At an IT event in New York City this summer, I met Tarquinio Teles -- CEO of Hoplon Infotainment. Hoplon is a virtual (i.e. online) game company -- but one with a twist: Hoplon's entire virtual world environment runs on IBM System z mainframe back-end servers with IBM Cell processor-based blades handling virtual world simulation calculations. Competing designs use clustered, distributed systems -- and do not exploit bladed Cell processors. This is a very unusual design, especially because everybody knows that mainframes are "old technology" -- right?
Mr. Teles explained that Hoplon chose this design to give the company a distinct competitive advantage. The mainframe's strong transactional capabilities allow Hoplon players to interact with each other and across various environments extremely quickly (interactions in virtual worlds mimic transactions in the business world). And by using Cell-based servers, Hoplon can rapidly update the state of a player's movements through virtual space by performing mathematically-intensive calculations rapidly. If Cell processors weren't used, gaps and skips in player movements through virtual space would skip and jump -- making play disjointed and disconcerting.
I told Mr. Teles about a book I'd written on virtual worlds -- and mentioned that I would love to see his environment some day. He graciously responded with an "if you're ever in the neighborhood, drop in." As it turns out, Hoplon is located on an island about 450 miles southeast of Rio de Janeiro -- not exactly on the beaten path.
However, I was sitting on almost a quarter of a million frequent flyer miles that were about ready to expire. My gamer son, Billy, loves virtual worlds. Why not take a trip to Florianopolis and check out Hoplon's virtual game environment? And while in Brazil, why not also visit some other mainframe customers in Sao Paolo or Rio de Janeiro to see if mainframes are being used in other innovative ways.
The Hoplon visit
One of the first things we noticed about Brazil was that it got dark awfully early. That's because while it's summer in Maine, it's winter in Brazil. We ate baked fish eggs in a sack that were then deep-fried (yum ...) during an evening out on the town with Tarquinio, and spent the day after our arrival on-site at Hoplon. Here's what we learned and saw:
- Hoplon's gaming environment (which should go live in April 2008) is a graphically-rich, smooth virtual world that encompasses space travel. Its graphics and artwork are stunning and its performance rivals what can be had on a stand-alone PlayStation 3 or xBox 360. Billy loved it.
- The primary advantage that IBM mainframe architecture delivers to Hoplon is cross-platform common memory management. By pooling memory across multiple mainframes, the company can better support the large and transient user populations that move in and out of various worlds and through various communities. No other server environment handles memory sharing the way a mainframe does. Hoplon sees this as a huge advantage over competitors that run into problems supporting large populations that move off of one server environment and onto another. Hoplon plans to market this truly unique approach to other companies over time.
- Hoplon had no mainframe on site. Instead, the company purchases mainframe computing power on an as-needed basis (true utility, on-demand computing) from an IBM hosting center. In this manner, Hoplon sticks to its particular skill set, developing games, while leaving equipment configuration and management to IBM professional services.
- Hoplon makes extremely heavy use of virtualization on IBM mainframes. Hoplon's user count is expected to vary widely as its community grows and gamers come and go as they please -- sometimes staying for minutes, sometimes for hours. Accordingly, Hoplon needs to be able to rapidly build up and tear down computing environments in order to cope with fluctuating user demand. There is no better virtualization platform in the world than an IBM mainframe -- another reason why Hoplon believes mainframe architecture is leading-edge and ideal for its business requirements.
- Hoplon's software environment is designed around service-oriented architecture (SOA), which eases plugging in new applications since IBM mainframes have been optimized to support SOA. This is a big deal for future game developers. Hoplon can sell them turnkey access to an optimized, virtualized environment. Plugging in applications to that environment is extremely easy using SOA and Web services standards.
Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro
In Sao Paolo, we visited the IT headquarters of one of Brazil's largest banks. The bank is actively involved in deploying Linux workloads on mainframes -- a move it hopes will help reduce system acquisition and distributed server management costs.
In Rio, we visited IBM customer and power company ElectroNuclear, as well as IBM partner and transportation clearinghouse Montreal Informatica, both of which use mainframes to innovate. ElectroNuclear was in the process of moving Linux workloads to its mainframes, while Montreal Informatica used its mainframes in combination with intelligent smartcards to provide secure transaction services for 85,000 customers who serve three million commuters.
Standing out most about these companies was the staff size each used to manage their mainframe environments. ElectroNuclear runs its mainframe with two people. Yes, that's two people to run ElectroNuclear's SAP run-the-business environment! Meanwhile, Montreal Informatica serves 3 million commuters with a staff of five mainframers. Incredible.
Space and time prevent me from delving deeply into ElectroNuclear's and Montreal Informatica's mainframe environments. I did, however, bring along a high-definition video camera and professional cameraman (i.e. Billy). We created five-minute-long video summaries of our visits to each of these customers. For readers interested in learning more about the abovementioned customers, just drop me an e-mail and I'll send along the video links.
My final observation is that anyone who accompanied me to Hoplon and the other sites -- and who saw mainframes in action at each of these sites -- would recognize that Brazilian companies are using IBM mainframes in new, unique ways that seriously stretch the traditional boundaries of mainframe computing. And they are doing this because mainframes can fill roles that no other competing computing environment can manage as effectively.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Joe Clabby is president and founder of Clabby Analytics, an IT research and analysis firm. He has over thirty years of IT experience.