What do you do when you're months out from releasing a film and the computers rendering the special effects can't handle the load? You build a new datacentre, release the billion-dollar film on time, turn the centre into a supercomputing facility and inspire the facility's operators to create an on-demand computing management company.
Just a few months out from the release of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the film's director Peter Jackson was reviewing some of the later scenes of the movie, which would need to be rendered. He tasked WETA Digital and its CIO, Scott Houston, who were responsible for the visual effects in the film, with ensuring that the scenes were delivered on time.
The scene in question? The battle of the Pelennor Fields.
In the scene, tens of thousands of Riders of Rohan, led by King Théoden, charge down a hill to meet hundreds of thousands of orcs in front of the city of Minas Tirith, providing a turning point in the battle. However, each of the characters in the scene were individually generated and rendered, and then placed on the virtual battlefield.
To render a single frame would have taken several days, pushing the film beyond its deadline, and, to make matters worse, Houston and his team were already running their existing infrastructure at full capacity to handle the existing workload.
So WETA Digital decided that they needed to find more computing power. Fast.
They had IBM place new blade servers on private jets, and flew them out to Wellington. From there, a helicopter brought the hardware to the new datacentre they were building. In 10 days, they had an on-demand facility that could handle the additional processing and meet Jackson's deadlines.
The film went on to become a billion-dollar success, but the now-unused hardware would take on a new life of its own. Under a joint agreement between WETA Digital and Gen-i, it was used to create the second-largest supercomputing facility in the world at the time. Space in the facility was rented out to any company.
However, its origins as a large job processor meant that the resources were all manually provisioned, which meant that it wouldn't be economically viable for smaller customers that didn't have jobs quite on the scale of billion-dollar films.
It was from here that Houston and a few colleagues came up with the idea of GreenButton, a company that would provide these customers with a seamless interface to access the same resources without them having to worry about the necessary behind-the-scenes workings.
Houston and his GreenButton team set up a Linux-based concept in the supercomputing centre, but it quickly outgrew the facility and decided it would be a good opportunity to expand globally, finding other computing resources to offer to customers looking for resources.
GreenButton CTO Dave Fellows said that the company first approached IBM and Hewlett-Packard about facilities the company could operate out of, but the two providers didn't have a strong strategy around cloud computing. It had also considered Amazon, however, and then Microsoft approached the company and offered to assist in developing a proof of concept on its Azure platform.
Doing so required GreenButton to drop its existing Linux-based system and rebuild from the ground up, but it enabled the company to access a large amount of computing resources.
Today, the company now provides resources to the oil and gas, engineering, biotechnology and financial services industry, but Fellows said that the company still has a strong foothold in the digital media space, hosting seven or eight rendering applications, including Pixar's RenderMan software, used in films such as Inception and Iron Man 2.
Michael Lee travelled to Tech.Ed as a guest of Microsoft Australia to interview Dave Fellows.