DreamWorks uses Red Hat cloud to cut filmmaking costs

DreamWorks used cloud computing to create and process huge amounts of data. The result was faster and more cost-effective film production.

CHICAGO -- Like every other tech vendor, Red Hat Inc. wants to be seen as a cloud computing power. To that end, it trotted out a DreamWorks exec to discuss how the studio used a Red Hat Linux-based cloud to produce what it calls the world's first stereoscopic, 3-D animation film this year.

That Red Hat cloud -- along with the latest 3-D authoring tools -- helped create Monsters vs. Aliens, an animated 3-D film and enhance scenes such as the collapse of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, said Derek Chen, DreamWorks' head of Digital Operations, at the Red Hat Summit which took place Sept. 1-4.

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There was a downside to all that realism: The additional filming to achieve these special effects boosted the project to 40 million hours. Although the total was eight times as much work as a Shrek film that preceded it, Monsters vs. Aliens was finished in the same two-year time frame, Chen said.

Greater flexibility
Cloud computing was key in faster and more cost-effective production, enabling DreamWorks to build capacity for sustained demand vs. peak capacity, reducing compute requirements from 21,000 cores to 16,000 cores, he said. And cloud computing provided greater service elasticity than a server farm, subdividing a film sequence and sending it to 40 cores simultaneously, automating previously manual processes and cutting turnaround time from four hours to just minutes, he said.

"Server farms didn't fit," Chen said. "We needed to change the model and make compute services expand and contract automatically so we didn't waste resources."

Virtualization also helps, enabling DreamWorks to process and isolate each job, measure its consumption of computing resources and check its status, all of which helped to reduce deployment time, he said.

We needed to change the model and make compute services expand and contract automatically.
Derek Chen, Digital Operations, DreamWorks,
DreamWorks' computing foundation is a 10-year-old grid, now more than 20,000 cores spread among four data centers, linked by than 12,000 miles of dual-gigabit bandwidth (except for the Bangalore site). Despite the benefit of increased utilization and redundancy from the grid, DreamWorks still faced a "nasty challenge" of bandwidth limitations and high-I/O intensity transporting the applications and data to and from its private cloud, he said. Although he is on the leading edge in harnessing the capabilities of cloud computing, Chen said that cloud computing in general still faces security challenges (which DreamWorks has minimized by remaining on its own private cloud to date) and interoperability issues, with more than 85 companies offering cloud solutions, he said.

"Red Hat gets it. In kernel virtualization, virtualization management, the application orchestration and cloud abstraction layers, Red Hat get it," Chen said. "Red Hat is giving customers the opportunity to innovate [in different ways] and leverage them where it makes sense."

Moving between private and public clouds
The DreamWorks scenario may be more glitzy than most, but at least some Red Hat Summit attendees could see practical applications beyond Hollywood.

Mike Roberts, a Red Hat Certified Engineer and technical trainer at Rackspace, an IT Web hosting company, said the operational and engineering capabilities Chen described were impressive. Even though all the effort was for movie special effects, DreamWorks' innovations represent big business in entertainment and will certainly trickle down to other applications, he said. The company also seems to have organized its servers tightly to the point of dialing up the compute power they need, he said.

"We don't have any cute movies, but our uptime beats anyone in our industry," Roberts added.

Michael Coté, an analyst with Seattle, Wash.-based Redmonk, said DreamWorks may be in a specialized industry but its challenges -- moving huge sets of data quickly -- are relevant to a large audience. Cloud computing helped DreamWorks repurpose compute nodes more quickly for specific jobs than grids [and, therefore, increased speed], but DreamWorks still had security issues and network bottlenecks over large distances, he said.

Where open source in general and Red Hat in particular are different from proprietary vendors is that they are "brave enough" to talk about their cloud initiatives while they are still in development, involving their customers and the open source community up front, in contrast to proprietary companies that can postpone announcements until products are ready to ship, he said.

Red Hat believes that open source application programming interfaces like the those it is developing will help make public and private clouds more interoperable, but "we'll have to wait and see if Red Hat delivers on its projects," Coté said. "If they can create a quality product for moving between public and private clouds, it would be a lot more affordable [than proprietary software] and would be an interesting business model. Red Hat is pointed in the right direction."

Pam Derringer is a contributor to SearchEnterpriseLinux.com.

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