As a researcher at HP Labs, Gene Becker typically doesn't spend much time
thinking about moviemaking. His research interests lie primarily in the areas
of mobility, digital media and ubiquitous computing .
That all changed a little more than six months ago, when DreamWorks
tapped HP Labs technology to help make "Shrek 2." Becker lead a team that,
in a few short months, built a 1,000-processor data center inside HP Labs and
turned it into a remote IT resource with unique capabilities for the film studio.
Among those capabilities was HP’s
Utility Rendering Service, which provides a simple, flexible and scalable
solution to manage the enormous amount of computational power needed
to render high-quality film animation.
The service gave DreamWorks
the flexibility to add significant peak capacity for the final stages of
rendering "Shrek 2.".
"Shrek 2," the sequel to DreamWorks' animated blockbuster about an ogre
who falls in love, opens on May 21.
In this interview, Becker talks about
what it was like to work with DreamWorks and how HP technologies for delivering
computing as a service could transform the economics and technical infrastructure
of the animation industry and eventually, many other industries as well.
Well, let me give you some background. A little
over a year ago, researchers in our Bristol , UK , laboratory
were working on the problem of delivering computing as a service.
Bristol is home to such well-known digital animators as Aardman
Animations (creators of Wallace and Gromit) and our eventual partners,
422, which has worked on projects for Discovery Channel, National
Geographic TV, PBS, MTV and others.
What's more, digital animation is incredibly compute-intensive.
The process of rendering the wire models into finished frames
(adding color, light, texture and other details) requires enormous
amounts of computing horsepower -- processing, storage, network,
bandwidth. So we chose digital animation as a model to work with
in delivering computing as a service. Together with 422, the team
in Bristol produced a four-minute film called "The Painter" in
just a fraction of the time typically needed.
When DreamWorks found out we’d done this,
they proposed something a bit more ambitious. They wanted us to
build a new data center from the ground up that would consist
of about a thousand processors, 500 servers. They wanted to do
it in, oh, about 12 weeks. And they wanted to use that system
to render part of the movie "Shrek 2."
After we picked our jaws up off the floor, we said
"Yeah, that sounds like a great challenge." It’s
really a wonderful match -- HP's technological expertise
with DreamWorks’ filmmaking prowess and animation technology.
We gathered a small group of really talented HP
Labs researchers who were very interested in working not only at
the forefront of technology, but also specifically excited about
the challenging problems that a customer like DreamWorks would
have in the real world.
We built this new data center at HP Labs' facility
here in Palo Alto. In the past, DreamWorks had always used its
own data center at its own facility. So it was a significant step,
moving to a completely remote environment that was on another company's
premises and managed and built by another company's engineers.
The data center would be capable of running our
Utility Rendering Service for digital animation. What our center
did was act as an extension of DreamWorks' Redwood City IT
facility, giving the studio 50 precent more capacity for the final
stages of rendering "Shrek 2."
Instead of selling boxes with disk drives and processors
and that sort of thing, we’ve made it possible for businesses
to submit computing jobs into HP's environment and have those jobs
run independently without them actually having to build a data
center, buy computers, install racks, manage a system and so forth.
It's computing as a service -- a utility
like electricity or water that you purchase as needed.
This allows DreamWorks and other customers to have tremendous
resources, and also to flexibly scale up and down as the demands of its workload
increases and decreases. Making a movie doesn’t demand computing 24 x
7 every day of the year. There are peaks and there are valleys in the production
In the past, companies had to buy systems large enough to accommodate
their peak loads, the maximum amount of processing power they could anticipate
needing. And when they're actually not using all of that, they're still
paying for it. So delivering computing as a service allows businesses to get
the performance and the scalability they need without unnecessary expense.
For DreamWorks, making movies is a mission-critical process.
What that meant for HP was that we had to build not only a robust, high-performance
system, but also provide a secure, trustworthy environment. In bringing this
movie outside DreamWorks' physical environment, it was absolutely imperative
that nothing leaked out.
