OnLive video game service: "In a lot of ways, we've solved cloud computing"

OnLive plans to offer streamed access to a slew of brand name video games via the cloud

Steve Perlman, CEO of a company called OnLive that's readying an on-demand video game service, cringes whenever Google's gmail or other high profile Web services conk out. After all, his company's bold plan is to offer streamed access to a slew of brand name video games via the cloud in such a way that users at their PCs and TVs get performance they're used to experiencing on consoles.

"It's not just cloud outages -- I also cringe when I see a Windows virus lock up a PC. I have issues with both ways of computing," Perlman says. "But we're looking at where things are going. It's absolutely obvious to me that we're moving away from thick local clients and into the cloud."

Perlman, whose rich tech industry background includes leading roles in creating Apple's QuickTIme and eventual Microsoft acquisition WebTV, isn't taking cloud reliability and performance for granted. His company spent seven years in stealth mode working on its technology. OnLive finally making its debut at the Game Developers Conference in March and opened a public beta earlier this month in advance of a planned winter service rollout.

"In a lot of ways we've solved cloud computing," Perlman said during an interview at EmTech@MIT,  a Cambridge, Mass., conference where he wowed attendees with a demo of OnLive streaming an Electronic Arts Crysis game from servers in a data center in the Washington, D.C., area. "Looking at other types of cloud computing systems there always is a need for a significant amount of computing capability on the local system and there's usually some delay in waiting for a file to come in or upload."

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Behind the scenes during the beta period -- that is, behind the games from Electronic Arts, Ubisoft and others that OnLive will enable customers to play over their broadband Internet connections for a subscription fee to be determined -- are three rented data centers in the Washington, D.C. area, Texas and Silicon Valley (users need to be within about 1,000 miles of a data center to experience no lag if playing a game). The co-location facilities are stuffed with servers, which each feature two video compressors, one delivering a live stream adaptive to the highly variable DSL, cable modem or other link to a customer's home and another compressing a one-way high quality video stream that is IP multicasted. Multicasting can be used to distribute "brag clips" that gamers record of their highlights as well as to enable customers to watch, say, a game tournament.

"If we were to unicast to hundreds of thousands of users it would just swamp the network systems," says Perlman, whose management team includes veterans of companies such as Eidos and Netscape. "Compressed video might be a 5Mbps stream. If you have a 100,000 simultaneous 5Mbps streams, even Gigabit Ethernet gets overwhelmed very quickly. There are so few people doing things like IP multicast within the data center and we're doing very high speed multicast."

You might wonder why so much energy was put into ensuring that users would be able to watch others play games. After all, isn't watching someone else play a video game the ultimate in laziness? Not at all, says Perlman. He became aware in the 1990s from talking to AOL that only something like 1 in 10 people in online chat rooms actually chatted – most went to see what others were saying. But he says with gaming, it makes a lot of sense that players would want to see how others approach a game to learn techniques that they themselves could employ (he related a personal example where he watched another multiplayer game player turn invisible and go underwater to outwit an enemy).

Despite OnLive's technical efforts, the company has its skeptics, who question whether it can really account for varying levels of network service when delivering applications that won't satisfy users if even the tiniest bit slowed. Perlman says beta tests have gone fine across various connectivity types, though he notes his company has found itself diagnosing testers' home network gear and directing others to contact their ISPs about chronic packet loss.

"The worst case scenario we're seeing is 25ms of last-mile latency – and we've budgeted for that," Perlman says. "We can control the latency within the Internet pretty well through peering agreements with ISPs serving our data centers."

Game developers, meanwhile, have rallied around the company both financially (Warner Bros. is among its investors) and by making their games available through the network. OnLive is seen as a way for game vendors to cut distribution and development costs.

Console vendors have been largely mum about OnLive. Perlman expects gamers will cling to consoles they've invested in even if they also buy into OnLive's services, but he does suggest that more graphics-intensive games are going to outstrip the power of home computers and current consoles.

"As time goes on the Xbox and 360 as architectures will become frozen in time and will seem to offer lower performance to the user, whereas in a data center of course we upgrade the servers every six months with the latest processors and graphics chips," says Perlman, who showed off the company's sleek little MicroConsole for enabling its service on TVs (a browser plug-in is required for those using OnLive via a PC or Mac.

Like so many newfangled service providers, OnLive is keeping a close eye on the Net Neutrality debate, which heated up again this week in light of an FCC proposal for more formal rules about how carriers handle traffic. Perlman says he filed comments with the FCC not specifically about Net Neutrality, but about ISPs.

"You've got these two extreme views: one which is to let everything go wild and the other is that we need to completely control it," he says. "The sensible answer probably falls somewhere in between. If the Internet gets completely congested in the last mile then there are a lot of applications that can no longer be done."

Perlman has proposed that ISPs publicly characterize their networks, such as whether they have a maximum or minimum speed, what percentage of time their network is congested, what their latency is. This would make it easier for them to offer tiered services appealing to different levels of users.

OnLive for now is focused on getting its gaming service going in the United States, despite the country's patchwork of Internet access offerings. But Perlman does see big opportunities in other countries where gamers might not so easily afford consoles and are already used to getting access to games online, such as via Internet cafes.

It's also been suggested that the technology used to power OnLive's gaming platform could be extended one day to deliver business applications. Perlman says that's true, but that such applications can be a lot more complicated to handle in a cloud computing environment than videogames, which for the most part stand by themselves and don't involve a lot of cutting and pasting between applications.

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