Emily Carr arts school speeds up digital image processing with cluster server

A Vancouver-based arts school achieved substantial energy savings and greater processing performance when it replaced an aging render farm system with a cluster server operating system from Microsoft Canada Co.

The Emily Carr Institute has been offering a Bachelor of Media Arts degree since 1997, but in recent years the school’s ad-hoc render farm has been experiencing difficulties in providing the computing power demanded by the school’s 300 film, animation and design students.

Emily Carr is one of the four institutions that make up the Vancouver-based Great Northern Way Campus (GNWC) consortium. Other members of the GNWC include: the University of British Columbia; Simon Fraser University; and the British Columbia Institute of Technology.

To solve the problem, the GNWC, worked with Seven Group, a Vancouver-based systems integrator, to develop a render farm based on Microsoft’s Windows Compute Server Cluster 2003 operating system (OS). Since then, Emily Carr’s render farm has been able to process more complex digital files at around 50 to 60 times faster than with the original system.

“The old render farm’s availability and processing power were very limited,” said Dr. Maria Lantin, director, Intersections Digital; Studio (IDS) at Emily Carr.

A render farm is a computer cluster which pools power together to provide processing capability for activities such as producing high quality digital images, or calculating effects in a video editing file to produce a final video output.

A cluster usually involves a group of computers loosely linked together so in many respects they function as a single powerful machine.

The older render farm used by Emily Carr could no longer cope with the schools increasing workload so students were forced to conduct most projects well into the night.

“Since the students used the workstation during the day for their studies, the farm could only be run at night when the workstation resources were available,” Lantin explained.

This workaround, the director said, resulted in students often rushing their projects and working late into the night as well as the school using extra amounts of electricity.

Faced with such limited CPU power, Emily Carr was often forced to purchase additional compute power from outside sources to ensure that students finish their projects. The strategy resulted in a substantial burden to operating costs.

Apart from having difficulties in scaling to current demands, the older system had become out of date and cumbersome to operate. High Definition rendering was impossible with the system and near full-time IT supervision was needed to keep the system running.

“Much of the art work being done by students today involve 3 dimensional images and animation that require greater computing power which the older system was not equipped to handle adequately,” said Anthony Brown, managing director of Seven Group.

Seven Group migrated the render farm structure to a 16 IBM E-series blade servers and an IBM DS4700 storage array running on Windows Compute Cluster Server 2003 operating system. “This set-up modernized the render engine enabling it to process as much as 50 to 60 times faster than before.”

The benefits of cluster technology include improved availability, load balancing and high performance computing or HPC. The performance boost is achieved by splitting computational tasks across several different nodes in the cluster.

Increased performance in current processors and low acquisition cost is driving adoption of HPC, according to analyst firm IDC.

The high-performance and technical computing (HPTC) market grew approximately 24 per cent in 2005 to reach a record $9.2 billion in revenue – the second straight year in 20 plus per cent growth in the market – according to the IDC study.

The new system helped Emily Carr cut down expenses in several areas, said Lantin.

The centralized, racked-based system was also much easier for Emily Carr’s IT staff to maintain since controls are centralized. This reduced the workload on IT technicians and allowed them to concentrate on other essential tasks.

The Compute Cluster Server-based OS is more energy efficient and does need to be run overnight. The system also eliminated the need for Emily Carr to rent outside CPUs.

The most important benefit provided by the new system is access to new technology and relief from the time consuming rendering process, according to Brown. For example, HD rendering and the use of newer 3-D imaging tools is now possible.

The new system also enables greater collaboration for projects requiring group work and remote devices, says Dr. Ron Burnett, president of Emily Carr.

“Our students can now render at high speeds, work from laptops on large files for anything from animation to gaming to film sound editing and composition.”

Burnett said the new system provides greater partnership opportunities between Emily Carr and companies in the media arts industry and post-secondary sector.

The system that was deployed at the school is similar to those being used by leading companies in computer generated imagery animation such as Dreamworks and Disney.

“We can now provide our students with greater real world experience and make it easier for them to hit the ground running when they enter the industry,” said Lantin.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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