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Still from Skrek 2

Still from Skrek 2

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In December 2004, HP Labs launched a groundbreaking project, the SE3D Animation Showcase. Its aim: to investigate how, using the example of animation and media production, utility computing could change the technology and economics of the industry. Now, at the project’s completion, the research findings will inform and direct HP’s continuing commitment to adaptive technologies, which the company believes represent the future of adaptable, powerful and flexible computing.

SE3D and related HP Labs initiatives, such as the provision of utility-based aerodynamic modelling for WilliamsF1, have helped inform the new HP Flexible Computing Services business, launched on November 29.

The SE3D project, sponsored by HP Labs and Alias, with the Watershed media centre, gave 11 groups of animators from across the UK access to the HP Labs experimental Utility Rendering Service, allowing them each to produce a 3D short animation.

The Utility Rendering Service, codenamed Frame Factory within HP Labs, draws on a wide range of innovative research technologies and the flexible power of some 115 dual-processor Proliant servers in the HP Labs data centre in Palo Alto, California – the same facility used in the rendering of DreamWorks features, Shrek 2 and Madagascar.

It allowed the participants securely to upload digital source data of characters and scenery in order for the computationally-intensive process of rendering into final frames to take place. The animators then downloaded the completed frames from the utility service, from HP Labs, to their own offices over the public Internet.

The research programme was designed to gather more information about the form and function of an experimental service-oriented utility computing platform – the Service Utility – by applying it to a film rendering service for multiple users.

SE3D presented two big challenges. First, the integration of utility computing technologies developed by six HP Labs projects into one harmonious solution. Secondly, ensuring this solution was fully production-capable and satisfied the needs of many customers over a relatively long period of time.

The Service Utility is capable of running different services for multiple customers simultaneously – HP Labs' experimental BLAST-based gene sequencing service, codenamed Gene Factory, for instance, or a future financial or engineering service. For the SE3D showcase, though, the platform only ran the rendering service - one instance of the service for each of the animation participants.

The Service Utility integrates a number of experimental components - the results of HP Labs research projects focused on technology that could be at the heart of a future utility data centre. Together they form a platform that manages, allocates and controls the banks of processors and storage used by each Frame Factory service. It deals with resource failures and restores, cleans and redistributes servers and storage as required.

Research underpinning the Service Utility platform

A key experimental technology for the platform is an extensible market-based resource allocation system codenamed Sumatra.

In the future world of utility computing, customers will only pay for the service and computing resources – processors, storage, networking etc. – that they use. Even a massive data centre with tens of thousands of processors will have a limited number of resources available for each customer.

With multiple customers, each could try to reserve, and hold on to, as many processors as they can 'just in case' even if they do not actually require them.

One way to control demand, and also predict and manage fluctuations, is with automated markets. What will happen in a real situation, for instance, if a film studio suddenly needs many extra nodes to render its next animation, or if a laboratory calls on more processors to sequence a new virus in an emergency? It is Sumatra's job to regulate demand through a variety of techniques.

Sumatra offers a long-term market, auctioning resources in advance, while a short-term market is available to purchase resources for near immediate use. These two markets provide a way to do resource planning and also satisfy unforeseen peak needs. A simple Graphical User Interfaces was created for the various aspects of resource acquisition -- funds monitoring, bidding and historical analysis. Resources were sold in lots with a duration of one hour. Two different types of auction algorithm were tested: Proportional Share and Generalised-Vickrey. Proportional Share, inspired by another HP Labs project, Tycoon, allocates resources in proportion to the amount of money bid, whereas in a Generalised-Vickrey auction, the highest bidder for an item wins the item, but pays the price offered by the second highest bidder.

The animators used HP-allocated computing credits to buy access to resources.

Sumatra interfaces with the Service Utility's Resource Manager to handle the actual allocation of resources to users based on the results of the market mechanisms. The Resource Manager configures the Service Utility's processors and is able to keep track of what processors are available – or have ceased to be available for whatever reason – through a research technology called Anubis. This is a service that sits on every processor and sends an "I'm here" message to the Resource Manager and also to all other processors, so that it is clear to all which of them, and how many, are available at any time, with complete consistency guaranteed across the system.

