Linux Latest Star in Hollywood

Friday Mar 1st 2002 by Datamation.com Staff
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The visual-effects industry that serves up spectacular special effects for Hollywood movies has gone for Linux in a big way.

By Michael J. Hammel

Before the summer of 2001, Linux supporters often pointed to any of a number of single-company deployments as a measure of success for the fledgling operating system.

There was Burlington Northern, which committed in February 1999 to deploy Linux in 250 US stores. That was followed by Japan's Lawson, which struck a deal with IBM to supply that convenience store retailer with 15,000 IBM Linux-based eServers running on Red Hat software. Ford announced a plan where they would deploy 33,000 Linux desktops.

These were big wins for the open-source faithful. But they were corporate waves in a sea of change. What Linux needed was a tidal wave -- an industry-wide migration -- to signal that the penguin had come of age.

Enter the visual effects industry, the collection of studios that produce special effects, or VFX in industry parlance, for movies and animated tales like Toy Story and Shrek. This is an industry ripe for change, an industry struggling to shake the bondage of single-vendor solutions and high-priced specialized hardware. It's also an industry that tested the waters of Windows and found it flowing in the wrong direction.

This isn't a story about one or two studios adopting Linux as servers in their renderfarms, those back rooms full of servers used to produce the individual sets of frames used in a movie. We're talking about the entire industry -- from Rhythm & Hues to Pixar, from Digital Domain to DreamWorks. DreamWorks-PDI had over 2,000 Linux-based CPUs on-line by the summer of 2001.

Their summer blockbuster Shrek was rendered on 1,000+ mostly Linux machines. Pixar has only deployed 15 stations in production and 25 in software development, but VP of Technology Darwin Peachey says the studio is on the verge of a major purchase and deployment of desktops to replace their current SGI desktops. Even Industrial Light & Magic is considering a major switch to the penguin OS.

And this isn't the infrastructure saying they will support Linux, like IBM or Compaq or Hewlett-Packard announcing they will support the OS -- it's the end users demanding it from suppliers of applications and hardware.

Back in June 2001, Ray Feeney, technology committee chair of the Visual Effects Society said, "For the high-end part of movie making, 80-90% will be Linux-based inside of 18 months. Everything is going Linux." This sort of mass migration has never happened before in the Linux world. The tidal wave is here.

Cost vs. Performance

The VFX industry's migration to Linux exposes some interesting interactions that open-source advocates might not have noticed previously. For example, the issue of cost isn't necessarily important when compared to Microsoft products, and it also isn't a factor when considered without the underlying commodity hardware.

Toronto-based Axyz Animation did much of the early-adopter testing for SideFX's Houdini on Linux. John Coldrick, senior animator of Axyz, which has already replaced all of its workstations with Linux-based PCs, says the migration was a cost issue when coming from IRIX, but a technology issue when coming from NT.

"(Linux) doesn't offer more than IRIX except it's substantially less expensive. But it is the scalability on Linux that is phenomenal," he said. "If you start with eight workstations with NT you're fine, but if you have to balloon up to 70 or 100 you run into some major problems. You do that with Linux with no problems."

Cost wasn't the most important issue for Pixar either. "Most people tend to focus on cost" when it comes to migration issues, says Pixar's Vice President of Technology, Darwin Peachey.

"But cost isn't the most important thing at these price levels. The most important thing is to look at what is the best performing hardware," he said. "Right now that's Intel-based workstations, with NVIDIA or ATI equipped graphics solutions. These have now eclipsed traditional RISC workstations (such as SGIs) in terms of graphics and CPU performance. Quite apart from price/performance, if you look at absolute performance, it appears that this is the way the industry has to go."

DreamWorks Animation Head of Technology Ed Leonard says that these days, computing costs have to be recouped with each film.

