Scaling online gaming networks to handle fame

So you’ve finally got your online game out and players are pouring in. Are you sure you’ll have enough servers to handle your sudden popularity and the accompanying demands on your Website?

For online gaming companies, planning for capacity growth and network performance are critical in their journey from start-up outfit to bona fide industry player.

When your network is not up to task of handling your online traffic site load times and performance will surely suffer, according Robert Miggins, senior vice-president of business development for PEER 1 Hosting in Toronto.

“Some research data indicate that one third of visitors are lost if your site takes more than eight seconds to download,” Miggins said.

For e-commerce and gaming sites, Web loading times are even more crucial. Loyalty of customers and a businesses success ride on user experience, Miggins said. “A delay of microseconds can potentially cause a significant loss of revenue.”

“If your game does go viral, thanks to social networks, you servers have to scale , else you’ll obviously have a lot of upset users,” said blogger Raj Dash in a post on the site Social Times.

Scaling up or out

There are primarily scaling strategies, according to Dr Robert Zubek of the Zynga Gaming Network maker of the popular online social game Farmville: vertically; and horizontally. Zubek, was quoted by Dash

To scale vertically (scale up) means to add resources to a single node in a system such as adding CPUs or memory to a single computer. This method enables businesses to use virtualization technology more effectively since it provides more resources for the hosting.

To scale horizontally (scale out) means to add more nodes to system, such as adding two additional Web server systems to an existing server.

Larger numbers of hardware however, could mean increased management complexity and issues such as throughput and latency between nodes.

Zynga’s games typically have 65 million daily active users (DAU) and 225 monthly active users (MAU). FarmVille has 25 million DAUs. “To cope with that kind of usage, companies need to have the server infrastructure as well as software that can grow to scale,” said Dash.

To manage its infrastructure, Zynga uses a combination of its own data centers and servers running on Amazon Web Services’ EC2 service.

Reliability, flexibility and redundancy

Miggins of Peer 1 said company’s looking to prepare their network for increased traffic should first determine if their hosted network provider can handle the expected traffic. “For my part I think of the network first. Is it robust enough to handle the traffic I expect.”

Toronto-based Virgin Gaming, a company that facilitates online games for PlayStation and Xbox Live users, is gaming company gearing up for growth. The company of 40 has 15 dedicated IT staff.

The portal recently began moving out of its start-up mode following is partnership with Virgin. The holiday season is also expected to ramp up demands on its network as this time of the year is considered the busiest for the gaming industry.

The company has some 100,000 members around the world but Virgin Gaming expects this to grow very soon. “We anticipate to sign-up in excess of one million members in the near future,” said Billy Levy, president of Virgin Gaming.

Prior to its acquisition by Virgin Group Ltd., Virgin Gaming worked with a smaller hosting provider, according to Miggins of Peer 1.

Miggins said Virgin Gaming experienced a lot of performance issues with their previous provider. “Downloads were slow and there were unpredictable dips in the network performance.”

“In the gaming business, they say ‘latency kills’. A slow network could get players in a shooting game killed by their opponents. Unhappy players will abandon your game,” said Miggins.

Miggins recommends that businesses ask potential providers to submit their networks to performance tests to determine if they have what it takes to handle the expected traffic.

Virgin Gaming was also worried that the provider could not scale to the gaming company’s growing needs. “We expect the business to grow and we need somebody who can grow with us,” said Ijaaz Ullah, director of IT with Virgin Gaming. “We want to get as many people online as we can.”

Miggins said he believes Virgin Gaming chose Peer 1 because of the company’s flexibility.

“We have the ability to help our clients boost server capacity at a moment’s when demand spikes,” he said.

For instance, Peer 1’s ServerBeach offering is ideal for SMBs on a tight budget. Users get a dedicated hosting device for a low as $100/month. The users have full access of the server but need to do their own server updates and patches.Peer1’s Managed Hosting offering starts at around $300/month and up and is ideal for businesses growing out of the start-up phase. For that price the user gets full managed hosting services.

Businesses can also take advantage of Peer 1’s co-location services. With this arrangement, customers essentially agree to lease a space in Peer 1’s facilities where the customer’s own servers can be housed. A space cabinet space that can house two servers typically costs $250/month, said Miggins.

Miggins also recommends that businesses look for geographic redundancy in their choice of hosted services provider. Typically, he said, network performance suffers the further away it is from its users.

“In online social games, players can come from all over the world. To maintain uniform performance, it is necessary for the provider to have servers where the players are located,” he said.

More networks also enable hosted services providers to keep their customers’ businesses operating despite power outages.

Organizations like Peer 1 operate more than one network operation centres (NOC). This provides geographic redundancy in the event one site is incapacitated or becomes offline.

(With files from Kathleen Lau)

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