Anubis can therefore report a failure in one or more of the processors, allowing the Service Utility platform to recover the information on the affected devices and distribute it to other nodes. Anubis is fully decentralised, meaning it can detect and respond to a wide variety of problems and provide a consistent picture of what is happening to every resource in the system.

In the future world of utility computing, contractual agreements between the customer and the service provider, called Service Level Agreements (SLAs), will be automatically enforced. An SLA might state that a job has to be finished by a certain time, to a particular standard and with guaranteed security. If the SLA is not met the provider would face penalties.

What if a group of processors fails during rendering, affecting several participants? Some of the customers may have stricter SLAs than others, with tighter guarantees. HP Labs has used the project to test an experimental technology called Management by Business Objectives (MBO). MBO, a key component of the Resource Manager, has a reasoning engine that assesses all the SLAs, including the various penalties that the service provider faces. If all goes well then MBO is not needed. However, should something unexpected happen, for example a hardware failure, then MBO decides automatically which customer should receive a reduced level of service in favour of one that has tighter guarantees and higher levels of compensation. When processors are reallocated they are cleaned of data so that the previous user's sensitive data cannot be accidentally accessed by the next customer.

High levels of IT Security are of crucial importance if customers are to have confidence in utility computing because they could be sharing resources with companies that are in direct competition with them. The Service Utility platform has novel forms of Secure Storage developed by HP Labs researchers that give each user a unique cryptographic key. This key is the only access to their part of the platform's storage and is managed securely and transparently by the Service Utility.

During the course of the SE3D programme there were one million unauthorised attempts to contact the service and some 15,000 incidents of worm attacks – all successfully repelled.

All of the platform components are deployed and managed using an HP Labs technology called SmartFrog (Smart Framework for Object Groups). SmartFrog uses templates to describe the entire software infrastructure – thousands of software components running on hundreds of machines – and then activates and manages them. Its core has been released as open source for developers.

Utility Rendering Service: stress-testing the platform

But what about Frame Factory, the experimental utility rendering service that runs on top of the Service Utility?

For the animators sitting at their computers, accessing the rendering service through the Internet was simple. The service hides the details of what is happening behind the scenes: users had no need to worry about where the storage and the servers they have been allocated actually are. They sent content to be rendered over a standard broadband internet connection. They can check on the progress of the work and then automatically pull the rendered frames back to their own systems when they are complete.

However, there is a lot going on behind the scenes. Like the Service Utility platform, the rendering service has a number of research components from HP Labs. Plus, at its heart, it has the Maya 3D rendering application from Alias®.

HP Labs components include the Asset Store, which stores the source data animation content received from the client, and the Service Manager, which distributes the content to the Processing Nodes allocated by the Service Utility for conversion into completed, rendered frames. The Asset Store allows the clients to download the completed content from the rendering service over a secure, encrypted link, and manages multiple versions of content over time.

The source content to be rendered can grow to be many gigabytes in size, but usually only a fraction changes each time the user wants to upload their latest work for rendering. So a distributed versioned filestore, codenamed Elephant Store, helped to reduce the size by only transferring the parts of files that have changed. It is even smart enough to know whether a file has simply been renamed and avoids uploading redundant information. Each completed upload of the source content is treated as a unique version.

This allows the storage of large amounts of data online, giving the animator access to a comprehensive historical record of their work and the ability to check and revert to earlier versions of frames if necessary. The economy of data transfer even allowed at least one of the animators to use the rendering service effectively from an internet café.

As with the Service Utility platform, SmartFrog describes, assembles, launches and manages the components to form the Frame Factory service. SmartFrog uses service templates so that, once described, a service can be launched and terminated repeatedly and correctly.

The implications of the research involved in the SE3D programme are wide-ranging and the findings of this project will feed and fuel HP’s ability to offer utility computing services to its customers. In addition, the utility computing model – as demonstrated by the SE3D showcase project – particularly stands to benefit industries that rely on large amounts of secure, robust computing power, such as financial services, engineering, oil and gas, and scientific research.

Related links

» Fast facts
» News release
» SE3D site

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