Issue: Volume: 24 Issue: 3 (March 2001)

RenderDrive RD3000

By George Maestri

The RenderDrive is a computer that does one thing and one thing well: It renders. ART's RenderDrive RD3000, which the company refers to as an "appliance," is designed as a compact and powerful replacement for the multimachine rendering farms common in most mid-range to high-end production facilities.

The RD3000 is about as toaster-like as you can get. It has two cables-one for power, the other for a 10/100base-T network connection; a power switch; and a floppy disk drive on the back of the unit. Oh, yes, and a tiny LED on the front to let you know whether the power is on or off.

With so few frills on the outside of the box, I had to pop the top and look inside. The guts of the machine were basically a standard-issue Pentium III motherboard, a 7gb SCSI hard disk, 768mb of RAM, a network card, and the aforementioned floppy drive. Plugged into one of the PCI slots, however, is the true heart of the RenderDrive-a card containing not one, not two, but 42 custom-designed processors that do nothing but raytrace. This makes one RenderDrive the equivalent of perhaps a dozen or more PC-based rendering machines.

There are basically three steps to setting up the RenderDrive: Plug it into the wall, then into the network, and configure the machine with its IP address. This last step is done by saving a text file to a floppy disk that is then placed into the RD3000's drive. Once the machine is switched on, it reads this file and automatically connects to the appropriate network.
The RenderDrive produces high-quality images, including ones with reflections.

To render an image, the user installs ART's Render Pipe software plug-in into the 3D application at hand. RenderPipe maintains the network connection to the RenderDrive and also provides an interface to the rendering software-currently a choice of either Discreet's 3D Studio Max or Alias|Wavefront's Maya. It can also render RenderMan RIB files, which must be submitted through a command line interface.

It is important to note that RenderDrive does not run these individual renderers natively. Instead, it translates the information and renders it using its own renderer, which takes advantage of the custom hardware. In this way, RenderDrive is similar to any other third-party rendering program, such as Mental Images' Mental Ray.

Moving to RenderDrive from a package's native renderer can prove vexing at first. I took a scene that rendered nicely in 3D Studio Max and sent it to RenderDrive just to see how it would look-it came back black. A quick look at the manual made me realize that RenderDrive's lighting model is different from Max's. I made a few tweaks to the lights and the image came back looking great.

The machine's speed was excellent. RenderDrive was approximately 10 to 20 times faster than the software renderer I had been using. Understandably, the speed increase was most noticeable on images with lots of raytracing and motion blur.

RenderDrive supports most, but not all of the native Max materials and maps. Exceptions are those that perform reflection or refraction functions-including Max's raytrace, flat mirror, reflect/refract, and thin wall refraction maps. RenderDrive's own raytraced materials must be substituted. In addition, a few of Max's other maps, such as gradient ramp, paint, and planet are not supported directly. These maps are automatically handled using Max's scanline renderer, which can cause a big hit in performance.

Still, these small inconveniences pale in comparison to the advantages, the biggest of which is quality. RenderDrive's raytracing simply looks better than Max's native raytracing. I would put it on par with Mental Ray in terms of quality. RenderDrive's mo-tion blur is also excellent. Another huge plus is depth of field, which looks incredible compared to Max's native depth of field. Since RenderDrive's raytracer is physically accurate, depth of field also works on reflections, which Max's raytracer does not. RenderDrive does not, however, support global illumination, which has become more widely accepted over the past year.

Overall, RenderDrive is a pretty cool solution, but it might not be for everyone. Because of its quality, RenderDrive definitely would make a good substitute for Max's standard renderer. For those considering other third-party solutions, RenderDrive's image quality competes well against Mental Ray and RenderMan, and certainly renders much faster than these programs.

At a cost of $15,000 ($25,000 for the RD5000, an upgraded version), a Render Drive represents a significant cost. Of course, the big advantage is rendering speed, which I figure to be roughly that of a dozen or so 800mhz dual-processor ma chines. Even then, at today's prices, a dozen good rendering machines would be very close to the cost of an RD5000, and these could also be used for other tasks. Of course, it's hard finding space for a dozen machines, let alone someone to manage them all. Taking that into consideration, I think RenderDrive is a valid solution for a professional production facility.

George Maestri is a writer and animator living in Los Angeles.

Price: $14,995
Advanced Rendering Technology