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DreamWorks Animation Head of Technology Ed Leonard says that these days, computing costs have to be recouped with each film.

"Historically, we purchased a large amount of SGIs. Those were amortized over several films. You'd want to get five years out of some of that hardware due to the expense of that investment," he said. "With the Intel/Linux strategy today, we're moving toward what we refer to as disposable computing. Film productions are generally two years long, and during that time the technology takes several steps ahead. We normally anticipate to recoup a large portion of our hardware costs with every production. So with each new movie, we go out and purchase a new renderfarm."

But it was SideFX's Salvini who put it most bluntly. "It's one thing to have your product run on Linux, but so what if you save $200 on the OS and you need a $5,000 graphics card?"

The use of commodity components is allowing the industry to remove its dependency on SGI, a company with an expensive, specialized hardware and a questionable future. And, Peachey adds, there are only two ways to go with the Intel solution: Microsoft NT or Linux. Feeney says NT turned out to be both a technical problem as well as a political one.

Why not Microsoft?

"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," he said. "So it was for technical reasons that the industry is looking back to the 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," Coldrick said. "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.

"They're off to work on issues that don't solve the set of issues relative to the high-end effects industry," Feeney said. "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."

Praise for 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 its part, agrees. The company has already noted its desire to exit the X server business, leaving that work to both the XFree86 group and video card makers.

Michael J. Hammel is an author of books on The GIMP and GTK+ and most recently as a senior editor for Linux Weekly News

This story was first published on Linux Journal, an internet.com site.

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