What matters about Pixar and Azure (and it's not who's using it)

Does Pixar have to be using Azure for its own movies for it to be interesting that Pixar is using Azure to run RenderMan on?It's not.

Does Pixar have to be using Azure for its own movies for it to be interesting that Pixar is using Azure to run RenderMan on?

It's not. It would be a deliciously ironic thing if it turned out that Pixar - the company funded by Steve Jobs when George Lucas moved on until it grew into such a storytelling power that it did a reverse takeover of animation giant Disney - had been making its movies on Azure, but that's not really relevant to what Pixar's demonstration at the PDC keynote was about.

Pixar's Chris Ford (wearing a wonderful WALL-E Hawaiian shirt) showed off what he took care to note was a proof of concept cloud service for studios that can't afford the investment to build their own data centre with 6,000 processors to use as a render farm, that would let them run RenderMan in the cloud, on Azure. While I'm a huge fan both of Pixar and of RenderMan (back when I was doing an AI degree, I learned the physics of light from a RenderMan programming manual), RenderMan isn't Pixar's secret sauce. Having amazing storytellers and a company that allows them to refine their stores is what really sets Pixar apart; RenderMan is just like a really great pencil or the right kind of camera - it's what you do with it that counts. That's why Pixar has been selling RenderMan for years.

RenderMan already run on everything from Mac OS X to Linux to Windows, and it already runs on every flavour of Windows from XP to HPC Server. Having a version of RenderMan on Azure for other companies to use is just another way for Pixar to offer RenderMan to its customers. What's interesting is that the company picked Azure rather than another cloud service like Amazon ECC.

Ford gave several reasons for using Azure; the scalability and elasticity of the service and what he called 'sustainability' (which I call 'the fact that you know Microsoft will be around and still running Azure when you finish your movie in three years'; Weta Digital buys all the computers it uses for rendering in house at the beginning of production and uses them for three years without upgrades because you just can't afford to waste time dealing with IT issues when you're making a movie).

And then he mentioned what I think is the most interesting reason and the one that really validates Azure as a platform. "It just works," Ford said. "We just uploaded the current version of RenderMan into the cloud and it just worked. We didn't have to do anything. We can run the same software in the cloud without any extra effort."

When Pixar offers the cloud rendering service, animators will like that the service analyses what they upload and compares it to the last version of the screen they uploaded so they're only paying the bandwidth costs for what's different. They'll like that they can watch the frames as they render so they can tell straight away if something unexpected is happening (which will make for fewer blooper reels showing scenes like Sully from Monsters Inc with his fur standing on end because something strange happened in an updated version of the shader, but more importantly saves the animator the cost of rendering a scene they're going to have to redo). They're going to like being able to choose how many rendering units to use, depending on whether they're in a hurry and have budget to spare or don't care if they get the scene tomorrow if it's cheaper - and seeing in advance how long that will take.

But Pixar and other companies who want to build services on Azure will like how easy it is to move software they've been running on Windows up into the cloud and move it from being an app to running as a service. From SQL Azure and reporting services to the new virtual machine role that runs Windows Server 2008 R2 virtual machines (and next year Windows Server 2003 images) to server app virtualisation that lets you install apps without actually running the tricky Windows-dependant installer, Azure is gaining the features that Microsoft deliver on what it claimed Azure would do - be Windows in the cloud.

Of course there are differences between apps and services, of course there will always be work to be done (it took two people a month to port the 180,000 lines of TSQL that make up the thousand stored procedures in Visual Studio Team Foundation Server, for example). But you're not throwing way everything you had and starting over - and that's what Pixar is using Azure for. Mary Branscombe


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