More on grid computing costs

I did a little searching recently to see how my conjectured cost estimates for cloud gaming compared to the current market for grid computing. The prices quoted for server rentals vary tremendously, but I found this NewServers ‘Bare Metal Cloud’ service as an interesting example of raw compute server rental by the hour or month (same rate, apparently no bulk discount).

Their ‘Jumbo’ option for 38 cents per hour is within my previous estimate of 25-50 cents per hour. It provides dual quad cores and 8GB of RAM. It doesn’t have a GPU of course, but instead has two large drives. You could substitute those drives for a GPU and keep the cost roughly the same (using a shared network drive for every 32 or 64 servers or whatever – which they also offer). Nobody needs GPU’s in server rooms right now, which is the biggest difference between a game service and anything else you’d run in the cloud, but I expect that to change in the years ahead with Larrabbee and upcoming more general GPUs. (and coming from the other angle, CPU rendering is becoming increasingly viable) These will continue to penetrate into the grid space, driven by video encoding, film rendering, and yes, cloud gaming.

What about bandwidth?
Each server includes 3 GB of Pure Internap bandwidth per hour
So adequate bandwidth for live video streaming is already included. Whats missing, besides the GPU? Fast, low latency video compression, of course. Its interesting that x264, the open source encoder, can do realtime software encoding using 4 intel cores (and its certainly not the fastest out there). So if you had a low latency H.264 encoder, you could just use 4 of the cpus for encoding and 4 to run the game. Low latency H.264 encoders do exist of course, and I suspect that is the route Dave Perry’s Gaikai is taking.
Of course, in the near-term, datacenters for cloud gaming will be custom built, such as what OnLive and OToy are attempting. Speaking of which, the other interesting trend is the adoption of GPU’s for feature film use, as used recently in the latest Harry Potter film. OToy is banking on this trend, as their AMD powered datacenters will provide computation for both film and games. This makes all kinds of sense, because the film rendering jobs can often run at night and use otherwise idle capacity. From an economic perspective, film render farms are already well established, and charge significantly more per server hour – usually measured per Ghz-hour. Typical prices are around 12-6 cents per Ghz in bulk, which would be around a dollar or two per hour for the server example given above. I imagine that this is mainly due to the software expense, which for a render server could add up to be many times the hardware cost.
So, here are the key trends:
– GPU/CPU convergence, leading to a common general server platform that can handle film/game rendering, video compression, or anything really
– next gen game rendering moving into ray tracing and the high end approaches of film
– bulk bandwidth already fairly inexpensive for 720p streaming, and falling 30-40% per year
– steadily improving video compression tech, with H.265 on the horizon, targeting a further 50% improvement in bitrate
Will film and game rendering systems eventually unify? I think this is the route we are heading. Both industries want to simulate large virtual worlds from numerous camera angles. The difference is that games are interesting in live simulation and simultaneous broadcast of many viewpoints, while films aim to produce a single very high quality 2 hour viewpoint. However, live simulation and numerous camera angles are also required during a film’s production, as large teams of artists each work on small pieces of the eventual film (many of which are later cut), and need to be able to quickly preview (even at reduced detail). So the rendering needs of a film production are similar to that of a live game service.
Could we eventually see unified art pipelines and render packages between games and films? Perhaps. (indeed, the art tools are largelly unified already, except world editing is usually handled by propriatary game tools) The current software model for high end rendering packages is not well suited to cloud computing, but the software as a service model would make alot of sense. As a gamer logs in (through a laptop, cable box, microconsole, whatever) and starts a game, that would connect to a service provider to find a host server nearby, possibly installing the rendering software as needed and streaming the data (cached at each datacenter, of course). The hardware and the software could both be rented on demand. Eventually you could even create games without licensing an engine in the traditional sense, but simply by using completely off the shelf software.

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