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To meet surging demand for online entertainment, high-performance computing takes starring role

Our ravenous appetite for online entertainment during the pandemic has pushed streaming video revenues to an estimated US$51 billion (£39 billion) this year, up nearly 20% from 2019.

To feed this boom in viewer demand, studios need shows. But many studios allow only limited staff onsite, leaving animators, filmmakers, and production teams struggling to get the huge computing power needed to render today’s digital entertainment. That work has typically been done using server clusters running on-premises at the studio.

“A lot of animators are literally packing up their large, highly spec’d workstations and taking them home,” said YellowDog Chief Executive and Technology Officer Simon Ponsford during a recent webcast, hosted by Oracle, called HPC in Entertainment. Such work-from-home setups provide studios with a less-than-ideal temporary fix, “as high network latency all but kills their productivity,” Ponsford said.

A better way for animators to overcome the work-from-home network latency challenge is to run their video workstations on GPUs in the cloud, said Ponsford, during the Zoom-based discussion with host Taylor Newill, director of high-performance computing (HPC) at Oracle.

London-based YellowDog helps film studios render full-length feature films in the cloud, deploying as many as 198,000 Compute cores in about 30 minutes. YellowDog has been running its rendering platform on Oracle Cloud Infrastructure (OCI) since 2017.

On YellowDog’s platform, animators working from home can build out their scenes and sync each motion, movement, and texture as they create them. With OCI’s Object Storage continuously running in the background, “everything is ready when the artists go to render,” Ponsford said. “There’s no more waiting until they’ve finished the entire project and then having to push all those large files to their local server farms.”

Beyond performance

YellowDog and Oracle also make it easier for artists to know how much this computing power costs. Animators type in the number of frames in their films and the date they need them rendered by, then YellowDog automatically calculates how many nodes it takes and how much that number costs.

For example, a film studio found itself months behind schedule, with just two weeks to finish a major feature film, so it turned to YellowDog for help. The studio’s animators moved sliders in the application to choose from a range of prices and delivery options, from 48 hours to eight days. “Because we’re running these jobs on OCI’s bare metal instances, we were able to let the studio choose the best possible price-to-performance render package for its project, timeline, and budget,” Ponsford said.

Being able to provision machines quickly is another top priority for YellowDog, and a key reason it runs on Oracle Cloud Infrastructure. Artists can provision a machine and start rendering a workload—sometimes within seconds. “It’s really important that the initial run-up time is absolutely minimal, because no client wants to pay for provisioning time,” he said.

Bursting at the seams

Production schedules rule the film industry. Failing to complete a project on time can cost filmmakers a lot of money and ruin reputations. Rendering films at 4K to 20K resolution can push in-house compute resources beyond their capacity, putting the studio at risk of missing a deadline.

“People want to be able to burst on a massive scale,” Ponsford told Oracle’s Newill. “They don’t want to use two extra workstations that they might have plugged in. They want to provision 200 or 300 machines instantly.”

Such elasticity is a big reason YellowDog built its core application using a cloud native approach. “Pairing Oracle with automated provisioning tools, such as Terraform and Ansible, makes it much easier for us to bring up nodes very quickly and manage these huge jobs across the entire infrastructure,” Ponsford said. “This is where HPC comes in. You can’t easily build that on-premises anymore.”

More secure than a bank?

Feature films and animated brand ads can be part of multimillion-dollar projects, so studios are rightly obsessed with protecting this intellectual property against early leaks.

“In terms of IP protection, no bank has tighter security requirements than some of the major film studios,” Ponsford said. Animators often use workstations that aren’t connected to the internet, for example.

By connecting a virtual private network (VPN) to OCI, YellowDog can ensure that it only provisions resources using private IP addresses. “Many cloud providers by default give their customers public IPs when commissioning resources. But studios don’t want that. They only want private IPs when they’re rendering high-dollar films,” Ponsford said.

YellowDog provides an extra layer of security by the way it manages rendering workloads. “We coordinate the workloads, and we manage the file transfers, but the workloads never go through our servers. We never touch them,” Ponsford said.

Ponsford told Newill that many studios don’t even use virtual machines for film rendering. Oracle Cloud Infrastructure gives them that option to use only dedicated, bare metal servers, meaning no other users are on that physical machine.

“Having absolute control over these machines gives people that same feeling of security that they have when running their workloads on-premises,” he said.

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