Brazilian Game Site Chooses Hybrid Mainframe-Cell Platform
Published: May 8, 2007
by Timothy Prickett Morgan
When people think of multiuser games, they are rarely thinking about mainframes. But if you stop to think about it for a second, the workload management and high bandwidth capabilities of the mainframe would make it ideally suited to simulated worlds if the machine only had some serious number-crunching power to bring to bear on the visual simulation of the virtual worlds in a game. Apparently that's exactly what Hoplon International, a Brazilian online video game company, was thinking when it hired IBM to create a new gaming platform.
Hoplon is now beta testing Taikodom, an massively multiuser online game that simulates epic space battles, and has hired IBM to get it off of the X64 iron the company had been using to host Taikodom and to help it create a more powerful and resilient system that will be able to do a better job hosting the game when it eventually goes live. That hybrid system will include IBM's System z9 Business Class (BC) mainframes acting as the transaction processing and host environment for the game, to which will be clustered blade servers using the "Cell" PowerPC gaming processor that Big Blue created in conjunction with Sony and Toshiba.
While there are a number of systems on the market that have as much memory and I/O bandwidth as a System z9 mainframe, these RISC/Unix systems--even those from IBM itself--do not have the same level of security or the sophisticated partitioning and workload management software that that the mainframe has. And because the mainframe can run online transaction processing systems in DB2 and on z/OS partitions side-by-side with Linux partitions that run the Taikodom simulation, Hoplon does not have to manage two different kinds of systems or cluster them in any way to get the two sides to share data. Everything is consolidated on the same System z9 platform, and the machine can be run at nearly full processor capacity without falling over dead--unlike X64 servers, which rarely run at peak capacity.
According to IBM, Hoplon will initially use the QS20 Cell-based blade server for its BladeCenter chassis and network it to the System z9 BC mainframes that host Taikodom using high-speed external network switches. But over the long haul, IBM will deliver a Cell-based PCI peripheral card (very likely an x8 PCI-Express card, if I was going to guess) that plugs right into a slot on the mainframe and is more tightly coupled to it.
This approach is, of course, reminiscent of the strategy IBM took in the late 1980s and early 1990s, before it had launched the RS/6000 PowerParallel parallel supercomputers using its Power processors. Back then, Cray was making a ton of money selling vector supercomputers to governments, research labs, and companies that needed high-end simulations such as the oil and gas exploration, automobile manufacturing, and aerospace industries. To combat Cray, IBM developed a series of vector co-processors for the System/3090 mainframes that made them a credible alternative to a Cray supercomputer. By adding the Cell chip to the mainframe complex, IBM is doing exactly the same thing again, albeit in a different form and with processors that are considerably more powerful than those from two decades ago. The z9 processors have lots of oomph these days, and the Cell chip, with its PowerPC core and eight special-purpose vector math units, make a much more potent combination.
Hoplon has developed its own virtual world simulation middleware called bitVerse, and luckily for IBM, this middleware was written to run in Linux. Because both the System z9 and the Cell processor support Linux, bitVerse can be deployed across a hybrid mainframe-Cell architecture without too much tweaking. The bitVerse gaming software will be deployed atop Linux and will interface with the outside would through IBM's own WebSphere XD software for the mainframe. And, of course, DB2 will be used as the data store for user accounts and simulation files for the Taikodom game. IBM and Hoplon have already created the programming model for this hybrid system and the message architecture for passing information between the mainframe engines running Linux and the Cell blades running Linux.
Hoplon hopes to make money in a number of different ways on games like Taikodom, including selling subscriptions to games on a recurring or one-off basis as well as selling contextual advertising space and branding and product placement opportunities within the games themselves based on user profiles and areas within the virtual worlds that Hoplon creates. The company is also pondering creating virtual worlds where people can live out a virtual life instead of trying to protect their simulated planet from attacks by aliens.
The current version of Taikodom is the second iteration of Hoplon's code, which is only available in Portuguese right now. But the game will be available soon in English, and almost certainly followed by other languages. If Taikodom grows in popularity, it could turn out that this little gaming company in Brazil ends up with one of the largest mainframe complexes and one of the most powerful supercomputer clusters in the world.
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