"Historically, we purchased a large amount of SGIs. Those were amortized over several films. You'd want to get five years out of some of that hardware due to the expense of that investment," he said. "With the Intel/Linux strategy today, we're moving toward what we refer to as disposable computing. Film productions are generally two years long, and during that time the technology takes several steps ahead. We normally anticipate to recoup a large portion of our hardware costs with every production. So with each new movie, we go out and purchase a new renderfarm."

But it was SideFX's Salvini who put it most bluntly. "It's one thing to have your product run on Linux, but so what if you save $200 on the OS and you need a $5,000 graphics card?"

The use of commodity components is allowing the industry to remove its dependency on SGI, a company with an expensive, specialized hardware and a questionable future. And, Peachey adds, there are only two ways to go with the Intel solution: Microsoft NT or Linux. Feeney says NT turned out to be both a technical problem as well as a political one.

Why not Microsoft?

"Once upon a time there was a great focus on the part of Microsoft that the VFX industry would be the next realm they would conquer," says Feeney, who is also the founder of VFX studio Silicon Grail. "They would fix big data transfer issues in their OS and so forth, taking Windows from a consumer tool to the enterprise." But that never happened, he says.

"This industry is like a team sport -- it's a collaborative effort. The ability to share data and other material, aside from office-style documents, is extremely complicated and made more so by the limitations of the Microsoft environment," he said. "So it was for technical reasons that the industry is looking back to the market."

Axyz's John Coldrick agrees and adds that the idea of going NT sent shivers through him.

"We were used to working in a UNIX environment where we had control and networking and stability," Coldrick said. "It's more like NT doesn't offer enough for us: the networking is awful, there are no links and the stability is not as good." Moving to Linux provided less technical problems from a porting standpoint. Because Linux is UNIX for all practical purposes, porting from IRIX was far easier than going to NT.

A recent Giga survey found that a large group of Microsoft customers not related to the VFX industry were not willing to upgrade because of the new licensing rules for XP, which locked them into two-year upgrade cycles. Instead, many are planning to migrate to other options, mostly because they plan to keep their PCs for longer periods. Surprisingly, the group that wants to upgrade fairly often -- the VFX industry -- didn't get much support from Microsoft.

"They're off to work on issues that don't solve the set of issues relative to the high-end effects industry," Feeney said. "They decided that they would be better off spending their time elsewhere, like on the Web with Hailstorm and .NET. So they never bit on the enterprise market."

Praise for Hewlett-Packard

Much of the early work in migrating companies like Pixar, DreamWorks and Axyz Animation was helped in no small part by the energetic team at HP's Ft. Collins graphics group.

Both SideFX's Salvini and Axyz's Coldrick praised HP for their help in getting the initial port of Houdini working. Recognizing the lack of accelerated hardware support in XFree86, HP ported their own server from HP/UX over to Linux along with a supporting OpenGL environment. This solution, while not completely open-source oriented, moved the process along to the point prior to the first VES Linux Summit.

Nothing Real had ported their Shake compositing software to Linux by April 2000. The company would have had it sooner, except for the lack of hardware-accelerated drivers. They credit HP for helping them make the move to Linux, as well as video card maker NVIDIA, which they say moved more slowly but eventually came around to providing proprietary drivers of their own.

But while these early offerings from companies like HP and NVIDIA included some closed-source software components, such situations are considered interim solutions only.

Ed Leonard says that the industry is willing to accept these short-term, closed-source solutions because of the early stage of the overall migration. But they still want to see long-term strategies that include open source.

"We've said to vendors like HP, 'In order for us to partner, we really want to see you embrace Linux and open source.' That gives the industry more flexibility in choosing hardware. The industry is driving open-source solutions from vendors."

And HP, for its part, agrees. The company has already noted its desire to exit the X server business, leaving that work to both the XFree86 group and video card makers.

Michael J. Hammel is an author of books on The GIMP and GTK+ and most recently as a senior editor for Linux Weekly News

This story was first published on Linux Journal, an internet.com site.

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