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Dell lands custom gaming server deal

OnLive: 'We don't need no stinking consoles'

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The E3 Expo is raging in Los Angeles today, and Dell's bespoke server techs are on hand backing up the launch of OnLive, the maker of an online gaming system that lets users play games over a broadband link from within a Web brower, with the video and data processing associated with the game being done back in OnLive's data center.

The OnLive "cloud gaming" system has been in development for eight years and is embodied in millions of lines of code for running popular console-based games on servers, and a proprietary PCI-Express 2.0 card that crunches video and sends it over the intertubes to render those games in a browser. According to Andy Rhodes, marketing director of Dell's Data Center Solutions custom server outfit and one of the early testers of the OnLive service, it works.

After June 17, you won't have to take Rhodes' word for it, since OnLive will actually be live, and you can try 23 different games for yourself, running them in a brower on a Mac or Windows PC. OnLive's engineers are also cooking up the MicroConsole TV Adapter to allow games to be played on a television without a game console. (It must basically be a Web browser in a box with an HDMI link to the TV.)

About a year and a half ago, when OnLive had put its cloud gaming tech together, it needed to design the servers to house its PCI video wizardry and host the games it was running, so it hired Dell's DCS unit to do the job. The exact feeds and speeds of the OnLive systems are a closely guarded secret (and include some 250 patents), but Rhodes was at liberty to say that OnLive was not using a blade form factor, but instead a rack machine that was packing multiple servers into a single 1U rack box, a setup with enough oomph to run games and PCI-Express slots for the proprietary graphics cards for remotely displaying games over the browser.

One of the problems with launching a service like OnLive is that you can't predict what demand will be like, and therefore you need a partner that can rapidly build boxes and manage the risks inherent in the server supply chain. That's what Dell does for its general purpose server customers and what it is explicitly doing for those who buy DCS custom boxes. All hyperscale companies have trouble planning for end-user demand and none of them have the money or the inclination to buy zillions of servers upfront and pull a Field of Dreams.

Another interesting tidbit: OnLive is not using containerized data centers and, in fact, is not building its own data centers at all — it's using co-location facilities to feed and care for its custom Dell servers and the networks that link them to gamers.

This is not Dell's first online gaming server partner for the DCS unit. Rhodes says that it has a couple of online gaming companies in China and Korea that have bespoke servers, and a few in the United States, too. All of which are absolutely unwilling to talk about their systems because they believe their machines give them a competitive advantage.

As El Reg previously reported, OnLive went into beta last September. A month ago, BT struck a deal to provide games over its broadband network using OnLive as the backend. OnLive was founded by Steve Perlman, who created QuickTime and gave your ma and pa WebTV back in the dot-com era.

Perlman was not available at press time to tell us if the Dell iron will run Crysis, but presumably it will, since Electronic Arts is a founding partner, as is Take Two Interactive, THQ, Ubisoft, and Warner Bros Games. At the launch event at the E3 show, OnLive added Square-Enix, SEGA, Capcom, and Konami, and now has over 25 publishing partners that are working on games for the OnLive cloud gaming platform.

Dell doesn't build or sell game consoles, so it is absolutely thrilled if even a portion of game console market ends up back in data centers, running on cloudy infrastructure. IBM, which makes chips for Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft for their consoles, might not be so thrilled by this idea. But there is no reason why IBM couldn't build game clouds to support applications and come up with its own video compression and browser magic should the market swing partly away from consoles. IBM hasn't shown much interest in building custom servers, however. ®

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