And so we had to pay attention to the physical security of
the environment as well as the technical aspects of network security, data
security and the human processes involved with this. We also had to build
an extraordinary level of trust at the emotional level. Security is not just
about technology. Security is also about gaining the confidence of your customer
that the work will be conducted at the same level of competence, at the same
level of trust, as if they’d done it themselves.
The relationship between HP and DreamWorks has been tremendously
productive over a number of years. We've worked very closely together in the
areas of Linux-based computing and commodity computing. We helped DreamWorks
provision its data centers and optimize cooling and power requirements in
the past. And we've also had an ongoing set of discussions about advanced technologies.
In the context of this relationship, it was very natural for
us to work together on this new paradigm of computing. The fundamental notion
here is that services-based computing/utility computing is going to transform
the economics and the underlying technical infrastructure of the animation
industry and eventually, many other industries as well.
The center has 500 HP servers, each with two processors, for
a total of 1,000 microprocessors running at any given time. We’ve
got a dedicated fiber optic link between HP Labs in Palo Alto, California,
and a DreamWorks facility in Redwood City, California. And we were running
a gigabit-per-second bandwidth over that link. It's powerful.
When we look at HP's vision of the Adaptive Enterprise,
we really look at the integration of computing technology and business
processes in a way that fundamentally transforms how companies do business.
For DreamWorks, we want to continue to explore that as we
move forward in this partnership. We'll continue to work on making movies
with them, but we'll also want to look at how to fundamentally transform
the economics of that industry, and make DreamWorks even more successful
than they are today. For HP, this is a core part of our strategy, especially
for the enterprise customer.
Over the course of the next several years, computing is going
to change. And the way that IT is provisioned is going to change tremendously.
This project with DreamWorks is about really getting a firm grounding in
how to make those changes practical for companies that have significant,
complex IT problems.
Other customers and other kinds of workloads are emerging
that have similar complexity. If you think about bioinformatics, as an example,
or large-scale financial services, there are many interesting opportunities
to apply some of what we’ve learned from the DreamWorks partnerships
to other industries as they move toward the services-based model of computing.
It's really been great fun. DreamWorks has been
pushing the envelope of animation technology and using that to entertain
audiences worldwide in a great way. They're telling stories about
ogres and princesses and castles, and that's not the usual fare
for a technologist who works on information technology.
has been a really exciting project, and on the whole, I think
it's a very exciting time to be working in this field because of
the dynamic transformation that’s resulting from the new
ways of applying computing to problems in the real world.
HP has an enormous consumer business, as well as
an enterprise business. And one of the really interesting things
that could come out of this notion of service-based computing for
animation is that we could make it possible for individuals to create
It's become commonplace for consumers to be able to
pull up an application on their PCs and cut a DVD or record a song.
But the large-scale computing power required to create a three-dimensional
synthetic environment is really not something that's accessible
in a PC, nor will it be anytime in the really near future.
So, imagine a world where consumers could dial up
their Internet service provider and tap into a computing utility
where they could get a thousand processors' worth of moviemaking
power to create their own little family 3D environment. Or to build
a game for their friends to play. There are really exciting possibilities
there in the longer term.
Using the Utility Rendering Service to make "Shrek 2" has
clearly been a real high point for us. But really, it's just the beginning.
If you think about where utility computing is going, where the adaptive enterprise
is going, we have a lot of ground to cover, and it's going to be exciting.
Some of our first steps will be looking at how to create a world
where any company can tap into this large-scale resource and get the resources
they need on demand.
Following on this project, we continue to be interested in digital media
-- the distribution of digital media and playing digital media on mobile devices,
to name a few areas.
We expect to see communication between people augmented
by the kinds of production capabilities that we currently bring to movies.
There are opportunities everywhere for incredibly interesting, fun developments
to come out of our partnership with DreamWorks, and we're really looking
forward to the partnership continuing and exploring some of these new areas.