PS3 Chip to Give Mainframes Second Life

IBM is working to turn its System z mainframe computer into an online 3-D gaming platform.

The idea is to merge the massive transaction and account-based scalability of the mainframe with the graphics power of the PlayStation 3, ultimately letting an organization create and run a virtual online environment like “World of Warcraft” or “Second Life,” all on one easy-to-manage and easy-to-scale unit.

The Cell’s Secret

The PlayStation 3 uses the Cell Broadband Engine (Cell/B.E.), which was jointly developed by IBM, Sony and Toshiba.

The Cell/B.E. is a hybrid processor that uses a central core with eight “synergistic processing elements” that focus on specific kinds of computations.

The nature of the Cell/B.E. processor falls in line with IBM’s System z mainframes, which are capable of running multiple operating systems via multiple processors, in addition to the ability to shuffle workloads to specialty processors that, for example, focus on processing Java or Linux-based workloads.

The addition of the Cell/B.E. would likely function in a similar way, handling graphics-intensive computations. In addition to the Cell/B.E.’s ability to render complex graphical environments, the IBM System z mainframe can handle massive numbers of users and accounts.

“As online environments increasingly incorporate aspects of virtual reality — including 3-D graphics and lifelike, real-time interaction among many simultaneous users — companies of all types will need a computing platform that can handle a broad spectrum of demanding performance and security requirements,” said Jim Stallings, general manager of IBM’s System z division. “To serve this market, the Cell/B.E. processor is the perfect complement to the mainframe, the only server designed to handle millions of simultaneous users.”

Entering the Virtual Game World

IBM is working with Hoplon Infotainment, a Brazillian online game company. Hoplon makes middleware for virtual worlds, called bitVerse, which is currently under development using IBM WebSphere XD as the underlying runtime environment, along with IBM’s DB2 database.

“Hoplon runs one of these massively parallel multiplayer game environments, and they switched their entire server environment over to an IBM mainframe infrastructure,” Charles King, principal analyst for Pund-IT, told TechNewsWorld.

“The interesting thing about it — because of the way you can dial up or dial down the number of virtual Linux servers on an IBM mainframe — is that it lets the company basically create as many servers as they need to to support any number of players online and to basically eliminate those virtual servers when those players are offline,” he added.

Working Together

IBM and Hoplon are currently porting Hoplon software to the Cell/B.E. to handle message passing and physics simulation, IBM reports. The companies have already created a programming model and messaging architecture that separates the application running on the system.

By splitting the processing workloads, the mainframe will let companies process account and billing-related logistics, for instance, while simultaneously processing the virtual 3-D environments. The new machine would theoretically — it’s not ready for real-world use yet — allow a company to deliver an online 3-D gaming environment with less risk. One would not, for example, have to create or maintain a massive server farm.

“With the mainframe, a company can really dynamically support as many customers as they have at any one time. Compared to the hundreds or thousands of x86 servers a lot of companies use for this type of environment, you would be able to do it in a much more cost- and energy-efficient kind of way,” King explained.

Scratching the Surface

“If you take a look at the success of say, ‘World of Warcraft,’ which leverages many of the same technologies and is a hugely successful business operation, I think the potential for games like that — the surface is just being scratched right now,” King said. “I think we’re at the beginning of what might be a big and potentially lucrative market for online gaming.”

In addition, commercial businesses are opening storefronts in “Second Life.” Customers or potential customers can enter the online realm and evaluate or buy products. Architectural firms, for instance, are using “Second Life” to let customers do virtual walkthroughs. Imagination, it seems, is the only limit for creating virtual solutions for real products.

“IBM could be entering the market at an opportune time,” King noted.

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