Share and Share Alike
Issue: Volume 38 Issue 4: (Jul/Aug 2015)

Share and Share Alike

Virtualization is a fine buzzword, but it means different things to different people. It can include remote access to resources, enabling of thin clients for workstation work, real-time collaboration, and streaming applications. There are still plenty of concerns about how this will work in practice. The entertainment industry, for instance, is worried about security but recognizes the advantages that can be realized from virtualization. 

Jon Peddie Research (JPR) conducted a study on virtualization in the graphics industry, to gauge interest in the fast-­rising technology. As part of the study, existing users of various forms of professional graphics software were surveyed. Of the 2,700 respondents, 93 percent said they were either “very interested,” “interested,” or “already doing it.” As JPR President Jon Peddie points out, that is “an absolutely astronomical percentage of positive responses.”

What about the seven percent who did not express interest in virtualization? The great majority cited lack of IT resources and support staff as the primary reason they have shied away from virtualization. Of those citing a positive opinion, 54 percent said they thought virtualization would “improve productivity,” while 32 percent said they thought virtualization would “save money.”

JPR estimates that the virtualization market will generate $1.8 billion in sales by 2018, and that may be a conservative estimate.

Virtualization in the Studio

One visual effects powerhouse that uses virtualization and remote computing is Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), now part of the Disney family following the acquisition of most companies owned by George Lucas. In fact, Disney also uses virtualization and remote computing. For a recent project, ILM needed graphic artists and animators in the San Francisco Bay Area but could not find enough to meet their demand. So, ILM rented a building in Los Angeles, installed zero-client computer stations, and hired LA-based artists supported by the IT infrastructure in the Bay Area facility. 

“We worry about efficiency,” says ILM’s Kevin Clark. He notes how the company’s efficient use of IT resources made joining the Disney family easier than might have been expected.

Lincoln Wallen, chief technical officer at DreamWorks Animation, says the studio approaches IT from a “Compute-as-a-Service and Data-as-a-Service mindset: Scaling, productivity, and savings are a fact for us.” 

DreamWorks uses many software products it creates in-house. “Now we can architect software with virtualization in mind,” Wallen says. He notes that DreamWorks’ animation projects are getting more complicated, “but now they are also cheaper to make.” The studio puts a strong focus on “getting compute off the workstation,” so that workloads are not constrained by the limits of individual workstations.

Pixar also uses virtualization but sees it as a tool to provide additional IT flexibility during projects. “We have some success using Amazon as a provider,” says John Kirkman, director of systems network infrastructure, “but we are not getting rid of our in-house server farm.” 

Kirkman notes there is considerable utility in having a virtualized server farm on hand. “Our rendering farm is 98 percent efficient; our workstations are 10 percent efficient,” he says. Of Pixar’s 800 workstation users, almost half have a second workstation at hand, and that second workstation is “way underutilized,” he notes.

Habib Zargarpour recently became the head of Microsoft Studios, and says his viewpoint on virtualization comes in large part from the many artists across the globe working on Microsoft Xbox games, artists who are independent contractors, not employees. “We do massive collaboration, and we are really feeling the need for better connections and less travel,” he says. In fact, Microsoft Studios plans to aggressively invest in virtualization in the coming months, Zargarpour adds.

Vendor Perspective

OTOY is a start-up software developer juggling several projects, all aimed at maximizing compute resources by harnessing the power of graphics processing units (GPUs) for “intense” computation activities, including rendering. 

OTOY CEO Jules Urbach says his company’s newest product, X.IO, packages desktop applications for streaming. It can take advantage of multiple GPUs from both Nvidia and AMD to spread OpenCL jobs over multiple computers. “The future is apps as services, to mix and match as needed,” he says. “Monetization [of software] will be very different.”

Otoy focuses on maximizing compute resources, taking advantage of gpus.

Forms of Virtualization 

Server Virtualization: The masking of server resources, including the number and identity of individual physical servers, processors, and operating systems, from server users.

Network Virtualization: The process of combining hardware and software network resources and network functionality into a single, software-based administrative entity, a virtual network.

Desktop Virtualization: Software technology that separates the desktop environment and associated application from the physical client device that is used to access it.

Application Virtualization: Software technology that encapsulates application software from the underlying OS on which it is executed.

Storage Virtualization: The pooling of data from multiple storage devices, even different types of storage devices, into what appears to be a single device managed from a central console.

Hardware Virtualization: Creation of a virtual machine that acts like a real computer with an operating system. 

JPR’s interviews of the users of virtualization in the industry found everyone assumed that virtualization is a powerful IT trend that can save money, streamline processes, and increase both human and computer efficiency. However, the companies vary in how they have implemented virtualization. The general consensus was that full speed ahead is not fast enough.

For most companies, efficiency sounds nice, but in the end it comes down to dollars. DreamWorks’ Wallen offers the most interesting insight of the day. “We examined workflows; we did tests at scale [on using virtualization technology],” he says, noting the group proved that the processes could save money. So he got the green light to constrain expenditures to force adoption. 

“We want one-half of efficiency going on the screen and one-half on the bottom line,” Wallen says.