Issue: Volume: 27 Issue: 3 (March 2004)

64-Bit Players

Momentum for 64-bit computing in the digital content creation arena has been building since AMD released its 64-bit Opteron chips last year. It's easy to figure out why: Special effects houses, game development studios, and other companies that create entertainment-based digital content are slaves to increasingly huge datasets, the result of the more complex and realistic graphics that audiences expect to see in movies, television programs, and games.

For the most part, servers and workstations based on the new 64-bit processors are able to whip through these datasets far more quickly than their 32-bit cousins. What this means to a film studio, for example, is that rendering can be accomplished much more quickly, thus speeding up production time, saving money, and also freeing up artists and their workstations so they have more time to spend creating and producing.

Yet, 64-bit processors are hardly new to the world of digital content creation. In fact, they used to outnumber 32-bit processors at the high end of the ranks (think of 64-bit SGI machines running Irix at big-name special effects studios). But the new Opteron chips are different in two ways. First, they employ the standard x86 microprocessor architecture on which Pentiums and their Intel predecessors are built. This makes them relatively affordable and, more important, compatible with existing 32-bit operating systems and applications, which currently represent the bulk of DCC software. Second, special features of the AMD chips' architecture enable those 32-bit applications to run natively, without performance degradation. Conversely, Intel's Itanium, which is also a 64-bit processor, performs well as a base for high-end servers running 64-bit applications, but runs 32-bit applications in software emulation mode, which can hinder performance.
IBM plans to add Opteron-based machines to its IntelliStation line. The new A Pro series, at left, is scheduled to ship later this year.

The 64-bit chip's chief benefit to digital content creators is that it can address more memory—64 bits at a time—within the processor itself. A 32-bit processor can handle no more than 4gb at a one time, at which point it has to begin swapping out data to the hard drive, which slows processing speed. Users, some of whose datasets now far exceed 4gb, refer to this as the 4gb "wall" or "barrier"—the point at which their content begins to be handled less efficiently. The 64-bit processor, on the other hand, can take on 16gb at a time, which allows for faster processing of those large datasets.

"The thing that we have been hearing most from our customers is, 'I need more memory,'" says Matt Wineberg, worldwide marketing manager for IBM. "Having 16gb of memory, as opposed to 4gb, will greatly reduce rendering times." Softimage|XSI product manager Jason Brynford-Jones echoes this sentiment: "We [audiences] need to see that much more detail in our films," he says, noting that the data required to create that detail comes at a price in time, labor, and money. "And if 64-bit can handle it, companies will invest in it."

As noted, part of what makes the Opteron chip appealing is its ability to run 32-bit applications natively. This means that digital content creators don't have to buy new 64-bit versions of their favorite applications (there are hardly any to buy now, anyway), and their 32-bit applications run as fast or faster than they do on 32-bit machines. The Opteron chip also features AMD's HyperTransport architecture, which enables seamless scalability for multiprocessing. Up to eight Opterons can be used to power a server, and up to four can run a workstation.
AMD's Opteron chip, introduced last year, offers x86-based 64-bit technology for DCC workstations and servers.

AMD's Opteron is not the company's only 64-bit chip. AMD also makes the Athlon, which was introduced this past fall as the desktop counterpart to Opteron's workstation and server role. And many other machines in the DCC space are powered by other 64-bit chips. SGI, of course, has long been in the game, and now offers machines that run on the free Linux OS, as well as its proprietary Irix. SGI recently announced new models of its Linux-based Altix servers. And Apple's G5 uses a 64-bit processor.

Sun Microsystems is an example of a company that has produced its own 64-bit processors and workstations for many years, and continues to do so. Sun released its first 64 bit-based technical workstation in 1996, according to Brian Healy, group marketing manager for Sun's workstations product group. Sun is mostly occupied with technical computing, he says, "though we're also involved in the DCC space." Side Effects Software's Houdini, for example, runs on Sun's Solaris Unix-based operating system. Sun just introduced 64-bit workstations based on its UltraSparc processors that sell for less than $5000—50 percent less than its previous comparable offering, according to Healy. Regardless of whether this was prompted by AMD's offering, excitement over AMD's chips is probably good for all 64-bit players, says Healy. "I think it's going to hasten acceptance."

