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When speed rules

Dec 19, 20058 mins

More ISPs catering to online gamers.

The latest crop of online games-dubbed MMORPGs, for Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games – are pushing top-tier carriers to meet even higher requirements for bandwidth and speedy response times. The carriers able to meet these demands are winning lucrative Web hosting and managed services contracts from online gaming companies.

If his T-1 connection gets clogged or the Internet bogs down, the Hamilton Heights High School senior might get attacked by a vicious jungle troll or killed by a dagger-wielding, green-skinned orc. Or at least that’s what could happen to his virtual counterpart, Sorell, a priest in the online game World of Warcraft.

“I don’t play at home anymore because the lag time is so bad,” Frytz says of the satellite-based Internet service that’s available at his Strawtown, Ind., home. “Suddenly your character might jump 20 feet. If you’re fighting a person with a better Internet connection, you die instantly.”

Meet the Internet’s most demanding customers: Frytz and his buddies, who hang out at the Internet Atomic Gaming Cafe in Noblesville, Ind. Frytz is the owner of the cafe, which he opened with the help of investors in March to meet the high-speed network needs of Indianapolis-area online gamers.

Also: Role-playing games at a glance

“Most of my customers don’t have broadband at home yet,” says Frytz, who plays Internet games such as World of Warcraft four or five hours each day. “These people want the network to perform as if they are sitting side by side with the other players, as if they are on a LAN, even if the server is many states away.”

Gamers traditionally demand top-notch performance from their ISPs. But the latest crop of online games-dubbed MMORPGs, for Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games – are pushing top-tier carriers to meet even higher requirements for bandwidth and speedy response times. The carriers able to meet these demands are winning lucrative Web hosting and managed services contracts from online gaming companies.

AT&T, for example, is providing Web hosting services for World of Warcraft, Asheron’s Call: Throne of Destiny and the soon-to-be-released massively multiplayer versions of Dungeons & Dragons and Lord of the Rings. AT&T has set up a special network operations center in Bridgeton, Mo., to focus on meeting the performance and bandwidth needs of its online gaming customers.

“Because these clients have critical demand for bandwidth and network capacity on demand, not only do we have hosting resources and expertise but we’ve also created a special operations center for gaming customers,” says Chris Costello, director of hosting and utility computing at AT&T. “This group has a deep level of networking expertise and offers special managed services and monitoring.”

AT&T provides managed Web hosting services to several online gaming companies, including Blizzard (maker of World of Warcraft), Turbine (maker of Asheron’s Call) and Konami (maker of Yu-Gi-Oh). These and other gaming companies keep their servers at AT&T’s Internet data centers, where the carrier monitors the systems around the clock.

On average, each online gaming company has more than 200 servers in AT&T’s data centers and hosts an average of two of these centers (AT&T has 28 globally), the carrier says. At any given time a gaming company may have as many as 100,000 people playing their games simultaneously, according to AT&T.

The carrier provides bandwidth on demand so gaming companies can handle the rush of traffic they receive when a new version of a popular game is released. AT&T also offers these companies the ability to patch servers and troubleshoot network problems so in-house IT staff can focus on developing new features for their games.

In August, Konami Digital Entertainment signed a multiyear contract to host its North American gaming platform at AT&T’s Redwood City, Calif., data center. The AT&T center complements and backs up Konami’s primary data center in Toyko.

“Konami wants to focus on creating quality, cutting-edge games,” says Daniel Laskowski, director of IT for Konami North America. “We don’t want to get bogged down in billing and infrastructure. We wanted to partner with someone who can provide us with the high standards that we look for but has their core competence in data centers and network infrastructures worldwide.”

Laskowski says Konami has seen an improvement in the performance of Yu-Gi-Oh online since it began hosting the application with AT&T.

Using AT&T for Web hosting services also gives Konami the ability to quickly ramp up capacity to meet user demand. “As far as bandwidth and application-level processing, we won’t get caught with our pants down,” he says.

AT&T says online gaming is its most demanding vertical market in terms of network performance.

“These are very latency-sensitive applications,” Costello says. “It’s very different than checking e-mail. Users are not going to play the game again if their experience is slow because of latency problems.”

Costello says all of AT&T’s enterprise customers are interested in such network performance metrics as latency, packet loss, availability and response time. But she says online gaming companies are more demanding about these metrics than retail, financial services, manufacturing and other industry segments.

Online gaming companies demand higher network performance “because of the sensitivity of how their applications run,” Costello says. “We’re talking about millions of active users. They drive a lot of capacity – more bandwidth capacity than other verticals – and they have higher performance requirements, especially having to do with latency.”

AT&T began winning Web hosting contracts with online gaming companies 18 months ago. Previously, these companies hosted their own applications or used collocation services from smaller providers. Now these companies turn to top-tier hosting companies such as AT&T because their games are getting more popular and their network needs are increasing.

Special operations center

AT&T’s special operations center for gaming customers opened in Bridgeton at the beginning of this year and offers monitoring of the network, systems and applications that gaming customers house at AT&T Internet data centers.

“If you went to Bridgeton, you’d see some familiar network management tools, but what’s unique is the integration across the network, systems and applications we are managing,” Costello says. “It allows us to correlate data across those three different domains . . . for a deeper view of the network.”

The center’s experts meet regularly with AT&T’s gaming customers to plan ahead for the release of new versions of popular games.

“When a new game comes out, we see spikes in certain data centers,” Costello says. “We’re well prepared in advance by knowing the types of games that are coming out so we can add resources ahead of time.”

Turbine is using AT&T’s network engineering expertise to prepare for two big launches in 2006: Dungeons & Dragons and Lord of the Rings. Turbine hosts its Asheron’s Call games at AT&T’s Internet data centers in Boston and Redwood City. Turbine is deploying additional servers and network capacity at these centers in preparation for the release of Dungeons & Dragons.

“We’ve been working with AT&T on the Dungeons & Dragons launch since the middle of last year,” says Mike Hogan, vice president of operations at Turbine. “It’s a lot of planning. When you start talking about the WAN, there’s not anything magical but it’s bigger than most. The LANs that we manage are complex because we’ve got our game serving grid network.”

Turbine uses AT&T for hosting, collocation and professional services, but it manages its gaming applications with in-house staff. Turbine operates hundreds of game servers for its North American subscribers.

“We do not subscribe to managed services. We do all of that ourselves. The gaming application is so unique, and it changes on a constant basis, that it’s almost impossible for us to train outside people,” Hogan says. “We rely on AT&T to do what they do really well: provide us a secure place to operate our games and the bandwidth we need.”

Turbine has hundreds of servers at two AT&T data centers that serve up gaming content to users in North America. “We have 1Gbps coming into the cage, but that can be expanded immediately if it needs to be. You pay for what you use.”

Hogan says having enough bandwidth and having that bandwidth on demand are critical for the release of new games.

“The first few weeks are very intensive for us because we have a large number of people trying the game all at once,” Hogan says. “People will play for 10 or 12 hours straight during the land rush period. After the rush, people will play for a few hours every evening.”

AT&T says online gaming is one of the fastest-growing segments of its Web hosting business. The company won’t give specifics about the amount of revenue it is generating from this segment or the rate at which that revenue is growing. However, two of AT&T’s online gaming customers’ bandwidth capacity grew more than 200% in the last year.

Having a high-performance network platform is critical for online gaming companies during the holiday season, which is the industry’s busiest time.

“Our users are very impatient,” Laskowski says of Yu-Gi-Oh’s primarily male, preteen and teenage audience. “We really need to be on our toes. We can’t afford any downtime or any slowdowns. If we have downtime, we lose money because people lose interest in our games.”