Grid Computing in the Digital Media Industry

By By Jim Davis, Senior Analyst, The 451 Group

October 10, 2005

Early adopters in a range of vertical markets show that Grid computing is driving a new model in the economics of enterprise IT. The use of Grids in life sciences, financial services and electronic design automation is being well documented as users share their experiences. However, very little has focused on how the use of Grid technologies has impacted the digital media industry.

The 451 Group has found that Grid computing technology has become a critical resource for the digital media industry — necessary to deliver more sophisticated animation and special effects. The movie and electronic gaming industries are the markets — within the aggregate digital media industry — where 451 analysts have seen the widest deployment of Grid computing technologies. A form of Grid computing has long been used by the digital media industry; though Grids have always been called “render farms,” as they're known by industry insiders, so “Grid computing” remains a foreign concept to some.

The Movie Industry

Being involved in IT in the media industry is often a glamorous position, and the large studios, in particular, have gone out of their way to recruit the best programmers and IT specialists. Although the person running IT for a studio works under a number of different job titles, this person often has wide budgetary control and reports to either an operations chief or the head of the studio. Despite this glamour, the IT group is often under intense pressure to reduce costs. Although there is an ongoing need to have the latest and greatest technology, all sorts of strategies are used to cut costs. These include finding IT vendors willing to provide free or discounted hardware and software in return for the public relations benefits of being associated with a given movie, as well as using open source technology and in-house development.

Apart from lowering costs, another factor driving IT decisions is the ever-increasing demand for heightened realism from special effects. This applies equally to live action and animated films. Generally speaking, industry experts are working on applying lighting techniques like global illumination and subsurface scattering to their scenes. The use of these techniques has forced software companies to adapt their rendering products.

Certain movies can't be made without Grid computing. However, they can be made without using the word “Grid.”  As much as ever-growing Grids enable faster production of a film, artists are always using extra capacity to do more iterations of a scene. As one user explained, films are never finished, only abandoned. Where Grid technology underpins utility computing services, however, there is an opportunity to provide the extra compute resources needed to complete projects on time.

Large movie studios are used to building proprietary tools to achieve new creative effects, and Grids will sometimes fall into the same category of expense. In some cases, the use of Grid technology is being publicly noted, but in many cases the companies want to keep its use a secret. While the largest studios and production houses can afford to build their own Grids, there is potential adoption for Grid technology at smaller firms, as well. Desktop applications like Adobe Premiere have been Grid-enabled for faster rendering of graphics, and there are signs that this technology is being well received.

The Film Industry Vs. Other Vertical Markets

The big difference between the film industry and other vertical markets is that in the film industry, technology is being used by people who think of themselves foremost as artists and creative types — not IT people. The implication here is that the traditional approach to creating IT does not apply — instead, the perspective is one of making tools look and feel appropriate for this community.

While Grids to enable utility computing could be of great advantage to this industry, many companies are wary of the outsourcing/utility model for a number of reasons. First, the studios generally believe it is more efficient to build their own core technologies such as rendering engines, Grid management components and so on, rather than outsourcing such activities. If a third party were to do a studio's processing, the cost has to be right, and the ease of provisioning a service has to be addressed. Also, the studios are very sensitive to the idea that data will be compromised. Letting a bureau or third party touch the data increases the risk that it will find its way onto the Internet or into pirate distributions.

Are all of the concerns justified? To a degree. Vendors still have a lot to do in order to address these concerns in terms of offering concrete benefits instead of theoretical ones. Utility computing is of interest, but access to raw horsepower isn't the most pressing concern right now for the larger studios. Rather, they've built such huge Grids that data management is the main issue. Keeping the render farm fed with data has forced studios to invest in high-performance storage systems and consider other novel ways to move data to the processor. Other challenges include concerns over linking sites, lack of Grid-enabled software, software licensing issues and storage requirements.

The Gaming Industry

Grid computing is also used across the electronic gaming industry — from development to distribution — but the most excitement seems to be around enabling online entertainment. Publishers have traditionally been reluctant to outsource any aspect of their businesses, instead preferring to sustain whatever differentiation exists by doing everything in-house. The increased popularity of online gaming demands significant resources, and the ability to quickly scale the network is becoming increasingly important — thus, there is interest in utility computing.

The electronic entertainment industry is famously tight-lipped about the technologies it uses. Competitive differentiation is proving increasingly difficult to sustain. As game development costs have skyrocketed, publishers have grown wary of supporting risky or unproven genres. The result is an industry characterized by relatively indistinguishable titles. Therefore, studios want to vigorously protect any perceived advantage and have been unwilling to discuss their Grid usage on the record.

Despite this reluctance, The 451 Group has identified six areas in which Grid computing is finding traction:

  • Online program distribution.
  • Internal creation of in-game art.
  • Rendering of in-game cut scenes.
  • Packaging of game assets for multiple platforms.
  • Hosting a single persistent-world massively multiplayer online game.
  • Distributing the variable load of one or multiple online titles.

For film production companies, licensing, data transfer and IP security issues leave utility computing a difficult and expensive option. But for games, the priorities are scalability, fault tolerance, load balancing and providing an always-on, complex world. The 451 Group expects to see more activity in this space going forward.

For more information about this topic, please visit www.the451group.com/intake/gridtoday-oct05.

About Jim Davis

Jim Davis is a senior analyst at New York-based The 451 Group — an independent technology industry analyst company focused on the business of enterprise IT innovation.

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