Pacific Connection(英語)

Linux Finds Niche on Animation Workstations

For those who yearn for the day when Linux becomes established on client machines, PDI/DreamWorks is a beacon of hope. The studio that produced Antz and Shrek has entered into a three-year alliance with Hewlett-Packard to create a Linux-based infrastructure for what it calls the "next-generation" digital studio, which includes not only Linux servers, but Linux workstations. In embracing Linux, PDI/DreamWorks is not alone. Pixar, George Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic, and Disney are all migrating to Linux. Alias|Wavefront, has ported its Maya 3D animation and visual effects software to Linux. Other producers of computer-generated imagery (CGI), as well as CGI software vendors, are headed in the same direction.

To keep things in perspective, this mass migration within the animation/special effects industry will not necessarily be replicated elsewhere. It is the result of an unusual circumstance in which the computer company that once dominated this sector has slowly lost its grip. That company is SGI (Silicon Graphics, Inc.), once the premier provider of graphics-based hardware for the entertainment industry. Today, SGI still lists the entertainment industry as one of its target industries, along with energy, manufacturing, science research, and defense. Recent films produced with SGI equipment include the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Steven Spielberg's AI: Artificial Intelligence, A Perfect Storm, and Pearl Harbor.

But SGI's marketshare in this sector is eroding, with Intel-based machines running Linux replacing SGI's RISC machines running IRIX. The biggest beneficiary has been Hewlett-Packard, who has aggressively stepped in with graphics-oriented Linux workstations. PDI/DreamWorks, which is based in Glendale, California near the Universal City, Warner Bros., and Disney studios, has made HP its Linux equipment provider of choice. "The opportunity presented itself when SGI took a stumble in the high-end 3D workstation market," said Jeff Wood, worldwide marketing manager for HP's Workstation Group Business Unit. "SGI once had 100 percent of the entertainment market, including client desktop machines running 3D applications on IRIX, as well as on back room rendering servers, which are still very successful. But since then, they've pretty much exited the workstation business on the desktop."

SGI's history with Linux shows the dilemma faced by workstation companies trying to retain their competitive edge from their own CPU and operating system. Just as Sun is alone in offering SPARC and Solaris, so is SGI the sole provider of MIPS and IRIX. Both companies have had to deal with Intel's ever faster CPUs and the steady progression of Linux. In 1999, SGI announced it would provide Red Hat Linux on SGI's Intel-based products. But three years later, under the leadership of Bob Bishop, the company remains focused on its own technology. The company's two workstations, Fuel and Octane2, are both MIPS-based, as are its other products. The old Pentium III SGI workstations and servers are now legacy products, no longer available directly from SGI.

SGI is now planning to re-enter the Linux market by adding Itanium-based systems to its product mix. Last September at an Intel developer conference, the company announced favorable benchmark tests for a prototype 64-processor Itanium-2 prototype system running Linux using its own shared-memory architecture. The architecture is an alternative to the clustering architecture more commonly used in high-performance Linux installations. "This accomplishment will turn the heads of those who considered clustering a multitude of PCs as an optimal solution for integrating Linux into technical computing labs," said Jon "maddog" Hall, president and executive director of Linux International, in a written statement. (Hall has since gone on the staff of SGI, while still retaining his title.) "For those applications that need to scale, SGI has just proven that Linux need not be synonymous with clutter."

But SGI's return to Linux has come too late for big animation houses like PDI/DreamWorks. "Back in 2000, DreamWorks could no longer rely on SGI to solve their problems," said HP's Wood. "They wanted to go to an open system. They knew the Intel architecture would probably be sufficient for their performance needs. And they wanted Linux, so that they didn't have to deal with a big porting headache. Animation houses have got hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lines of their own 3D code written for IRIX. It was very simple for them to port to a Linux platform versus trying to rewrite from scratch going to Windows."

More frames per second

The film industry produces computer-generated images using two types of equipment: workstations for creating, animating, shading and lighting interactive 3D models; and back-end "renderfarms" [short for "rendering farms"] that combine all these artistic directives to create the actual frame. As animation houses adopt Linux-based rendering, Linux workstations naturally follow. But for DreamWorks, there was a catch. While rendering takes place in the background, a workstation interface requires a real-time display at 24 frames per second. SGI equipment delivered that speed and more. But as DreamWorks discovered, a standard PC running Linux and an off-the-shelf graphics card could only deliver in the neighborhood of 4 frames/per second. Wood said that DreamWorks first went to Dell, which in turn went to Red Hat, but neither had the 3D expertise. "That's where we came in."

