Linux Helps Bring Titanic to Life
The Linux systems worked incredibly well for our problems. The cost benefit was overwhelmingly positive even including the engineering resources we devoted to the problems. The Alpha Linux turned out to be slightly more difficult than first expected, but the state of Alpha Linux is improving very rapidly and should be substantially better now.
Digital Domain will continue to improve and expand the tools we have available on these systems. We are engendering the development of more commercial and in-house applications available on Linux. We are requesting that vendors port their applications and libraries. At this time, the Linux systems are only used for batch processing, but we expect our compositing software to be used interactively by our digital artists. This software does not require dedicated acceleration hardware, and the speed provided by the Alpha processor is a great benefit to productivity.
Feature film and television visual effects development has provided a high-performance, cost-sensitive, proving ground for Linux. We believe that the general purpose nature of the platform coupled with commodity pricing gives it wide application in areas outside our industry. The low entry cost, versatility and interoperability of Linux is sufficiently attractive to warrant more extensive investigation, experimentation and deployment. We are currently at the forefront of that development within our industry and hope to be joined shortly by our peers.
Why Risk Linux? A Production Perspective
Currently, Digital Domain's core business is as a premier provider of visual effects creativity and services to the feature film and commercial production industries. As such, we often take a conservative approach to changes in infrastructure and methodologies in order to meet aggressive delivery schedules and the most demanding standards of product quality.
During the course of work on several recent feature film productions, we encountered situations where our installed base of equipment was not adequate to meet changing production schedules and dynamic visual effects requirements (in terms of increasing magnitude of effort and complexity). We needed to meet these challenges head on without impacting the existing pipeline and without creating new methodologies or systems which would require re-engineering or re-training. Linux Alpha helped us overcome these challenges both cost effectively and quickly (a rare combination).
Selecting Linux as part of the production pipeline for the film Titanic required several goals to be met. If we had not met these requirements, it is unlikely we would have been able to deliver sufficient computing resources in a timely fashion to the production. We needed interoperability and, to a certain degree, compatibility with our SGI/Irix-based systems. Interoperability and compatibility with Linux had been demonstrated during a previous effort (Dante's Peak). We ported critical infrastructure elements (to support distributed processing) to the Linux environment in days, not weeks, using existing staff. The developers of these tools were able to rapidly deploy to the Linux environment, demonstrating that we could leverage that environment in short order. We needed performance, as the schedule for the production, as well as the magnitude of the work implied a 100% or more increase in studio processing capacity. As we had shown that Alpha Linux provided a factor of three to four over our SGI systems (see main article), it was possible to deliver that increased level of performance while physically constrained (air, power and floor space) within our current facility.
As to cost effectiveness, we would have needed more than twice as many Intel machines as Alphas to meet our performance goals. SGI was a valid contender, but could not compete on a price per CPU basis. We also needed a viable structure for delivery, installation and support. Carrera Computers had proven their ability to supply and support us in a timely and cost-effective manner prior to this order, and that company continued to provide an extraordinary level of service throughout the Titanic project.
All things considered, this risk paid off in substantial dividends of project quality and time. Because the urgency of the situation demanded that we think “outside the box”, we were able to deliver a superior solution in a framework that was entirely compatible with our normal operating models and that gave a productivity increase equal to double that of our previous infrastructure. The satisfaction in this success actually made up for the stress incurred in risking one's job and career.
Wook has been a software engineer for over 20 years, having discovered computers and became a complete geek at the age of 14. He has worked for many companies over those years, finally coming to rest at Digital Domain, where he was considered unfit for the task of software engineering and has been relegated to the position of Director of (Digital) Engineering.
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