A Game With A Serious Goal

Watching the Global Supply Chain Competition from the lab at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business, Sun Microsystems' Peter Percival admits the company has a vested interest in seeing Java-based gaming evolve, but he was clearly excited to see a very practical application of many of the tools and technologies Sun had developed. The systems engineer for U.S. education and research for Sun says the gaming capability used in this first real-time global competition started with a desire to create a business simulation game that could involve users in multiple locations. The development of the T1 chip was critical to the evolution because it could process multiple, simultaneous threads of instructions.

During development of the Distributor Game used in the competition, Sun provided its latest chip technology, its latest operating system, and the latest version of Java along with a year of expertise and "Java skills." Ultimately Sun also provided some hardware; the "big iron" in the backroom that is part of its heritage, but Percival focused more on the other aspects of support Sun could provide.

Anecdotally, he says Sun's involvement in gaming intensified when Chris Melissinos went to the company's CEO and said it needed a chief gaming officer. The reply: "OK, you're it." That move matched well with the education and research group in Sun and the simulation work the Smith Business School was doing with Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. Delft's work in simulation brought Alexander Verbraeck and Stijn-Pieter A. van Houten into the project, and the Distributor Game was on its way to becoming a major global event.

The genus of the Distributor Game was research originally conducted for and financed by the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD). In 1999 the Smith Business School and Delft University of Technology were involved in research into developing real-time, Web-based "control panels" to manage global supply chains for DOD. From 2002 to 2005, The Smith School and Delft expanded the first model into a number of user-friendly simulation models. During this time, the team partnered with Sun Microsystems' iForce Center to develop a Java-based simulation.

The first incarnation of the Distributor Game was a single personal-computer-based game loaded onto desktop systems from a compact disk. Next, it moved to a local area network where multiple users could compete.

Business School Dean Howard Frank said from the start he had emphasized the need to be net centric. Using Sun Microsystems T-2000 servers donated by the company, the project was able to reach its goal of providing a globally linked simulation tool. At the time of the global competition in March, the Smith Business School could claim 320 MBA students had used it, including executive MBA candidates who were already working in the field.

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