Industry of Change: Linux Storms Hollywood
"Once upon a time there was a great focus on the part of Microsoft that the VFX industry would be the next realm they would conquer", says Feeney, who is also the founder of VFX studio Silicon Grail. "They would fix big data transfer issues in their OS and so forth, taking Windows from a consumer tool to the enterprise." But that never happened, he says,
This industry is like a team sport--it's a collaborative effort. The ability to share data and other material, aside from office-style documents, is extremely complicated and made more so by the limitations of the Microsoft environment. So it was for technical reasons that the industry is looking back to the [Linux] market.
Axyz's John Coldrick agrees and adds that the idea of going NT sent shivers through him. "We were used to working in a UNIX environment where we had control and networking and stability. It's more like NT doesn't offer enough for us: the networking is awful, there are no links and the stability is not as good." Moving to Linux provided less technical problems from a porting standpoint. Because Linux is UNIX for all practical purposes, porting from IRIX was far easier than going to NT.
A recent Giga survey found that a large group of Microsoft customers not related to the VFX industry were not willing to upgrade because of the new licensing rules for XP, which locked them into two-year upgrade cycles. Instead, many are planning to migrate to other options, mostly because they plan to keep their PCs for longer periods. Surprisingly, the group that wants to upgrade fairly often--the VFX industry--didn't get much support from Microsoft. Feeney says,
They're off to work on issues that don't solve the set of issues relative to the high-end effects industry. They decided that they would be better off spending their time elsewhere, like on the Web with Hailstorm and .NET. So they never bit on the enterprise market.
But it isn't just that Linux is more like UNIX. Before the first Linux Summit, the studios were contemplating their upgrade policies. "This industry is a relatively new industry that grew up in the past five or seven years", said DreamWorks' Leonard, "And that is about the lifespan of the SGI hardware."
Industry insiders began wondering what to do about that--either buy new SGIs and deal with the issues of corporate stability that might imply, or go with commodity platforms. Leonard says that Intel's IA-64 is going to make a quantum leap for the VFX market. "It will force everyone to migrate to commodity hardware over the next 18 months", matching the IA-64 release cycle.
As part of their migration, the industry has had to consider upgrade policies in a new way. Studios find that upgrading commodity hardware doesn't make much sense. Desktops and renderfarms have a two- to three-year lifetime, matching the time frame for a given film production, after which faster hardware makes them replaceable. As new systems are brought in, new software installations are too, and that means verifying applications continue to work on both. In many cases, studios will continue to depend on a single-source vendor--though they now have a choice of vendors--to supply Linux and third-party applications certified for their hardware. From the start of the migration the vendor with the most interest in the industry movement has been Hewlett-Packard.
Much of the early work in migrating companies like Pixar, DreamWorks and Axyz Animation was helped in no small part by the energetic team at HP's Ft. Collins graphics group.
Both SideFX's Salvini and Axyz's Coldrick praised HP for their help in getting the initial port of Houdini working. Recognizing the lack of accelerated hardware support in XFree86, HP ported their own server from HP/UX over to Linux along with a supporting OpenGL environment. This solution, while not completely open-source oriented, moved the process along to the point prior to the first VES Linux Summit.
Nothing Real had ported their Shake compositing software to Linux by April 2000. The company would have had it sooner, except for the lack of hardware-accelerated drivers. They credit HP for helping them make the move to Linux, as well as video card maker NVIDIA, which they say moved more slowly but eventually came around to providing proprietary drivers of their own.
But while these early offerings from companies like HP and NVIDIA included some closed-source software components, such situations are considered interim solutions only. Ed Leonard says that the industry is willing to accept these short-term, closed-source solutions because of the early stage of the overall migration. But they still want to see long term strategies that include open source. "We've said to vendors like HP, 'In order for us to partner, we really want to see you embrace Linux and open source.' That gives the industry more flexibility in choosing hardware. The industry is driving open-source solutions from vendors." And HP, for their part, agrees. They have already noted their desire to exit the X server business, leaving that work to both the XFree86 group and video card makers.
Solution providers such as Hewlett-Packard and IBM offer VFX studios complete system solutions running various distributions of Linux, with the industry default standard being Red Hat Linux. HP's digital content creation (a.k.a. DCC) systems are the x2000 and dual processor x4000, and both are certified for use with Red Hat. IBM's Linux Digital Studio Solution is that company's DCC offering and includes their IntelliStation M Pro workstation, the eServer xSeries for rendering duties and various other hardware for storage options. Threshold Entertainment produced the Berkeley Breathed short Edward Fudwupper Fibbed Big, shown this year at SIGGRAPH 2001, entirely on IBM's offering.
Pixar's PRMan, Alias|Wavefront's Maya, Nothing Real's Shake, Silicon Grail's RAYZ and SideFX's Houdini are all certified to run on Red Hat. Softimage, which makes the XSI compositing package, plans to support multiple distributions. But there has to be a limit to the number of distributions they can support simply based on the requirements of having those distributions ready and available for testing. Each distribution has a good chance of working, but the management of all those distributions would be too much for any application vendor to handle.
For this reason studios will continue to rely on single source vendors. Leonard says that in DreamWork's case, partnering with HP for their initial work just made sense:
They owned the entire stack, just like SGI did. Not by directive or choice. It just happened that they manufactured the hardware, such as their FX line of graphics cards. They had their own drivers for their graphics cards. If we had a problem, they could own that problem through to resolution.
But eventually, when open-source drivers are readily available for the NVIDIA or ATI cards of choice, DreamWorks and other studios will expect to get the open-source solutions from any vendor. The studios can keep a single source to get the complete solution if they choose, they'll just have more than one vendor to choose from to get it.
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