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In a sign of the economic times, DreamWorks Animation has inked a deal with the New Mexico Computing Applications Center to use spare capacity to help render its 3D films.

Nicknamed Encanto, the supercomputer that DreamWorks will be renting time on was funded by the state of New Mexico with an $11m grant in its 2007 budget to help spur economic development and IT research. Encanto has a hybrid set of backers and helpers. The machine is based on Silicon Graphics' Altix ICE Xeon-based blade server clusters and is currently configured with 14,336 Xeon processor cores running at 3 GHz, using the "Harpertown" quad-core Xeons in two-socket blades and 28 TB of main memory.

The whole shebang runs Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 10 and SGI's ProPack 5 extensions for HPC workloads. On the Linpack Fortran benchmark test, it has a sustained performance of 133.2 teraflops. According to Governor Bill Richardson's office - which made the announcement of the DreamWorks deal - this makes Encanto the largest non-federal supercomputer in the world.

While the state owns the supercomputer, New Mexico made a deal with Intel, which has a chip factory in Rio Rancho, to house Encanto at the Intel facility, and presumably, Intel gets some benefit from this - either with processor cycles or money. The University of New Mexico, New Mexico State University, and New Mexico Tech all have dibs on the flops in the box, and the U.S. Department of Energy's Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratory, which are also located in New Mexico, are also partners in the Encanto system.

Richardson hinted in his state of the state address a month ago that such a deal was in the works. "We made a great step forward when we initiated the state supercomputing center - the first public-private partnership of its kind," Richardson said in his address on January 20.

"Now companies and universities are using the supercomputer to create alternative fuels, develop solar energy projects, and attract millions of dollars in venture capital. And the supercomputer's next task? Turning two-dimensional movies into 3D movies for Hollywood and earning hard dollars for state coffers."

Richardson was President Barak Obama's first choice for Secretary of Commerce and was once himself a candidate in the U.S. presidential election last year. While Richardson never had much of a shot at becoming president, he very likely would have won confirmation as Commerce Secretary had in not been for an ongoing Federal investigation into a California company that allegedly won some business peddling bonds after contributing to causes espoused by Richardson. (Perhaps just a little too much public-private partnership).

This is not the first time that DreamWorks has used excess capacity on someone else's server farm - I guess we say cloud these days - to render movies. DreamWorks was an early tester of HP Labs' utility computing farm and used HP's iron to render its Shrek and Shrek 2 animated films in the early 2000s.

Last summer, DreamWorks replaced over 1,500 servers and 1,000 workstations from HP based on Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron processors, which it used for rendering, with new systems based on Intel Xeon processors. Three years earlier, Opteron was the hot chip to have, and by last summer, Intel was able to claim parity or better performance depending on the workloads. Which is why the Intel iron was used to render the "Monsters vs, Aliens" 3D movie that is coming out in March. Get out your polarizing glasses...

DreamWorks is not directly buying capacity on Encanto, as it did with HP Labs. Instead, it's working through a local IT company called Cerelink Digital Media Group, which strangely enough is headed up by the former public affairs director at Intel, Richard Draper. National LambdaRail, a consortium of research and educational institutions that manages a nationwide 10 Gbit/sec fiber optic network, has already tested a high-speed pipe that will link DreamWork's studios in Hollywood with the Encanto supercomputer in Rio Rancho.

Financial details of the arrangement and the amount of capacity that DreamWorks has acquired were not announced. (Richardson's office did say that the deal would create 35 jobs in New Mexico). One thing is for sure: Whatever capacity that DreamWorks is buying on Encanto is not being acquired from HP in the form of new servers or utility computing cycles.

Update: A few days after Governor Richardson's announcement regarding the use of Encanto as a render farm for DreamWorks Animation, it appears that the governor jumped the gun a little in his announcement. A statement put out by Cerelink Digital Media says that while it is using the resources of the New Mexico Computing Applications Center to "explore the delivery of on-demand and scalable computing resources as a cloud service, DreamWorks Animation will not be using the NMCAC supercomputer, Encanto, as part f the partnership." Cerelink said that it believed that Encanto had potential as a render farm, the company will in fact be using HP's c-Class blade servers with Intel processors to build out the render farm at DreamWorks. ®

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