Sixty-four-bit technology is currently experiencing the "chicken-and-egg" syndrome common to new hardware and software architectures. Sure, the chips are fast and can handle lots of memory, but where are the applications that will actually make use of them in the production pipeline? They're not here now because software vendors tend to be wary about diverting resources to produce new versions of products that may or may not ultimately have a big enough market to pay back their investments.

One of the advantages of Opteron, according to AMD, is that a lack of 64-bit applications doesn't matter, since 32-bit applications run natively on it. In fact, the company is confident that they run even faster than on 32-bit machines, although it's too early to say for sure because all the benchmarks aren't in yet.

Operating systems are the first concern. Here's where Linux, which is happy in a 32-bit or a 64-bit environment, comes into the picture. In fact, 64-bit computing and Linux generally are linked in people's minds. The newest version of Windows XP also runs on 64-bit, so clearly Microsoft has decided to back the technology.

In terms of the more specialized DCC applications, rendering seems to be the first line of attack. Mental Ray rendering software from Mental Images runs on the Opteron platform, not to mention Apple's G5 and just about every available 64-bit computing platform. And rendering within Side Effects' Houdini is optimized for IA-64 platforms as well. But that's about it for now. And though software vendors are cagey about their plans, they seem well-informed about what's going on with 64-bit computing.

Discreet, for example, has not announced a 64-bit native port of its flagship content creation application, 3ds max. "We have looked at and seen some success running in 32-bit mode on a 64-bit Windows processor," contends Dan Prochazka, product manager for 3ds max, "which does not degrade performance and allows us access to quite a bit more RAM—not as much as a native 64-bit application, but still quite a bit more."

Softimage's Brynford-Jones says he can't comment on whether the company is porting XSI to 64 bit, but says he believes the technology is bound to take off. A spokesperson for Alias Systems says it is paying attention to developments in 64-bit computing, but has no announcements regarding it at this time. A few years ago, Alias demonstrated a prototype 64-bit Maya but didn't bring it to market for "a variety of reasons," so presumably the company has already done some of the legwork.
Some vendors already have rolled out 64-bit units for the At left is an AMD-based system from Monarch Computer. At right is an Opteron-based unit from Boxx Technologies, which has a relatively long history of using AMD chips in its systems.

Hardware vendors, which get to sell new boxes with new chips, are understandably more bullish on the subject of 64-bit computing than are software vendors. Sixty-four-bit machines designed for DCC applications are available from a wide variety of systems vendors. Besides Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and Sun, 64-bit systems, most of them AMD-based, are available from Alienware, Boxx Technologies, Monarch Computer, Microway, QSol, and RackSaver, to name but a few.

Boxx sells workstations and servers based on AMD's Opteron. Tim Lawrence, a Boxx founder and current vice president of operations, says, "Proprietary workstations based on 64-bit went away, not because of [any flaw in] 64-bit [technology], but because of the expense. So everyone was kind of stuck with 32-bit. Now, finally, we have a choice between 32 and 64."

At Monarch Computer, which sells Linux-based servers and workstations built on both Opteron and Athlon chips, director of marketing Trey Harris says he has customers currently using 64-bit machines to do animation, 3D effects, video editing, and computer design. "Most of these customers are still using 32-bit software," he says, "but the Opteron and Athlon 64 perform well in 32-bit mode."

Full-speed ahead is not quite how Harris would describe DCC acceptance of 64-bit computing, however. "In my experience, most DCC customers are not early adopters, despite the technical demands of their applications. Intel [32-bit] and Macintosh are so heavily entrenched that it can be difficult to convince a DCC customer that the performance advantages of the new platform outweigh the risks involved in trying new technology. Most of these customers don't want to bother with additional configurations and troubleshooting if something doesn't work. Time is money to them, so they typically will wait for a second generation before adopting any technology to avoid hassles involved in the transition."

For now, most AMD-based 64-bit servers and workstations are finding their DCC berths in rendering departments. Here, their massive data-moving capabilities offer immediate aid to people who render large, detailed imagery for a living. Most experts think that in a couple years' time, most digital artists will be modeling and animating on 64-bit workstations using 64-bit applications as well. But at present, hardware vendors must wait for software vendors, and their customers, to make that leap of faith.

Jenny Donelan is a contributing editor for Computer Graphics World.

Alias Systems
Boxx Technologies
Mental Images
Monarch Computer
Side Effects Software
Sun Microsystems
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