Challenging times often call for change - a sentiment especially relevant at present, as the industry gets to grips with this unprecedented period marked by COVID-19.
As remote working becomes the new order of business, studios are well underway shifting resources into rearranging their IT infrastructure to allow for this. Yet this shift seems at odds with the very principles that many VFX studios are built on. On-premise, high-spec machines and services, coupled with immediate and tangible feedback from their clients and peers, are de rigueur for these same studios - so treating computer infrastructure as a service, rather than as an asset, is uncharted territory for many.
This is especially ironic given the current state of affairs in the world of technology. Modern audiences demand instant, convenient content - and tech has answered in kind with on-demand services such as Facebook and Netflix. The world, by and large, has moved to a 'Software as a Service' model, marked by cloud infrastructure and services - so is it time the VFX industry started playing catch up by first becoming more familiar with 'Infrastructure as a Service'?
If common sentiment shifts to a resounding 'yes' to the above question, as artists and studios become more familiar with remote working and the technology that facilitates this, then perhaps there's a silver lining to these bleak times after all. Flexibility for workers; resilience to disruptions, such as we're currently experiencing; new capabilities, like an integrated global workforce; and costs that match the peaks and troughs of projects are just some of gains the the industry can expect.
And playing catch up isn't as arduous as it sounds. If an organization or studio does want to shift to cloud- and it's a totally viable option not to - this doesn't have to be a race from start to finish. Foundry has been at the forefront of cloud technology for over six years, helping our clients mitigate the challenges its adoption brings, and if there's one thing we've learned, it's that there's an evolution to cloud adoption - one that doesn't demand an instant shift, and doesn't force you in at the deep end.
Instead, the reality is that most organizations and studios take it in pieces, against a natural framework of progression - one that has the potential to span the course of the next decade.
Unmanaged Infrastructure As A Service
When considering cloud for their pipeline, most studios start with unmanaged IaaS. In a nutshell, unmanaged Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) means that you're renting infrastructure from a cloud service provider -such as Amazon - but it's unmanaged by these same providers. Instead, you deploy and manage the infrastructure yourself.
A studio looking to incorporate unmanaged IaaS would provision raw compute power and storage space, and install their own tools and pipeline software on it. They'd then have their own IT staff manage this pipeline, whilst paying Amazon for more compute power and storage over time. The upside is that they wouldn't be paying Amazon for the effort of managing it.
Whilst this is cheaper in the short-run, a common trap that studios fall into at this early stage is not rationalizing their hidden costs. They may not take into account that moving to a managed service means that they don't need as much IT staff, or that these same staff could be doing other, more productive things that don't involve maintenance or bug-fixing.
Plus, there's the added caveat of security. With on-prem and unmanaged IaaS, security is 100 percent your responsibility. With cloud, it is a shared responsibility model, where your cloud provider is responsible for security of the cloud, and you are responsible for security in the cloud. Security is still a risk that needs to be managed, but with managed IaaS you are able to stand on the shoulders of giants for the baseline layer of security of the things you provision.
Because of these headwinds that tend to naturally emerge over time, unmanaged IaaS is usually the first step into cloud that people use as a bridge to selecting which services they want to offload and have managed completely.
Managed Infrastructure As A Service
To draw a rudimentary comparison, managed and unmanaged IaaS are a little bit like a delivery service, versus getting groceries in - you pay a premium for the former, but it involves less hassle and effort.
This same sentiment is often the main driver for studios who shift from unmanaged IaaS to managed. Managing cloud without expert support is tricky, especially amidst tight production schedules and deadlines that studios often face, which prompt further calls for infrastructure that is easy and convenient.
So, over time, studios take a look at their unmanaged IaaS, rationalize costs, and begin doing away with the parts of their infrastructure that can instead be dealt with as a service, such as databases and storage. Cloud providers are more than happy to oblige, taking the management of these off the studio's hands for an added cost, so the studio can enjoy the benefits of cloud hassle-free and focus on other factors that are core to how they compete.
As utopian as this sounds, as an industry, we're not quite ready to move to fully-managed IaaS just yet. Athera, Foundry's cloud hub, offered fully-managed IaaS for studios wanting to explore cloud for their pipeline, yet our decision to close the project toward the end of 2019 is testament to the lukewarm appetite from the industry for the wholesale adoption of cloud infrastructure.
Instead, in the absence of sets of managed infrastructure from cloud providers that are tailored towards VFX, studios and organizations are playing with the basic pieces that do exist for their pipelines -security, databases, authorizations and so on - and connecting these to their existing infrastructure to see what works.
Until cloud providers can offer something more tangible for VFX, it'll take a little more time before fully-managed IaaS becomes commonplace - and even longer beyond that for the next phase of cloud's evolution...
Creative Tools As A Service
This involves a world where, instead of building anything at all, there will exist microservices in the cloud that can be assembled and rebuilt according to different people's needs. This already reflects how we go about our daily lives - most things are pay as you go, and our whole digital life is marked by a series of small services that culminate to get us through our day. Modern media consumption involves jumping between apps, and in and out of streaming services, according to the audience's wants and needs.
Applied to VFX, Creative Tools as a Service will allow artists and studios to deconstruct the applications themselves for unbridled modularity and flexibility when working with cloud, whether on-set, in post, on anything in between.
It'll take a leap of faith to get to this stage of the evolution, but as soon as one organization starts breaking their software into services, this will start a domino effect of others doing the same, and eventually we'll get to a point where cloud embraces the whole pipeline as a series of services that can be tailored to each individual shot, show and studio.
An Impossible Dream?
If Creative Tools as a Service is the ideal, why aren't we there yet? This stage of cloud's evolution will be marked by complete transformation, which, by its very nature, boils down to disruption. This begs the question: How much disruption is useful? And how much disruption can a studio absorb, especially amidst ever-increasing client, audience and quality demands?
In principle, the trajectory outlined above, culminating in the golden era of Creative Tools As A Service, is entirely possible and attainable. In practice, it means re-architecting apps, pipelines and IT infrastructure, whilst making risky big bets that could sink a business, even if the end results prove successful from a technology point of view. Coupled with the notion that the VFX industry is averse to risk due to tight schedules and budgets that very often means we just tweak what was done before and move incrementally, and it becomes clear why this vision for the evolution of cloud remains far in the future.
But change is human, so it takes time - and there's no need to rush. To move everything along this trajectory of unmanaged IaaS, to fully-managed IaaS, to Creative Tools as a Service, it's likely that there will need to be a crisis, or opportunity, or both. Whether we like it or not, COVID-19 forced us a fair way along this trajectory.
During such times, someone's going to want to be the Facebook of entertainment and have their pipeline go digital. When that someone takes a leap of faith into the future of cloud, and acts as vanguard for the rest of the industry, rest assured that Foundry will be there to support them every step of the way.
Mathieu Mazerolle is the Director of Technology at Foundry (https://www.foundry.com), based in London.