Following the news of the new mainframe platform for virtual worlds that IBM is working on, I had the chance to talk to David Gelardi, IBM’s vice president of industry solutions, who is heading up the effort. “This is a brand new way to support the needs of virtual worlds in an environment that begins to look like 3D commerce,” Gelardi said. “Think more in terms of a future state where there is a transaction taking place that is a buying experience of some kind.” The “hybrid environment of immense power and flexibility” that IBM is creating will rely on the Cell’s processing power for rendering, the mainframe for cryptography and its ability to handle the processing needs of a massively multiuser enviroment, and Hoplon’s software for physics and messaging.
“I would argue that the world doesn’t yet understand the promise of [virtual world] technology,” Gelardi said. “We see this technology moving into banking and retail and anything where the consumer is involved in a transaction of commerce that they would today do over the Web, online shopping, online banking. The problem is that rendering is kind of weak. We haven’t figured out how to accelerate that yet, and how to marry that to transactions.”
Gelardi said the new mainframe architecture would provide a seamless development environment, “so that the application is just asking for services” via the Hoplon software. The mainframe project, according to a press release
intends to create an environment that can seamlessly run demanding simulations — such as massive online virtual reality environments, 3D applications for mapping, enterprise resource planning and customer relationship management, 3D virtual stores and meeting rooms, collaboration environments and new types of data repositories. It plans to achieve this goal by parceling the workload between the mainframe and the Cell processor.
“The project capitalizes on the mainframeâ€™s ability to accelerate work via ‘specialty processors,’ as well as its unique networking architecture, which enables the kind of ultra-fast communication needed to create virtual worlds with millions of simultaneous users sharing a single universe,” according to IBM. The result will be “a hybrid that is blazingly fast and powerful, with security features designed to handle a new generation of ‘virtual world’ applications, such as the 3D Internet.”
Hoplon software will be ported to the Cell to handle message passing and physics simulation, IBM says. “We have experimented with trying to figure out what the right technology is to run a virtual world,” Gelardi says. “In this particular case, Hoplon came to us as an existing client and we said, Let’s go another layer deeper, because you have a software environment that’s interesting.”
The mainframe will run a Hoplon virtual-world middleware package called bitVerse, which is “currently under development using WebSphere XD as the underlying runtime environment, along with DB2.” Also included on the mainframe end will be “administrative tasks for the middleware and the applications . . . logistics (billing, etc.), and connectivity to third parties as well as to multiple clients, which might include PCs, consoles, mobile phones, music players, TVs, and other devices.”
IBM is also open to working with other worldbuilders: “I expect us to partner with many different kinds of clients and aid them in creating a world that exists on top of a fundamentally strong infrastructure,” Gelardi said.
Gelardi also stressed that the mainframe architecture should make running virtual worlds more energy-efficient. “Usage of a large-scale System z enviroment gives you an incredible amount of power efficiency,” he said.