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The9 exposed as China's supercomputing powerhouse

The ninth mode of art runs on HP clusters

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Nine Levels of Computing Justice

The9 happens to trade on the Nasdaq exchange under the ticker symbol NCTY. In mid-2007, The9's stock soared above $50 per share only to settle at $24.76 per share at the close of today's trading.

The optimism surrounding The9, during sunnier overall economic conditions, no doubt resulted from its impressive stable of video game titles. It has licenses to so-called MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) Blizzard's World of Warcraft, Soul of the Ultimate Nation, Granado Espada and its own Joyful Journey West. It also has the exclusive rights to other games such as FIFA Online 2 and Ragnarok Online 2. And it's working on new in-house titles.

The breadth of The9's online games has turned the company into a household name in China and a profitable enterprise. In its most recent quarter, The9 posted a 63 per cent rise in revenue to $63m and a 36 per cent rise in net income to $13m. (Interestingly, it should be noted that The9 received a $1.3m government subsidy during the quarter. Where's the US handout for Electronic Arts?)

The company also demonstrates a certain amount of flair.

Regarding the origins of its name, The9 states the following:

The emergence and popularization of the Internet not only alters our ways of living but also brings us a brand new mode of art – Internet Culture. Consequently, adding to the existing eight modes of art, namely, painting, sculpture, architecture, literature, music, dance, drama and movie, online game became the ninth mode. Through the ninth mode of art - online game, we aim at inventing online entertainment as a novel way of living for urbanites. In this 'City', enthusiasm, energy and romance come together with the idea of equality, respect and love.

While rather dramatic, The9 might not be overstating this "ninth mode" of art.

In April, for example, The9 boasted about having 1m World of Warcraft users online at the same time in China. That's an awesome total and one that reflects Asia's love for WoW. Blizzard has more than 10m WoW subscribers, with 2m in Europe, 2.5m in North America and 5.5m in Asia.

Like many popular online game houses - Linden Lab, we're looking at you - The9 suffers from the weight of its own success.

The9 officials have been forced to apologize for long-running server issues.

"The9's servers has long been a source of frustration for Chinese WoW players," complains one local. "Many irate players refers to them dryly as 'Little Overlords,' a brand of cheap basic home computers (or 'learning machines' as they were advertised) popular in China in the 90's that were less powerful than Commodore 64s."

That same player ridicules The9's servers as being of "questionable quality" and the cause for massive amounts of downtime during peak playings hours.

It would seem that The9 spares no expense on its computing infrastructure, creating a supercomputer-class machine for handling the games. We, however, have limited means of comparing the scale of The9's systems to other WoW houses, for example, since Blizzard has rebuffed our requests for comments on either its infrastructure or its partners.

The figures on The9's systems do date back to 2007, when the last Top100 machines in China list was created. Computer scientists in China will update the list of top machines this November when the officials behind the Top500 supercomputers in the world list release their latest figures.

We suspect The9's prominence on China's top machines chart will decline in the years to come, as the country's computing infrastructure grows. Until that happens, The9 can enjoy a few months of computing glory thanks to our public outing. See you in the ninth mode. ®

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