Initially, HP's own hardware, an HP Visualize Personal Workstation running experimental code, didn't do any better, but the company soon got the rate up to about 45 frames/second. DreamWorks has since purchased some 550 Linux workstations and 625 dual-processor Linux NetServer nodes for rendering, that is, turning the basic wireframes into shaded 3D images. Initial support for HP's FX series graphics cards and software has expanded to include off-the-shelf graphics subsystems and drivers. "We have given all of our X server optimization code to the X Open Forum," said Wood. "From a 3D perspective, we have taken what we developed on our own proprietary hardware and worked with the mainstream graphics vendors, like Nvidia and ATI, to help them optimize their code for Linux." HP also produced a dual-display 3D accelerated solution under Linux-a common setup in animation houses, where one screen is used for wireframe display, the other for showing the fully rendered model.

Of the major animation houses, PDI/DreamWorks is the furthest in migrating to Linux, with three films underway that will be produced almost exclusively under Linux. The company's "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron," which has a more traditional 2D animated look, employed a Linux-based technology called ToonScanner, which digitizes hand-made drawings. Other major animation and special effects companies are following suit.

  • Pixar, the company behind Toy Story and Monsters Inc., and the pioneering company in 3D animation, has moved to IBM Linux workstations, porting about two million lines of internal code-at the rate of about 2000 lines per developer per day. A Linux version of the company's RenderMan command line tools has been available since 1999. The company plans to install some 400 IBM IntelliStation workstations running Linux, and its next film, "Finding Nemo," will be produced almost entirely on Linux systems. Pixar was one of four customers featured at IBM's booth at the Linux Conference and Expo last January. Three of them were running Linux on mainframes; Pixar alone was running the OS on workstations.
  • Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), George Lucas's special effects company, produced "Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones" using Linux workstations and render farm servers. The company made the transition from SGI to Linux in the midst of production. "We thought converting to Linux would be a lot harder than it was," said Andy Hendrickson, ILM director of research and development, in a Linux Journal report. Robert Weaver, a technical director on Episode II, reported a five-fold speed improvement.
  • Walt Disney Feature Animation is another HP Linux workstation customer. Disney has not disclosed much about its plans, but has been working with HP since August 2001, purchasing Intel Xeon-powered HP x4000 workstations and HP IA-32 based servers for rendering.
  • IBM IntelliStation customers running Linux include WETA Digital, a New Zealand company that is contributing special effects to the Lord of the Rings Trilogy; Threshold Entertainment of Santa Monica, California, which is working on an animated feature; and London's Escape Studios, which teaches computer animation.

A comparable Linux migration is taking place among high-end 3D animation packages. Houdini Master from Side Effects Software and XSI from Softimage (a division of Avid) support Linux, as does the best known 3-D package, Alias|Wavefront's Maya. "Most big production facilities have been running to Linux in droves," said Rob Hoffmann, senior product manager for Maya. "Those are the early adopters, and smaller companies are making their way there, as well." The motivation, said Hoffmann, is "dirt-cheap, blisteringly fast Pentium IV workstations." Ironically, Alias|Wavefront is an SGI company.

Not every application company has converted every product. Discreet, a division of AutoDesk, offers a Linux-based background rendering solution called Burn. But Discreet's other products, which include real-time editing of film and uncompressed high definition video, still run only on SGI hardware. "On IRIX, the UNIX kernel is highly tuned to run in a realtime environment," said Maurice Patel, a marketing manager with Discreet. And that requires the full-time resources of the operating system. "For over a decade, SGI has been developing exactly this kind of functionality. We think that Linux will deliver it as well, with people now working on realtime kernels. But as with any open source code project, there's no guarantee that you're going to get there at any particular time."

Other industries more reluctant

With the animation house stampede to Linux almost complete, are other industries poised to do the same? HP has publicized at least one workstation customer outside the entertainment business. L-3 Communications has incorporated HP Workstation x4000s running Linux into its airport screening systems, resulting in faster scanning and better graphics clarity. The company said that deals for other "embedded" applications-in which the workstation acts as a controller to some other solution-are in the works. The most promising area: medical display applications, such as the use of 3D workstations within CT scanners. IBM claims its Linux workstation users include engineers, financial analysts, graphics professionals and scientists-but could not provide any specific customer references.

