Linux Latest Star in Hollywood

The visual-effects industry that serves up spectacular special effects for Hollywood movies has gone for Linux in a big way.


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By Michael J. Hammel

Before the summer of 2001, Linux supporters often pointed to any of a number of single-company deployments as a measure of success for the fledgling operating system.

There was Burlington Northern, which committed in February 1999 to deploy Linux in 250 US stores. That was followed by Japan's Lawson, which struck a deal with IBM to supply that convenience store retailer with 15,000 IBM Linux-based eServers running on Red Hat software. Ford announced a plan where they would deploy 33,000 Linux desktops.

These were big wins for the open-source faithful. But they were corporate waves in a sea of change. What Linux needed was a tidal wave -- an industry-wide migration -- to signal that the penguin had come of age.

Enter the visual effects industry, the collection of studios that produce special effects, or VFX in industry parlance, for movies and animated tales like Toy Story and Shrek. This is an industry ripe for change, an industry struggling to shake the bondage of single-vendor solutions and high-priced specialized hardware. It's also an industry that tested the waters of Windows and found it flowing in the wrong direction.

This isn't a story about one or two studios adopting Linux as servers in their renderfarms, those back rooms full of servers used to produce the individual sets of frames used in a movie. We're talking about the entire industry -- from Rhythm & Hues to Pixar, from Digital Domain to DreamWorks. DreamWorks-PDI had over 2,000 Linux-based CPUs on-line by the summer of 2001.

Their summer blockbuster Shrek was rendered on 1,000+ mostly Linux machines. Pixar has only deployed 15 stations in production and 25 in software development, but VP of Technology Darwin Peachey says the studio is on the verge of a major purchase and deployment of desktops to replace their current SGI desktops. Even Industrial Light & Magic is considering a major switch to the penguin OS.

And this isn't the infrastructure saying they will support Linux, like IBM or Compaq or Hewlett-Packard announcing they will support the OS -- it's the end users demanding it from suppliers of applications and hardware.

Back in June 2001, Ray Feeney, technology committee chair of the Visual Effects Society said, "For the high-end part of movie making, 80-90% will be Linux-based inside of 18 months. Everything is going Linux." This sort of mass migration has never happened before in the Linux world. The tidal wave is here.

Cost vs. Performance

The VFX industry's migration to Linux exposes some interesting interactions that open-source advocates might not have noticed previously. For example, the issue of cost isn't necessarily important when compared to Microsoft products, and it also isn't a factor when considered without the underlying commodity hardware.

Toronto-based Axyz Animation did much of the early-adopter testing for SideFX's Houdini on Linux. John Coldrick, senior animator of Axyz, which has already replaced all of its workstations with Linux-based PCs, says the migration was a cost issue when coming from IRIX, but a technology issue when coming from NT.

"(Linux) doesn't offer more than IRIX except it's substantially less expensive. But it is the scalability on Linux that is phenomenal," he said. "If you start with eight workstations with NT you're fine, but if you have to balloon up to 70 or 100 you run into some major problems. You do that with Linux with no problems."

Cost wasn't the most important issue for Pixar either. "Most people tend to focus on cost" when it comes to migration issues, says Pixar's Vice President of Technology, Darwin Peachey.

"But cost isn't the most important thing at these price levels. The most important thing is to look at what is the best performing hardware," he said. "Right now that's Intel-based workstations, with NVIDIA or ATI equipped graphics solutions. These have now eclipsed traditional RISC workstations (such as SGIs) in terms of graphics and CPU performance. Quite apart from price/performance, if you look at absolute performance, it appears that this is the way the industry has to go."

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