Enterprise enters the gaming world

There was a time when many games had a keystroke, often Alt-B, known as “The Boss Key.” If a gamer noticed the boss heading toward his cubicle, he could hit Alt-B and have his golf game replaced with a spreadsheet application screenshot. Tapping Alt-B again once the boss had left sent him back to the fairway.

Such has long been the relationship between the corporate world and the gaming world. Some companies even go as far as to remove Windows games like Solitaire and FreeCell when they install the OS.

In reality, though, the enterprise space owes a great deal to the gaming industry. The massive investments in research and development that game console manufacturers are making to gain an edge in the highly competitive industry are crossing over to the enterprise space, bringing improvements and potential productivity gains that otherwise might not have been realized for years.

The gaming-fueled innovation spans hardware and software, but the former is the foundation the innovation rests upon, and which makes the software innovation possible. At a pace that is outstripping even Moore’s Law, the gaming industry is constantly demanding sharper graphics and faster performance, and the enterprise market is benefiting.

An example of this convergence is the new nine-core Cell processor developed by IBM in collaboration with Sony and Toshiba. The main goal was to design a chip to power Sony’s next-generation gaming console, the PlayStation 3, and Peter Hofstee, who heads IBM’s systems and technology group, says the three companies pumped US$400 million into the design process alone to create Cell.

“That level of investment was possible only because everybody expected to get something out of it,” says Hofstee.

Sony gets a powerful new chip for the PS3, and IBM gets a chip it can leverage into other areas. The company has already announced a high-end blade system based on the Cell processor designed for visualization-intensive applications such as medical imaging, design and oil and gas exploration.

Hofstee says that was part of the plan from the start, adding that IBM always tries to design products with broad appeal that address a large number of issues. He acknowledges, though, that without the push from the gaming industry to reach new levels of performance, as well as the healthy injection of R&D dollars, Cell would not have been created.

In fact, Hofstee says the high expectations of the gaming industry forced IBM to break new ground in chip design. To meet the gaming industry’s performance demands, he says IBM was forced to go beyond a multicore approach by designing a chip with two types of cores on it: one type for running the OS and systems management functions, and another for applications, which Hofstee calls the “worker bees” of the processor.

“We essentially were driven to this asymmetric solution…well ahead of the industry,” says Hofstee. “I think there are a lot of people talking about asymmetric multicore chips and acceleration today, but we were forced into that early on because of the aggressive goals of the program.”

Another challenge for IBM, says Hofstee, was to create a system on a chip that could run both real-time and non-real-time tasks and operating systems concurrently on the same hardware. It’s mainly a necessity for gaming consoles, with the need to support both streaming browsing and gaming, but Hofstee says real-time applications are becoming more prevalent in the business world as well. “There was quite a bit of innovation and invention we had to do to make that happen,” says Hofstee.

IBM has also developed separate chips for Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Nintendo’s next-generation gaming console, Revolution. And on the graphics side, Markham, Ont.-based ATI Technologies is a major player. ATI’s products are powering the XBox 360 and Nintendo Revolution, as well as everything from desktop PCs and workstations to cell phones and digital televisions.

Danny Shapiro, ATI’s senior marketing manager for workstation products, says the different product groups at ATI work to leverage the technology developed in other groups into their own products.

“On the workstation side we figure out what are those key technologies that ATI is developing for other markets, couple them with what we need for the enterprise market, and bring those products to market,” says Shapiro. “Because we leverage technologies across the company the workstation team is able have its pick of the technologies the company is producing to roll into our products.”

Originally designed for the gaming space, Shapiro says ATI’s Shader Model 3.0, which allows more complex shading and more realistic image rendering, is finding traction in the enterprise space with companies that are heavy CAD users, including customers in the automotive, aerospace and animation spaces.

“There are differences in how people use the machines, but at the end of the day it’s about how fast can you refresh the display with complicated visuals,” says Shapiro. “The consumer and gaming market is much higher-volume and that’s what gets a lot of play, and is intensively competitive in driving the technology and the churn of products.”

Shapiro says the intense competition to win market share in the gaming space, where volumes are extremely high, is driving ATI and its competition to constantly be developing and rolling out faster and better chips, and the benefits are spilling over to the enterprise space.

While the gaming industry is fueling significant hardware advances, it’s through software that the power of that hardware can be harnessed to the benefit of the enterprise. Take Microsoft’s next generation OS, Windows Vista, which is pushing an improved user interface and graphics as a main selling point. Mike Katchabaw, a computer science professor at the University of Western Ontario in London, says Vista’s rich visualization would not be possible without the gaming industry.

“If you want the slick aspects of the (Vista) interface you need a serious 3D accelerator,” says Katchabaw. “If that hardware was not driven forward by the gaming industry you might not be seeing that kind of stuff on the desktop.”

Jeff Zado, senior product manager for developer solutions at Microsoft Canada, agrees that the gaming industry is pushing the boundaries and limitations of people’s workstations, particularly around graphics and performance. The business and gaming worlds now require core hardware and performance capabilities that software manufacturers can use to drive an improved user interface, and Zado says the business world is benefiting.

“I thing without the gaming industry pushing and basically requiring greater graphics capabilities and greater performance…I don’t think you would have been able to have the same sort of quick adoption (Microsoft is hoping for with Vista),” says Zado.

The UWO’s Katchabaw, who also teaches a course in video game development, says the gaming industry is also beginning to help the enterprise space through a new trend: serious gaming. He says companies are beginning to use gaming technology in areas such as education, health care, the military and in corporate applications like human resources planning.

Katchabaw points to Hazmat: Hotzone, developed in part by Carnegie Mellon University, which is used to help train first responders like police and fire fighters to respond to a hazardous materials situation, such as a biological terrorist attack. Using gaming technology, an attack on a subway station can be simulated. The trainee must rescue the people and clean up the spill safely.

With all the ways the gaming industry is helping to fuel advances in the enterprise space, perhaps companies shouldn’t be too quick to begrudge their employees a quick game of FreeCell on their breaks after all.

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Jeff Jedras
Jeff Jedras
As an assistant editor at IT World Canada, Jeff Jedras contributes primarily to CDN and ITBusiness.ca, covering the reseller channel and the small and medium-sized business space.

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