IBM has long been fascinated with the potential of 3D virtual worlds. When it introduced its Big Green energy efficiency initiative last year, the presentation included a virtual data center within Second Life. IBM has now taken the next step and created 3D virtual worlds that enterprise companies can use to manage their existing data centers or design new ones.
IBM's new 3-D Data Center software can create a 3-D replica of servers, racks, networking, power and cooling equipment that communicates with real-world equipment to provide managers with a centralized view of far-flung IT operations. The environment is based on the OpenSimulator project and IBM middleware known as the Holographic Enterprise Interface (HEI), which can communicate with building automation systems to replicate physical data center operations in the virtual world.
The Swiss construction company Implenia is the first user of IBM's virtual operations center, which it uses to monitor heat and energy flow through the data center and manage its HVAC and security systems. "Until working with IBM we only knew the state of our data center from the information we got through the building automation system and our virtual worlds communications interface," said Oliver Goh, an Implenia IT Specialist.
"We didn't know the state of the server and information that was readily available to us until it was made more accessible via the 3-D visualizations that IBM built for us," Goh added. "We think that by combining this information with the information we had from the building automation side we can, from a building management standpoint, control the data much better and take action to be more efficient."
Is this another novelty experiment in virtual worlds by corporate America, or has IBM found a killer business application for 3D gaming technology.
IBM notes that the 3-D Data Center (PDF) can recreate two or more remote data centers, but is a multi-user virtual world, complete with in-world 3D messaging.
"Viewing information about your data center in 2-D text - even in real time - only tells a data center manager part of the story, because our brains are wired for sight and sound," said IBM Researcher Michael Osias, who architected the 3-D data center service. "By actually seeing the operations of your data center in 3-D, even down to flames showing hotspots and visualizations of the utilization of servers allows for a clearer understanding of the enterprise resources, better informed decision-making and a higher level of interaction and collaboration."
IBM has given data center managers the ability to replicate their data center assets in an environment much like World of Warcraft, and then work together to manage the environment - kind of like conducting a raid on a heating and cooling challenge. The technology has arrived. Do data center managers want this?
IBM launches its product at a time when corporations seem to be reconsidering their initial enthusiasm for doing business in virtual worlds. Electric Sheep, one of the pioneers in building virtual business apps for corporate clients, laid off a third of its staff in December after its clients AOL and Pontiac ceased operations in Second Life. Large companies report mixed success in using virtual worlds for job fairs and employee management.
Is managing IT and HVAC assets in a secure, custom virtual world an easier sell? IBM is ready to find out (although it's not announcing pricing). It will be interesting to track the progress of the 3-D Virtual Data Center and see if new client announcements follow.