All artists are most successful and creative when they have access to faster, more powerful computers. They can deliver completed projects sooner, and regain creative freedom because artistic experiments don’t take up too much time.
After reading that, you might expect that we’re going to plug the latest, fastest workstation. Not so. We can help you with that if you’d like, but independent tests show that offloading your rendering delivers better performance gains than stepping up to the next level in processor technology. One of the most processor-intensive tasks in 3D is rendering, so it stands to reason that when this number-crunching work is farmed out to other systems, your computer becomes much more responsive.
There have been many attempts to solve this problem using technology, such as shifting render processing to the GPU on a graphics card, or dedicated rendering boards containing multiple dedicated DSPs (expensive!). These have tended to suffer from a lack of universal support for workstation hardware, specific operating systems, or modelling apps. The usual compromise has been distributed rendering, by which I mean the ability of many of the major 3D editing software packages to take advantage of idle processor time on other workstations for rendering tasks – the chief benefit being low initial cost.
Outsourcing – it’s not for everybody
An alternative to workstation rendering is outsourcing. You upload your files over the Internet to an online render company (usually based abroad), pay your money, wait, and download the finished job. This may seem ideal – you have the computing power at your disposal plus reasonable rendering time, but without the hardware outlay or the need to maintain what appears to be complicated technology. However, it’s not for everybody. Here are just some of the things that you need to consider:
- Formats – will they support your workflow, plug-ins, and file formats?
- The upload and download process – downloading rendered files can be very demanding on your Internet link. You may need to factor-in the cost of an upgrade, especially if you’ll be doing a lot of high definition render work.
- High cost – up to £2800 for a minute’s worth of footage is not unknown.
- Pre-flighting and testing – is there an option to do a free test render? This would be fairly crucial in order to ensure you have all the right files and textures in place.
- You may not be a priority – regardless of how urgent a job is to you, you may just have to wait your turn.
In-house flexibility and freedom
A dedicated render farm will give you the flexibility and the freedom to try out ideas to your heart’s content. It’s undoubtedly a long-term, strategic investment:
- The equipment is optimised for your needs, incompatibilities are eliminated and your results are perfect.
- You’re free to make tests, tweak your models, even cancel a job… you’re in complete control.
- You’re at the front of the queue, every time – make your own priorities based on deadlines and respond to any emergencies as they arise.
- There are no hidden costs! It’s simple.
Get more done and do it faster
With a dedicated render farm, artists are never left twiddling their thumbs while they wait for a render to complete, or because a shared job is consuming the processor cycles on their workstation. All your resources – people and equipment – are firing on all cylinders, all the time.
For the sake of illustration let’s take a series of frames, where each frame takes a very modest 9 minutes to render. At that rate, 1500 frames (1 minute of footage at 25 frames per second) would need 13,500 minutes of processor time, i.e. 225 hours, 9.37 days, or 28.12 working days. How much more productive could you be by giving over 200 hours to your artists for every minute of footage you render?
Using a basic 5 node, 80 core render farm with dual quad core Xeon E3340 processors, the same minute of footage will be completed in only 1 hour and eleven seconds. With that sort of turnaround you can afford to be creative. Plus, the pressure of deadlines dissolves away.
Few people will turn their nose up at the chance to save money
Since the computing hardware in render farms is designed for density, low power consumption is standard. Normally, when you have a lot of computing power in a small space, a lot of heat is generated. The best way to reduce that heat is to consume less power. So there’s a lot of clever technology in there designed to manage the use of electricity in an intelligent way. The fully-populated 80 core render farm running at 100% duty cycle draws 414W per unit, equating to 2070W of power in total. In comparison, you’d need 20 quad core workstations to equal 80 cores, each drawing 1050W, which is 21000W in full.
But the render farm runs “headless”, whereas workstations need monitors. Assuming 22″ LCD monitors, each drawing 56W, we need to factor in another 1120W, so the workstation equivalent draws 22120W of power.
At the time of writing, business electricity rates are 11.5p per unit during the day and 6.9p at night. The formula for cost is ( [unit-cost] x [usage-in-watts] ) / 1000. The render farm costs 23.8p an hour to run. The workstation equivalent is going to cost £2.54 per hour. That’s £2.30 per hour difference – it all adds up!
As you can see, investing in rendering hardware takes a lot of thought and planning because of the costs involved. However, there will always be those added benefits that are difficult to quantify in monetary terms – enhanced reputation for the studio, the extra business you will win, the flexibility and control that you will gain and the improvement in the quality of the work you produce. All of these things contribute towards placing your studio in a prestigious position in the 3D industry.