Grid computing: It’s not just for scientific or biomedical research anymore.
and Shepherdstown, W.V.-based Butterfly.net Inc. are aiming to revolutionize online video gaming by
moving it to a grid, which can support any connected device, from PCs and handhelds to dedicated video game consoles.
The video gaming market is an attractive target: millions of dedicated game console platforms are already in homes worldwide, and
together with the PC gaming market form a multi-billion dollar industry that has already surpassed Hollywood in terms of revenues.
The online gaming market is currently only a small percentage of that industry, though it is growing. The Korean massively
multi-player online roleplaying game (MMORPG) Lineage boasts more than 2.5 million subscribers, and Everquest, which is notorious
for players who use online auction sites to sell characters and equipment from the game world, is reported to have a virtual economy
that makes its setting the 77th largest economy in the world. In his paper, Virtual Worlds: A First-Hand Account of Market and Society on the
Cyberian Frontier, Professor Edward Castronova, from California State University at Fullerton, calculated the numbers and found
that Everquest’s kingdom, Norrath, has a gross national product per capita of $2,266, making its economy larger than either the
Chinese or Indian economy and roughly comparable to Russia’s economy.
MMORPG customers buy the software to run the game and then pay a monthly subscription fee of between $10 and $15 to play.
Online video gaming is also likely to get a boost this fall, when Sony and Microsoft are scheduled to unveil Internet connection
services for their respective PlayStation 2 and Xbox consoles, opening the gates for the growth of online action, strategy,
simulation and adventure games in addition to MMORPGs.
But online gaming faces hurdles. They are very complex to create, manage and play. They are also very expensive to operate, because
the video game publisher must invest in new systems for each new game that is launched. Also, they are often taken offline for hours
at a time for server maintenance. Current technology also forces game providers to segment players onto separate servers or
“shards,” limiting interaction and exacerbating reliability and support problems by making it difficult or impossible for customers
to migrate to another server during downtime.
According to IBM, the grid will change all that.
“The Butterfly Grid is the first grid system with the capability of processing online video games across a multicast network of
server farms, allowing the most efficient utilization of computing resources for high-performance 3D immersive game-worlds,” said
Scott Penberthy, vice-president of Business Development, IBM Global Services. “We believe the Butterfly Grid is a breakthrough
platform that will help entertainment, media and game companies reduce costs and better deploy their entertainment properties
IBM is no stranger to the nascent grid technology, which allows geographically disparate organizations to share applications, data
and computing resources. IBM is one of the driving forces behind the development of grid computing specifications, and is
already in the process of building a number of grids, including a teragrid at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications
and the National Science Foundation. It also helping the Department of Energy to build a science grid.
The grid it is building with Butterfly is powered by rack-mounted Linux-based IBM eServer xSeries systems hosted by IBM and running
on internal fiber-optic networks. It is designed to support more than one million simultaneous players from each facility with
99.999 percent uptime and automatic failover capability.
The grid also eliminates the separation of a game world into shards, through the use of “cross-server sentinels” which Butterfly
said support the interaction of millions of players in one world, with server boundaries invisible to players.
Butterfly also said the grid would allow game publishers to allocate resources to more popular games, launch new games with less
risk, and offer flexible subscription plans. The grid uses a packet-transport protocol which Butterfly said allows for fast,
balanced game-play over broadband, dial-up and mobile Internet connections.
Additionally, the grid features hot-swappable components, meaning that games never need to be taken offline for patches and
To access the grid to support their products, video game providers can include the Butterfly Grid client software libraries in the
games they distribute. The software libraries, together with sample code for connecting mobile devices, PCs and video game consoles
to the grid, are available at Butterfly’s Web site.
Butterfly and IBM built the grid over the past two years, and plan to demonstrate the system at the Electronic Entertainment Expo
(E3) in Los Angeles on May 21.