's missing much of the logic to make it run code very fast, but it will be minimally compatible.

The 7 SPEs in the PS3's cell are very-'RISC' cpus. People like to compare them to DSP or Vector based CPUs, and they are optimized to run 32bit floating-point code the fastest, but they can run most anything quickly including things like regular integer datatypes.

Thing is that they are not anywhere near compatible with any existing architecture and don't have any sort of path predicting logic or anything like that. They just are their own thing.

And there are other technical details way over my head like a unique on-chip memory architecture based around rambus ram (fastest ram available commercially). Stuff like that.

The end result is that it's very easy to port existing Linux code a programs over to it because of the powerpc/altivec compatibility, but due to the simplistic general purpose core, even when it's running at it's 3.2ghz speed, really won't be that much faster then something like a G4 processor. (it also supports IBM's version of 'hyper-threading' so that you see two logical cpus) In order to get the most out of the hardware you'd have to specifically program multi-threaded programs or use specially programmed libraries that utilize the SPEs directly. When that happens the cell should be much faster then any currently available single or dual core cpus. Much faster, especially at floating point.

The trouble is that in order to do that it would take some fantastic programming.

Right now IBM now has Linux and GCC compiler ported over completely to the Cell arch. It still is mostly PowerPC code, of course, but the SPEs are currently made available in Linux for programs that are specifically designed to use them. There are also efforts by IBM to allow GCC 'autovectorize' normal single-threaded code to use the SPE's in a limited fashion. IBM has pored lots of R&D into the GCC for this and the framework to make this sort of thing possible, making GCC suitable for future many-multicore cpus, was one of the major reasons behind the release of the GCC 4.x branch.

Right now IBM has demo Linux Cell-based blade servers that they are using for internal development, but they have no plans on releasing Cell workstations or anything like. Future marketing pushes will more then likely be just for scientific computing were you have clusters and lots of custom programming suitable for something as weird as the Cell.

I'd probably end up buying a PS3, especially if Sony releases a Linux add-on hard drive for it. One of the major marketing pushes that Sony wants to do with the PS3 is turn it into the 'family computer' or entertainment center. They'll have a few versions, like a regular gaming version, and then a entertainment center with all the add-on goodies for quite a bit more expensive. This sort of thing would probably be targeted at Japan much more then the US. So it's pretty likely that they will have a Linux version for it... but I am not certain if it will ever really leak over to the US.

Still though for 300-400 dollars it would make a great little desktop computer. And since Apple is dropping the PowerPC system itself in favor of Intel machines this is probably going to be the last fast non-x86 computer (or at least PowerPC) available to the general public that you'd be able to use for general computing at a reasonable price.

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