IBM Gives Mainframes More Than a Gaming Cell

IBM is working on what it jokingly calls a “Gameframe,” but you won’t find one of these on the shelf at the local Electronics Boutique or GameStop.

The company is working on a project to integrate its Cell Broadband Engine processor with its System z mainframes to create a hybrid computer that has the power of a mainframe with the 3D graphics capability of a PlayStation 3.

IBM  is doing the integration in conjunction with Hoplon Infotainment, a Brazilian online game company that is providing the gaming software used on the mainframes.

By marrying the two, IBM is providing a platform with the horsepower and stability mainframes have been known for but with something mainframes have not been known for: stunning 3D graphics.

The Cell is a derivative of IBM’s POWER processor, which is used in the System z. But the Cell has been specially designed for 3D gaming and is used in Sony’s PlayStation 3. Because of its highly scalar floating point design, the Cell processor has been considered as a potential chip to power supercomputers.

It’s already proving its mettle with the Folding@Home project at Stanford University, helping to take scientific simulations from a year to just a few weeks.

As David Gelardi, vice president of industry solutions for IBM, explains, “Cell is really, really good for rendering graphics and creating a 3D environment as would be typical of gaming. So the concept emerged that if we could tie a cluster of Cell processors directly to the innards of a mainframe, we could create a processor offload.”

The project will combine all of the computing tasks in an online world — a massive online virtual reality environment, 3D applications for mapping, enterprise resource planning and customer relationship management, 3D virtual stores and meeting rooms, collaboration environments and new types of data repositories — on one machine.

As Clay Ryder, president and chief analyst for The Sageza Group pointed out, to do something like this in the past required two different systems: one for the 3D world, and one for back-end systems like customer databases and billing.

“Mainframes are not designed for 3D graphics,” he told “They’re really meant for transaction processing. If you’ve got these engines handling 3D stuff, you could support a huge number of players off a single system. You wouldn’t put it in a living room for kids to play on, but you could put it in a hotel chain.”

Gelardi said that going forward, the System z/Cell combination could allow for a 3D shopping world where you see the product in greater detail. The transaction is all done smoothly on the mainframe’s transaction processing systems. “It’s not about gaming necessarily, although that’s a good start. It’s about enhancing the commerce experience in a virtual world,” he said

But it will be a while. Gelardi said it hopes to have something for Hoplon, its partner, by year end. A commercial offering won’t come out until next year. IBM hasn’t decided if it will make an upgrade for existing System z computers to add the Cell support option, or if it will require a new machine.

Application compatibility will be determined on how compliant the application is with a service oriented architecture . He said the more SOA-compliant, the easier it will be to adapt it to the 3D potential of Cell.

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