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IBM on Thursday said it is building a specialized version of the mainframe that would incorporate the Cell processor used in Sony's PlayStation 3 video game console. The new computer is designed to power 3-D virtual environments for online gaming, business collaboration, mapping, and other applications requiring intensive data processing.
The project, which includes the help of Brazilian online game company Hoplon Infotainment, is meant to develop a new, and potentially lucrative, use for the mainframe, which has traditionally been used in banking, manufacturing, and other industries that need to process hundreds, if not thousands, of transactions a second.
The mainframe is an ideal platform for virtual environments, particularly online gaming, because of its ability to run multiple processors for computing-intensive applications, while also handling millions of simultaneous users, according to IBM. "As online environments increasingly incorporate aspects of virtual reality -- including 3-D graphics and lifelike, meaningful 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," Jim Stallings, general manager for IBM System z, said in a statement.
By running Cell processors, along with up to 336 RISC processors, the mainframe can parcel the workload to deliver higher computing performance for companies building virtual worlds similar to the popular Second Life online video game. Second Life also has grown into a place for virtual retail stores, and many large corporations, such as IBM, have set up shop there.
Hoplon's middleware for virtual environments, called BitVerse, is being developed as part of the runtime environment that will be based on IBM's WebSphere XD application server, and DB2 database. The mainframe will run the administrative tasks for the middleware and applications, logistics, such as billing, and connectivity to multiple clients, such as PCs, consoles, and mobile phones.
The mainframe's advantage in handling millions of simultaneous users is in its ability to run several hundred virtual servers in a single machine, an architecture that offers better performance than the traditional method of using cable-connected physical servers, IBM said. The mainframe has been tested to run as many as 9,445 business transactions per second. In addition, the mainframe also provides security.
The Cell processor, developed by IBM, Sony, and Toshiba, would handle the complex simulation tasks associated with operating virtual worlds, such as making a ball follow the laws of gravity. The Cell is unique in that it comprises a core chip and eight additional processors that handle specific tasks.
IBM believes the Cell-mainframe integration will produce a competitive platform for online virtual reality environments, 3-D applications for mapping, 3-D virtual stores and meeting rooms, and new types of data repositories. In addition, the platform could deliver new capabilities for enterprise resource planning and customer relationship management systems.
IBM has seen a resurgence in interest in the mainframe, which was viewed for years as old proprietary technology that was too inflexible for use on the Internet. In 2006, mainframe revenue overall grew by 3.9% over 2005, the strongest increase of any server segment, according to Gartner. IBM led the market in revenue, increasing sales by1.7% to $16.9 billion. Driving the increase was a 10.3% growth in System z shipments. System z is IBM's mainframe server.