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Gaming

PlayStation 2 taps into grid computing

IBM-backed Butterfly.net is ready to start hosting online games for Sony's market-leading console.

Butterfly.net, an IBM-backed company using supercomputing technology to run online games, is set to announce Thursday that it will begin supporting Sony's PlayStation 2 console.

Butterfly was formed last year to tackle the growing logistical challenges behind hosting online games, which can have tens of thousands of concurrent players and require hundreds of servers. Butterfly uses a "grid computing" approach, in which multiple servers work together as a virtual supercomputer, seamlessly shifting processing tasks among individual machines. Games have instant access to additional server space and other resources as they attract more players.

IBM, which provides servers, physical space and software for the Butterfly project, has been the most active corporate proponent of grid computing as a way to make networked computing more reliable and efficient.

Initial Butterfly clients, which use Butterfly's software to create online components and pay the service a hosting fee that varies according to usage, have been publishers of multiplayer PC games. But the service is perfect for the Sony's PlayStation 2, which began supporting online play earlier this year, Butterfly Chief Executive David Levine said.

Makers of console games have to figure out how to offer compelling online components at minimal expense, Levine said. At the same time, service expectations are much higher.

"Reliability is much more of a factor for the PS2 because as a consumer-electronics device, there's a lot less tolerance for glitches, lag and all the other annoyances with PC games," Levine said. "It's really got to work if you want it to take off into a mass-market thing."

Butterfly.net also gives developers some of the advantages of the closed Xbox Live network that Microsoft built for its Xbox game console, such as a single player ID that can be used for accessing multiple games. "The grid solves a lot of problems, but the developer is still in control of the content--they can make whatever deals they want as far as marketing, distribution, accounting," Levine said.

IBM and Butterfly.net will demonstrate PS2 games running on the Butterfly grid at next week's Game Developers Conference in San Jose, Calif.

Scott Penberthy, vice president of business development of IBM Global Services, said Butterfly.net will both draw from and contribute to IBM's investment in grid computing and other elements of on-demand computing.

"Game developers and gamers in general have always pushed the edges of technology, and now they're starting to crack the edges of the data center," he said. "What we're going to learn here is going to tell us a lot about how you do high-demand, on-demand computing over the Internet; how can enterprises react to these highly unpredictable, very demanding environments."

"Gamers are using the same high-end database as our banking customers," Penberthy added. "All these technologies we developed for the banking industry, engineering, geosciences--they're all ending up in the living room."