Cloud computing enables a lot of unique practices, but beware overly generous promises, starting with the one coming from Microsoft for Xbox One. The overall messaging out of that launch was a confused mess, but some parts of it were just plain off the mark.
The Xbox One has an AMD-designed SoC chip with eight cores providing 1.2 teraFLOPs of compute power, which would have qualified it as a supercomputer a decade ago. Microsoft is claiming it will provide five times that through cloud computing, giving users more than 5 teraFLOPs of power. That's the equivalent of Nvidia's new top-of-the-line Titan graphics card.
The cloud will provide Xbox One developers with the CPU and storage equivalent of three more Xbox One consoles, Microsoft told the press at the launch event. The company is setting up 300,000 new servers to handle all of its cloud needs for Xbox Live.
Some of the use cases are obvious: XBox Live users will be able to save all of their data on the cloud system and download it without interruption. Multiplayer matches will be able to support as many as 128 participants; Xbox Live currently supports a maximum of 32 players.
But then there's the ambitious side of things. Microsoft said the 300,000 servers will bring computation power to games and send them down to players in real time. However, the folks at Digital Foundry have thrown the cold water of reality on that claim. For the TL;DR crowd, last-mile latency just makes it impossible.
Even if the servers process a request instantly, there’s the latency back and forth between the console and server on the public Internet. Supercomputers have enough of a problem with latency and they are in the same room sharing gigabit Ethernet. Are you going to tell me that you can get next to no latency on the public Internet, via providers like AT&T Uverse or Comcast or Time-Warner RoadRunner, where connections are often shared throughout a neighborhood?
Some games already come with a built-in ping timer. As an experiment, I looked over at the EverQuest client I currently have running. There is no in-game action, the character is motionless, and my ping is 50ms.
Or we could look at the Internet Traffic Report for something a little more scientific, and we see the average latency in North America is 66ms, but there are a lot of sites that are down and others with significant lag.
Games only have 33 milliseconds to draw a frame, so Microsoft's cloud service couldn't render EverQuest, a game dating back to 1999 with primitive graphics, in real time. Can you imagine trying to render a modern MMO, like Rift? Or a fast racing game? Or a sports game? The cloud can do many things and will undoubtedly complement Xbox One well. But to claim 5Tflops is pushing the bounds of credibility.
There are some smart people at Microsoft, and I'm sure they can do some decent compensation work, but I'm just not buying the hype on this. They should focus on what a well-rounded device the Xbox One is – my colleague Marco Chiapetta nailed it when he pointed out that gaming is an afterthought.
It's going to blow every other set-top box out of the living room in part because Microsoft sacrificed a little SoC performance in favor of a well-rounded, comprehensive entertainment and communications device. Like other bloggers have said, this was the living room device Steve Jobs wanted to create.