Sony Takes PlayStation 2 to the Grid

By Thor Olavsrud

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Gearing up to take on Xbox Live, Sony Computer Entertainment Thursday partnered with IBM and gaming grid pioneer Butterfly.net to bring the power of grid computing to its PlayStation 2 customers' online gaming experiences.

The three have created the Butterfly Grid for PlayStation 2, and plan to unveil it at the annual Game Developer's Conference in San Jose next week. The grid, hosted by IBM and powered by IBM Dual Xeon Blade Servers running on Linux, links together multiple servers to create a virtual supercomputer which can seamlessly shift processing tasks between individual machines.

In this way, Butterfly's grid can provide online games with the sort of processing power that previously has only been available to scientific and medical research projects. This gives the grid the ability to deliver online gaming to millions of concurrent users, while allowing individual game developers to scale resources to demand. It also makes server interaction seamless and transparent to the user, creating an extremely resilient infrastructure in which servers can be added or replaced on-the-fly without interrupting game play.

This is a departure from the current way of hosting online games, in which players are segmented onto separate servers which limit their interactions while also creating reliability and support headaches for the game developers.

"We've enjoyed very rapid progress and outstanding performance while developing and testing VibeForce on the Butterfly Grid," said Curt Benefield, chief executive officer of Sherman3D, a video game developer with offices in Malaysia and the U.S. "The grid has allowed us to build the bulk of our game logic, our motion models and our artificial intelligence systems with familiar tools and standard interfaces. Our engineers can get close to the metal on the client, the servers and over the network to bring the action-backed, richly-rewarding console experience online."

The Butterfly Grid is built on the Open Grid Services Architecture (OGSA) standard, and uses OGSA-compliant software to monitor the processing load on the Xeon BladeCenters, which are populated with 14 dual-Xeon processors. When the grid determines there are too many players connected to a particular server, it automatically reconfigures the underutilized blades to support the most popular game-play and seamlessly transfers players to those blades.

The grid utilizes IBM's WebSphere and DB2 software, along with Butterfly.net's game servers, gateways, networking software and artificial intelligence systems to provide an integrated platform for online game development, deployment and operation.

Unlike Microsoft's Xbox Live, in which Microsoft is the central hub for all online games developed for its Xbox console, Sony does not serve as the gatekeeper for the PlayStation 2 Grid. Instead, individual game developers register with Butterfly, and receive a software development kit (SDK) which includes sample games, client libraries, server software, documentation and technical support.

To reach the grid, the model depends on service providers, who use Butterfly's XML-based Game Configuration Specification to extend the grid out to the edge of the network, creating the opportunity for dedicated gaming services and networks which offer voice communications and single sign-on across multiple titles. This, in turn, allows those service providers to create subscription-based revenue streams.

In fact, Butterfly CEO David Levine said in November 2002 that he believes the service providers will evolve to become like cable MSOs, which offer packages of games to subscribers much like the MSOs offer premium cable channels.

"Today, 20 percent to 30 percent of their network traffic (cable providers and DSL providers) is gamer-generated, but they don't make anything on the games," Levine said. "Yet they pay for the high-dollar circuits to Qwest, Level 3, etc., and pass the traffic on to centralized hosting centers run by the publishers. The publishers then pay for high-dollar access through AT&T, Qwest, etc. So the long-haul carriers (IXCs) are making all the money. I see a whole new infrastructure evolving (which we're working on in the Global Grid Forum with IBM, Cisco, Samsung, etc.), where game traffic can be passed to the appropriate server on any network, and the service providers can bill the publisher for utilized computing capacity. The publishers and service providers will work out interesting marketing deals for regional promotion of games."