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IBM brings grid computing to games

The computer maker is working with a start-up to tap the potential of grid computing to allow gamers to access servers that work together as a virtual supercomputer.

IBM and a West Virginia start-up hope to bring grid computing--a technique touted for harnessing multiple computers into seamless processing grids--to the video game industry.

Big Blue is scheduled to announce on Thursday that it is working with software developer Butterfly.net to create a grid-based service for running online games.

The expense and complexity of hosting online games has been a sticking point for the growth of the industry. Game publishers have to maintain hundreds of servers to host a popular game and risk angering subscribers when games are unavailable due to malfunctioning or overloaded servers.

Such reliability issues will become even more critical, said Butterfly CEO David Levine, as game consoles such as Microsoft's Xbox and Sony's PlayStation 2 go online.

"People are used to flaky performances from PCs," Levine said. "With consoles, you just expect things to work."

IBM will provide the servers and physical space to run the Butterfly Grid, which will operate on the open-source Globus Project software. Butterfly.Net will supply the software for game developers to build Butterfly support into their games--a software development kit is available for download now from Butterfly. Game publishers who use the Butterfly Grid service will pay monthly hosting fees depending on usage.

IBM and other companies have been pushing for several years to popularize the grid approach, in which multiple servers work together as a virtual supercomputer, seamlessly shifting processing tasks among individual machines.

While efforts to promote grid computing have mainly focused on business efficiencies, the approach also offers significant benefits for games, Levine said, particularly for mass-multiplayer games such as "EverQuest" or "Ultima Online" that require servers to maintain huge virtual worlds.

Such games can be expensive to maintain because publishers have to overbuild networks to be able to handle peak demand. With the grid approach, shared computing resources can by shifted to wherever they're needed most.

"Our whole focus is to get the price point below a dollar per player per month," Levine said. "Right now, for a lot of games it's between $4 and $6."