Sony Unveils Cell-Based Image Processing Appliance

By Michael Feldman

August 12, 2008

Digital content creation is an almost perfect type of application for an HPC cluster. For example, computer generated (CG) animation for feature-length movies is typically run on large render farms made up of low-cost hardware built from x86-based compute nodes. Generating images for each frame can be accomplished more or less independently, which means the whole process maps very well to the highly-parallel but loosely-coupled architecture of a cluster.

The only problem is the demand for more sophisticated digital imagery and higher resolutions is outstripping the ability of the hardware to keep up. At DreamWorks, rendering time for CG movies doubles every three years, even on top of Moore’s Law improvements in raw compute power. That means studios are building bigger and bigger render farms and using increasing amounts of power to produce CG animated movies. That’s why there is growing interest in using non-CPU acceleration technologies, like GPUs and the Cell processor, to speed production work and, at the same time, deliver savings in energy and space.

With that in mind, Sony has unveiled the BCU-100, a digital content creation appliance based on Sony’s PlayStation 3 technology. The announcement was made today at SIGGRAPH 2008 in Los Angeles.

The BCU-100 is a 1U box that incorporates the compute hardware found in the PS3 — the Cell Broadband Engine integrated with the RSX graphics processor, a GPU developed by NVIDIA and Sony. The Cell processor delivers 230 gigaflops of performance and is augmented with OpenGL performance from the RSX. The Cell and the RSX are coupled directly with a high-speed FlexIO bus with shared access to memory, giving the appearance of a single large virtual processor.

The BCU-100 is available with a complete visualization solution from Side Effects Software. Tools are included for modeling, lighting, advanced physical simulations, particle effects, compositing and rendering. Support is also provided for the mental ray renderer from mental images, which includes support for the MetaSL shading language.

The de facto operating system for the appliance is Yellow Dog Linux, provided by Terra Soft Solutions Inc., who teamed up with Sony on the BCU-100 introduction. “We initiated our collaborative effort with Sony and the BCU-100 one year ago, moving to build a thoroughly tested, easily installed, scalable and robust version of Yellow Dog Linux for Sony’s high-end customers,” said Terra Soft CEO Kai Staats. “The ‘Enterprise’ extension bundles our OS with an annual, per motherboard license for support, granting BCU-100 owners confidence in their ability to gain the OS-level support they require.”

Terra Soft is also providing Y-HPC, a cluster construction suite. For those BCU-100 owners who seek to install an identical node image across a half dozen or even hundreds of BCU-100 compute nodes, Y-HPC provides a means for node image deployment. “A simple tool in concept, Y-HPC enables systems administrators to rapidly deploy homogeneous node images with render engines, load balancing image data, and Moab cluster workload management hooks pre-configured,” said Staats.

The BCU-100 also uses Terra Soft’s Y-Film, a productivity suite for visual effects production. Y-Film was developed by Scott Frankel, formerly of Industrial Light & Magic and then ESC Entertainment, where he was the digital effects supervisor for the last two Matrix films. Y-Film streamlines the production of computer graphics imaging from Windows, OS X, and Linux desktops to a Linux render farm, which in this case is made up of BCU-100 compute nodes. The suite provides an automated workflow pipeline and an integrated asset management system built upon a scalable SQL database for model, animation, camera, composite, and shot tracking and reporting.

“To paint a proper picture, take one hundred or more artists working on a film, each manipulating hundreds of frames, each frame set undergoing its third, tenth, … thirtieth iteration at the request of the art director, day after day, week after week.” said Staats. “The render farm is slammed and the myriad of variables overwhelming. Something has to track the massive quantity of assets, something has to maintain order amidst impending chaos. This is what Y-Film does. It brings order out of chaos.”

The BCU-100 is aimed at CG studios and artists looking for a lot of rendering performance in a compact space. But according to Sony, the machine could also be adapted for general HPC workloads. “The BCU-100 is ideal for visualization and rendering pipelines and any stream-intensive processing,” said Satoshi Kanemura, Sony’s vice president, B2B of America. “This includes not only the film and entertainment industry but also scientific visualization, medical, defense, oil and gas exploration, and additional high-performance computing applications.”

In theory this is true, since the system is basically a Linux OS on top of a Cell processor. But the custom RSX GPU chip will probably only be of use to graphics codes employing OpenGL (which is a shame — the RSX has 1.8 teraflops of single-precision performance). Since the RSX is based on NVIDIA’s 7-series technology, it’s doubtful if CUDA would ever support it.

The BCU-100’s true calling seems to be as a turnkey appliance for digital content creators. According to Sony, the BCU-100 can scale from small setups for CG artists at boutique studios to large rendering farms for the top-tier studios. Its small size and performance/watt efficiency is an advantage in both settings.

Product availability is slated for later in the year, and Sony has been testing the waters with as yet unnamed parties. “We have been quietly working with a few facilities with plans to begin customer evaluations just after SIGGRAPH,” said Kanemura. Pricing has not been disclosed.

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