Gigabit Ethernet Keeps The Game On

In order to keep its staff’s creative juices flowing, Electronic Arts Canada recently implemented a new gigabit Ethernet network.

“We did it for speed — we like to go fast,” explained Doug Casey, manager of technical services for the video game manufacturer based in Burnaby, B.C.

Electronic Arts develops, publishes and distributes software worldwide for PCs and advanced entertainment systems, marketing its products under seven brand names: Electronic Arts, EA Sports, Maxis, Origin Systems, Bullfrog Productions Ltd., Westwood Studios and Jane’s Combat Simulations.

To develop the video games, the company has to run some very advanced multimedia applications and animation software, including SoftImage, Alias/Wavefront and many proprietary software applications.

“We support everything — everything with game platform support,” Casey said, “and we have to put it all in there. Everyone wants to be excited by this stuff so it has to be audio-visually impressive.”

Employees regularly work with video, gaming and animation files ranging from 5GB to 50GB.

“They’re quite a bit ahead of most people in converging (voice, video and data on the network) because they build video games that use them all,” said Rob Sheridan, 3Com Canada Inc.’s district manager for Western Canada in Vancouver. 3Com provided the equipment for the network and assisted with design and implementation. “The size of their files and their software development is much larger than just about any user I would be aware of.”

With Electronic Arts’s previous network, consisting of FDDI and some fast Ethernet, copying these large files could take an extremely long time. He explained that many staff members work in a creative capacity and if they have to spend 10 minutes waiting for a large file transfer, they may get too bored and distracted and lose their creative thoughts. Reducing waiting time therefore enhances creativity and leads to better products, according to Casey.

The new network also coincided with Electronic Arts’s move this January to a 206,000-square-foot steel-and-glass office building in Burnaby. When the 600 staff members moved from the old building after two weeks off, they arrived to find a new, faster network in complete working order. Casey said the installation itself went extremely well.

The only minor inconvenience, he said, occurred when it was first turned on. The spanning tree was enabled, so they disabled it and there were no other problems afterwards.

“I’ve been doing this stuff for 20 years and only a couple of times have I seen things go that smoothly.”

Casey said gigabit Ethernet was chosen as the most suitable technology for Electronic Arts’s needs after doing “tons of research” on different technologies, including Asynchronous Transfer Mode.

Gigabit Ethernet is definitely seeing steady growth in the backbone overall, according to John Armstrong, principal analyst with Dataquest Inc. in San Jose, Calif.

“Ethernet is the dominant networking technology in the world and gigabit Ethernet is really a derivative of that…they all have the same protocol, they all have the same packet size and they are all extremely interoperable,” he said. “So from that perspective, gigabit Ethernet is an excellent choice because it has that broad base of usage and interoperability as opposed to ATM, which requires routing equipment to convert to Ethernet or another protocol.”

He added there are tons of raw bandwidth available with gigabit Ethernet, it is coming down fairly rapidly in price and it will probably be more broadly supported by more vendors than ATM.

“ATM is a fine technology…but there are some additional complexities associated with it to get to the desktop, where you eventually want to be,” he said. “Most desktops are supported by Ethernet or fast Ethernet and it’s just easier to make that connection to gigabit than to ATM.”

He said the only real downside to gigabit Ethernet is there is still no real standardized quality-of-service capability.

“But assuming you’re not oversubscribing the gigabit connections, you’re going to have tons of bandwidth to be able to support video and voice applications or very large file transfers. So really, the downside is very limited.”

3Com’s Sheridan said gigabit Ethernet seems to be one of the fastest-growing areas of 3Com’s business. “It’s probably second to the Palm Pilot for rocketship growth,” he explained. “It’s based on Layer 3, and our ability to do Layer 3 in the large enterprise is great, and big accounts are taking notice of it.”

Electronic Arts Canada chose to go with 3Com’s products even though its U.S. parent company in Redwood City, Calif., went with Cisco Systems Inc.’s equipment.

“We looked at the vendor they chose and decided it didn’t meet our technical requirements,” Casey said. “We made our decision based on technology.” He found the 3Com technology that already existed today met Electronic Arts’s speed requirements best.

He said Electronic Arts Canada still maintains Cisco routers, but everything else internally is 3Com. This gives them all the compatibility they need with the parent company. While there were some internal conversations surrounding the use of different vendors for the two infrastructures, there were no real problems associated with this choice.

The Burnaby building’s network now consists of nine 3Com CoreBuilder 9000 enterprise switches and 18 SuperStack9 II Switch 3900 workgroup switches, which provide line-rate switching with built-in gigabit Ethernet connectivity.