A lot of people don’t realize that IBM has slowly worked their way into the gaming space over the last few years and a lot of people would be surprised to know that IBM has chips in all three next generation systems. Last week IBM announced that they were going to be developing a mainframe around the Cell processor and we had a chance to ask a few questions about what IBM was going to be doing with the system.
GamingNexus: Could you please introduce yourself and describe your role at IBM?
My name is Boas Betzler, I am a Senior Technical Staff Member with IBM Research. Back when I was a young kid, I developed some notoriety as the Grandfather of Linux on the mainframe. But right now I am the technical lead for IBM in Virtual World and 3D Internet technology.
GamingNexus: Over the last few years IBM has really gotten into the games industry in a big way (powering all three consoles), why has IBM made this move?
It’s kind of cool in itself powering all three consoles, isn’t it? But think about it, there is a new, young generation of people entering the job market, starting their work life, progressing into decision making positions. It is the readers of your site. This generation grew up on Sega, Atari, Nintendo, Playstation and Xbox. And they will expect that computers and IT equipment provides interfaces and experiences as captivating and immersive as video games.
GamingNexus: Can you talk about how the idea for the PS3 based mainframe computer came about?
At our core, we are about innovation. And often times, innovation happens when you put things together in ways that no one ever thought about. As I mentioned, I ported Linux to the mainframe but later I got involved with Linux on the Cell/B.E. processor on PS3. In online games and virtual worlds, these two worlds meet. Performance meets robustness. Avatars meets financial transactions. Scaling to incredible number of concurrent users meets security.
GamingNexus: Is the Cell/B.E processor the same one that powers the PS3 or is it a different version of the processor? Is there one processor on the mainframe or are there multiple processors?
The processor on the IBM QS20 Blade is the same processor as in the PS3. Our mainframe has many, many processors. In fact, we deliver mainframe with so many processors, that you can start out using a few and as you need more they can just be turned on as you need them. Some of the processors are there as spares. These are the most reliable systems – if one processors ever fails, another one can in an instant take over – and the neither the application nor the user will even notice.
GamingNexus: With the industry trend away from big centralized machines and towards distributing the load across smaller machines do you think there's still a lot of interest in big centralized servers? What advantages does the new IBM server have over a distributed computing environment?
Over the years, people have taken on extreme positions on either side. We all chuckle over the statement “The world only needs 5 computers at most”. It is less funny to coast with your roller blades through a football field size datacenter to find the system where the smoke is coming out because the fan just gave up – and gamers don’t like that either, especially if they were on a rampage winning the tournament. With the Cell/B.E. processor we can scale out like in distributed computing. Combining it with the mainframe gives you simplified management of central operation.
GamingNexus: Do you have any potential customers lined up yet? What kind of reaction have you got since the announcement? How big do you think the market for the mainframe is going to be?
From the start we have been working with a Business Partner on this, Hoplon Infotainment out of Florianopolis. One of their projects, Taikodom, aims to create a massive multiplayer online game. In the last few days we have gotten an enormous amount of interest and many of our customers want to use this hybrid computer also for applications in simulation, medical imaging and financial analysis.
GamingNexus: Developing software for multi-core systems is difficult and that problem is compounded when developing for a mainframe system, what tools are you providing developers to help them create games?
Ok, I am going to let you in on a secret: you don’t have to have gray hair or wear a tie and a blue suit to program a Mainframe. It runs Linux and runs all your favorite tools.
To support developers with more training and resources for the Cell/B.E., we created this center on the web. For all your readers in the vicinity of Shanghai: there is a no-fee, hands-on, two day workshop on July 19-20.
GamingNexus: Do you think multi-core is really a stop gap until the single core units catch up in terms of speed or do you think we're all moving to multiple core programming from here on out?
In the first computers, time slices on the CPU were so valuable, that you had to sign up for a couple of cycles. This single CPU was therefore time shared, often in a serial fashion. Over the years, we wanted computers to do many things at once. And we are impatient and don’t want to wait and everything has to go on in parallel – play a game while doing voice chat and at the same time keeping track of our bids at eBay while we download and record a show through Internet TV. Will single core units improve in speed? Absolutely. Do we need many of these cores working for us at the same time -.yes! So for all you programmers out there: you better start to become experts in multi core programming.
GamingNexus: Is there anything you want to talk about that we didn't cover?
Many of your readers are avid Science Fiction fans. They know that there will always be a Mainframe – that is what the Tessier-Ashpool family chose to host Wintermute and Neuromancer. Maybe it is time to go back and read the classic William Gibson.
We'd like to thank Boas for taking the time to answer our questions and Jessica for helping to coordinate the interview.