Another potential opportunity for Linux workstations is in CAD: computer-aided design. Ironically, CAD started out as mostly a UNIX application until companies like Autodesk figured out PCs had enough compute power to do the job. As processing power grew, SolidWorks led the move toward 3D CAD on under Windows, with the ability, say, to rotate an engine assembly on screen in real-time. These days, CAD is largely Windows-based, which makes a Linux move less likely. "Most CAD companies have written rewritten their architecture to support the Windows architecture running OpenGL," said HP's Wood.

But one major CAD company, PTC, has announced plans to port its flagship Pro/Engineer product to Red Hat 7.1 on 32-bit HP workstations this January. (Although HP is the only certified platform, other 32-bit Intel machines should also work). As with animation, demand is coming largely from Unix customers, who "want the stability and power of Unix with the cost of Intel," said Product Manager Dante Dellagnese. "ProEngineer's largest marketshare was once on SGI workstations, but SGI lost its position in the Unix wars." Now, Solaris and HP-UX are PTC's largest Unix platforms, but some of those customers are considering Intel platforms to get more bang for their buck.

"This is an experiment for us. We don't know how much traction we'll get," said Dellagnese. "But we've already gotten a lot of notice, with some customers saying they plan to convert to Linux." Demand is heaviest in Europe, particularly Germany, with some interest in China, as well. "Some governments are moving toward Linux, and that means that companies are more likely to follow," he said.

Another CAD company, MSC.Software, is adopting Linux at the back end, creating the CAD equivalent of a renderfarm. MSC.Software develops structural analysis software, simulating physical stress testing on everything from airplane wings to tennis rackets. A few years ago, the company developed its own Linux distribution, MSC.Linux, which it uses in configuring Beowolf Linux clusters.

"It was our CEO's vision," said Jay Clark, director of marketing and business development, referring to the company's leader, Frank Perna, Jr. "While we knew we weren't going to be a Red Hat, we did see an opportunity to be the high performance experts in the Linux market." MSC.Software's Linux division now designs, builds and tests Linux clusters for customers on a custom basis. The business has taken the company beyond its engineering roots, providing clusters for genetic research, among other applications.

In the entertainment industry, Linux-based workstations naturally followed Linux-based renderfarms. But even though MSC.Software quietly ported its own pre-processor and post-processor to Linux, Clark still sees big obstacles to on the client. "Linux is quite capable of being a desktop, and I contend that if the lawsuit with Microsoft made them port their personal productivity tools to Linux, that Linux would probably take over the world. But until that's done, Linux will struggle against Microsoft's momentum."

With its popular word processing packages, spreadsheet and presentation program, Microsoft Office has become synonymous with personal productivity software-and machines running windows and Microsoft Office are a staple of the business environment. Next year, Sun is planning to offer an alternative: Linux client machines preconfigured with the GNOME desktop, as well as an office suite using browser software from Mozilla, office productivity software from open source project based on Sun's StarOffice code, and Ximian Evolution. Applications can share documents and other data with Microsoft Office. The inclusion of Java Card user authentication makes the setup more attractive to security-sensitive installations like banks and government installations. Sun will also offer compatible servers, creating a sort of a ready-to-run office LAN running under Linux.

This "Linux PC," as some call it, makes sense, especially for price-sensitive installations like schools. Because the desktop and software are based largely on open source community development efforts, they cost less than the Microsoft equivalent. With Microsoft squeezing its customers for more software fees, the Linux version should look even more economical in the future. If this were the dawn of the PC, such a desktop would have a clear shot at broad adoption. But here in 2002, adoption rates will be slower, because learning new applications, even ones modeled on familiar products, requires breaking old habits and learning new tricks. Or, it requires users that don't have any old habits to break-namely, beginners. This problem doesn't confront the animators at PDI/DreamWorks and Pixar because they are still using the same tools under Linux. But in the case of Linux PCs, MSC.Software's Jay Clark is right: what is really needed is a new package from an unaccountably benevolent Microsoft called "Microsoft Office for Linux." But don't hold your breath.