Harry Potter effects gurus turn to cloud

Harry Potter effects gurus turn to cloud

Summary: Having only been open for business three months, cloud-based, high performance computing (HPC) provider Steam Engine has been "flat stick", according to its commercial director, Stefan Gillard. Steam Engine is so popular in fact, it's become the IT horsepower provider of choice to one of Australia's top visual effects studios: Rising Sun Pictures, of Harry Potter fame.

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Having only been open for business three months, cloud-based, high performance computing (HPC) provider SteamEngine has been "flat stick", according to its commercial director, Stefan Gillard. SteamEngine is so popular in fact, it's become the IT horsepower provider of choice to one of Australia's top visual effects studios: Rising Sun Pictures, of Harry Potter fame.

Magic

(Magic image by Linus Bohman, CC2.0)

Rising Sun Pictures' owner and visual effects supervisor Tony Clark spoke to ZDNet Australia about the studio's use of SteamEngine's HPC grunt to get big, feature-length projects over the line.

Of paramount concern to Clark is the security of Rising Sun Pictures' precious film and render data; he said that an offshore cloud environment would be totally unsuitable for the company's needs, primarily due to proximity concerns.

"We obviously have concerns about security and we need to be satisfied by what's offered. We wouldn't use computers from this random place that we couldn't see or inspect. Our clients are incredibly security concerned, given the sensitive nature of films in production and the sizable investment at stake," Clark said.

Stefan Gillard, SteamEngine's commercial director, said that its HPC model is ideal for film development given that the data is stored in the tier-three-rated Global Switch facility, secured deep within the Harbour MSP datacentre in Sydney.

"Our HPC environment is a whole bunch of servers that can be imaged with any sort of application state. It's available to any industry vertical. There's a storage stack sitting behind that which can be partitioned as an individual storage stack for one client, or we have a wider stack of storage which is provisioned for a business. We don't have the same clients residing on the same physical drives as one another ... or they can share common hybrid storage with other customers," said Gillard.

In the instance of Rising Sun Pictures, Clark told ZDNet Australia that the company controlled the physical machines within SteamEngine rather than virtual ones and therefore sees the deal as less of a pure cloud arrangement, and more as a "horsepower" deal.

"We have direct access to the bare metal. We're renting grunt. The pure cloud models are more virtualised that instance," Clark said.

"All of these computers are running 100 per cent, so there's very little to be gained [from virtualisation at the moment]," he added.

In orchestrating the deal, the two companies first had to overcome a location divide of over 1000 kilometres between Adelaide and Sydney. The two cities are connected by an intercapital link of 100Mbps.

"We had to get over some fairly prominent networking and communications problems, given the fact that it was 1800 kilometres away. As our first pilot foundation client, we got to knock over some of the biggest challenges we'd face going to market anyway," Gillard said.

Gillard added that SteamEngine's primary benefit was cost-to-data-burst ratio.

"Why own your own kit when you can rent it as infrastructure as a service? We can provide them with a million dollars worth of kit for a month for substantially under what even a lease repayment on that kit would be, and it's introducing a new paradigm into how people look at that kit," he said.

Clark said that the model wasn't too dissimilar from renting other physical equipment.

"We rent horsepower through a datacentre. We go out readily and rent bits and pieces of equipment and put it in our own datacentres and things. But you can go to people like [SteamEngine] to get equipment for a date and time," said Clark.

Rising Sun Pictures can use anywhere between five and 500 gigabytes of storage on one particular rendering task, Clark explained.

"That hundred gigabytes may represent 10 or so different jobs. There could be around 1700 tasks on a queue. Some of them reference the same data, like object movement for example. A frame can take somewhere from 15 minutes to three hours and there's 24 frames per second."

Rising Sun Pictures runs 300 nodes in its render farm during the day, with an extra 150 available to it at night, as well as the extra grunt provided by SteamEngine, meaning that render jobs go quicker with fewer errors.

"We have a batch computer management system. You give it jobs and finds the best place to run them on our own computers and we then bolt nodes onto our existing render farm. Our program will push data onto the rented nodes as required," Clark said.

"We intend to use this model in the future though because it's difficult to dimension your computing requirements for your needs. If you consider that each machine costs several thousand dollars to buy and need each machine for a short period of time that's just economics," Clark added.

Rising Sun Pictures is currently working on visual effects for films including Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, The Green Lantern, The Sorcerer's Apprentice and in the past has supplied effects for X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Terminator: Salvation and Baz Luhrmann's Australia.

Front page image credit: wizard image, by Dylan Otto Krider, CC2.0

Topics: Cloud, Data Centers, Outsourcing

Luke Hopewell

About Luke Hopewell

A fresh recruit onto the tech journalism battlefield, Luke Hopewell is eager to see some action. After a tour of duty in the belly of the Telstra beast, he is keen to report big stories on the enterprise beat. Drawing on past experience in radio, print and magazine, he plans to ask all the tough questions you want answered.

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