Outlook 2018: The state of cloud computing
Kevin Baillie
Issue: January 1, 2018

Outlook 2018: The state of cloud computing

Kevin Baillie is the CEO of Conductor (www.conductortech.com), a company that encourages the use of cloud-based rendering solutions. Here, he details how studios can benefit from the idea of using the cloud as a service.

The post production industry is witnessing the introduction of emerging technologies at an unprecedented pace: 4K, high dynamic range, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, cloud computing and more. Many studios initially resisted “taking the leap” into these new arenas, as they were rife with uncertainties: economics, security, technology, or all of the above. That was yesterday. Today, it feels as though the floodgates to the next evolution of our industry have opened. One of the most transformative concepts exploding onto the main stage of our industry is the concept of on-demand resources, most commonly referred to as cloud computing.

In the industry’s early days, most bigger shops operated dedicated development teams to architect and maintain pipelines with proprietary custom software. While that narrow focus gave some studios a short-lived leg up, it ultimately hindered their ability to adapt quickly. Off-the-shelf tools evolved significantly and can now be easily customized with a bit of Python scripting — offering the best of both worlds and allowing multiple studios to easily collaborate on mega-blockbusters. Taking things one step further, many content creation applications have moved toward subscription models in which companies only pay for what they use on a monthly, daily or even hourly basis. This mass adoption of software as a service is a sign of things to come, and infrastructure is next. In fact, the same pattern started playing out when SGIs gave way to commodity PC hardware. Large-scale cloud computing, leveraging titans like Google, Amazon and Microsoft, will help our industry to complete the journey to viewing computing power as a service, just like software is today.

Images from Allied , rendered using Conductor.

While it’s tempting for productions to think of a local render farm as “free” after the initial CapEx outlay, it still requires space, electricity, management, maintenance and humans to support it. Physical resources also come with limits. Studios want to maximize their farm’s productivity, but even the most efficiently managed farms can only scale so much, which can lead to capacity constraints that prevent the ability for a company to take on new work. Leveraging cloud resources, studios can easily accommodate jobs with compute intensive render needs, maximizing their team’s revenue potential. This ability to scale purely virtually is especially beneficial in VFX hubs with expensive real estate, like London, New York and Los Angeles, where it’s cost prohibitive to secure additional space for local machines in addition to taking valuable production time to set up. 

A longstanding barrier of cloud adoption — cost — has been looming years. Narrowly looking at the cloud as a “carbon copy” of old-school local datacenters dramatically inflates the perceived total cost of ownership. Adoption of cloud is also difficult using most current industry tools, since they are accustomed to seeing a world view with a relatively fixed number of on-premises resources. Efficient control of elastic cloud resources takes software engineering of its own, and few in our industry have the expertise to craft such software.

That barrier is being shattered by products that help studios treat the cloud like it’s one big unlimited pool of perpetually right-sized computing resources. Companies like Conductor Technologies are offering platform products that dynamically provision resources such as compute nodes and software licenses, so they spin up only when they’re needed and shut down the moment they’re not, for down-to-the-minute efficiency. On top of that, provider offerings like spot and preemptible instances bring raw compute costs down to a fraction of what they once were.

The process of working in the cloud generates a lot of production data, which can be tapped through products like Conductor to help run projects even more efficiently. Industries like banking and large-scale industrial design have all moved to cloud for its cost efficiencies and data insights, and now it’s the VFX industry’s turn to reap the benefits too!

Cloud rendering is already being used on many major feature films and episodic properties. As an example, the award-winning VFX studio Atomic Fiction averaged more than 2.5M core hours per month in 2017 and expects to far exceed that amount in 2018. 

There are still threats to near-term adoption of cloud computing. Certain workflows, such as heavy FX simulations, suffer from data synchronization bottlenecks in the current hybrid local/cloud scenarios. A fully cloud-based workflow isn’t possible due to latency and quality issues with current virtual desktop solutions. 

Those challenges aside, and no matter how a studio chooses to deploy the cloud in their workflow, it will continue to be increasingly important for succeeding in VFX, animation and beyond.