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Pixar An Intel Shop? Say It Ain't So, Steve!

Pixar An Intel Shop? Say It Ain't So, Steve!

by , 12:00 PM EST, February 10th, 2003

Running Pixar is Steve Jobs' other job, and that company is as successful and as innovative as Apple, but for entirely different reasons: Apple produces hardware and software, Pixar produces movies. Both appeal to the masses on their own merits.

Making digitally animated movies require two different types of computers; workstations on which the animators and artists create the action in the flick, and rendering computers that turn what was created by the animators and artists into something we can watch. Renderers usually are not just one computer, but a farm of many to which the huge rendering job is distributed in bite sized pieces. This allows a job that could be completed by one machine in hours, days, or even weeks to be completed by the farm as a whole in a fraction of that time. Obviously, the faster the individual machines are in the farm, the faster the farm can complete any given task. The faster your farm can render the faster you can complete a movie, so animation shops like Pixar are constantly upgrading their render farms with the fastest available computers.

Pixar's render farm traditionally had been filled with computers from Sun, that's all changed now according to a report from C|Net News. Though Pixar is incorporating Mac OS X into its workflow, the company's rendering farm will be using Intel based computers running Linux. From the C|Net News article titled Pixar switches from Sun to Intel:

The Emeryville, Calif.-based film studio (Pixar) is replacing servers from Sun in its render farm--a bank of servers that fuses artists' images into finished film frames--with eight new blade servers from Racksaver. In all, the blade system contains 1,024 Intel 2.8GHz Xeon processors, and it runs the open-source Linux operating system.

Pixar installed the Rackspace system over the previous six months and will use it to develop its next film, The Incredibles, which will likely hit theaters in 2004.

While the financial impact of the individual contract may be negligible to Sun, the symbolism is tough to ignore. A number of film and entertainment studios in the past year have swapped out Unix computers containing reduced instruction set computer (RISC) processors, like Sun's UltraSparc III, in favor of systems running Linux and chips from Intel or from Intel rival Advanced Micro Devices.

Last July, for instance, Industrial Light and Magic replaced RISC-based computers running Unix on artist workstations from SGI, choosing instead Dell desktops containing Intel chips and Linux software. ILM also installed a rendering farm running AMD's Athlon processors. Other Intel-Linux installations took place at DreamWorks and Sony Pictures' Imageworks.

"We've got coverage now with the brand marquee companies," said Tom Gibbs, director of industry marketing at Intel. "This is a complete migration. They are moving off Sun Solaris and onto Intel-based servers running Linux."

While Intel-based servers are generally less expensive than Unix-RISC-based servers, Gibbs asserted that the conversion is taking place because the performance gap between the two types of setups has largely been erased, and even reversed for certain functions.

"They (film studios) will pay what they have to pay to get the image quality," Gibbs said.

As part of the switch to Intel for rendering, Pixar has ported its Renderman software to run on Linux.

The full article also points out that Steve Jobs gave the keynote address at Intel's sales conference in Las Vegas.

The Mac Observer Spin:

Now, before you get your knickers in a knot, as many of anti-Intel folks will inevitably do, let's examine what's going on here.

Pixar's motivations behind picking renderers are that of any animation house, that is to get the most bang for the buck. If a bunch of Intel boxes running Linux can crunch frames faster than what Sun and AMD can offer and can do so cheaply then business dictates that they go with Intel. Also understand that studios like Pixar MUST keep up with the latest technology; time is truly money. Shaving a few seconds off the time to render a movie frame can equate to hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars saved. Studios like Pixar upgrade render farms regularly, using whatever the best technology is at the time. This time, for this purpose, Intel won. The next time Pixar swaps out its render farm, who knows?

The key to businesses like Pixar is to remain as flexible as possible, to able to adapt to current trend quickly. That Pixar picked Intel amd Linux is a reflection of what is currently going on in many corporate IT shops, not just in animation studios.

What does Pixar's choice of processor for its render farm say about Apple? Not much for its present hardware offerings, but not necessarily much about its future offerings, either. Apple and Macs address a completely different set of issues and we seriously doubt that Pixar's choice of processor is any indication of what might be coming out of One Infinite Loop in the foreseeable future. If anything, if or once Apple starts using IBM's 64 bit 970 processor in its servers and workstations, we wouldn't be at all surprised to read that Pixar's next render farm is comprised of Xserves running OS X or Linux. Time will tell, of course.

One thing this move does emphasize, however, is that Apple's hardware does not make the best rendering platform. Painfully obvious, perhaps, but the background goes like this: the Mac has never been the choice for the big Hollywood houses for rendering farms. SGI, Sun, and even Intel/AMD on Linux more recently (as the article discusses), have been the platforms relied on by the biggest houses for some time. Steve Jobs has gone to these production houses looking to find out what it would take to bring the Mac into use for this purpose, and the result was the Xserve. While the Xserve is steadily gaining market share as a server, it would seem, again in a painfully obvious way, that the performance for rendering is not up to speed, so to speak, yet. Again, we'll see what the future holds.

As to whether or not this might indicate OS X for Intel, the answer should be rather clear. If Apple was going to move to Intel (at least any time soon), do you think Pixar would have invested in all these new non-Apple servers? We hardly think so.

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