Replaces an NFS system with a SAN to support the launch of Cars

April 14, 2006

3 Min Read
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SAN DIEGO -- Storage Networking World -- Hollywood movie maker Pixar, famous for movies such as Toy Story and Finding Nemo, has been wrestling with a massive data challenge during the production of its latest release, Cars, according to Greg Brandeau, Pixar's VP of technology.

During his keynote here today, Brandeau explained that Cars, which is slated for a June release, has put more strain on his internal systems than any other movie, swallowing up a colossal 2,300 CPU years over the course of the last five years. In other words, in Brandeau's view, a single CPU would have to run for 2,300 years in order to do all the number crunching for this movie.

"Cars is the most ambitious film we have ever made, the frames are way more complex. We used 300 times more compute power to make Cars than Toy Story," he explained.

Brandeau added that the rendering system used for animation was creaking under the strain of the new release, prompting a rethink of the firm's storage strategy. "We realized that our rendering time was taking too long. Frames were taking 10 hours [to render] that should have taken one hour."

According to Brandeau, it was not the rendering system, which is based on Dell servers, that was causing the slowdown. On closer inspection, an NFS file system feeding data to the Dell boxes was found to be the source of the problem. "Our central file system was getting hammered in a way it had never been hammered before. The NFS caches couldn't go fast enough -- they did not have enough RAM on them."Although he did not reveal which vendor provided the NFS, Brandeau confirmed that it was woefully inadequate for the demands of the new movie. "A gigabyte of memory on our file server heads was nowhere near good enough," he said, adding that Pixar needed something in the region of 32 Gbytes.

Like many other users, Brandeau and his team found salvation in a SAN. (See Opinion: Finding God in a SAN.) Pixar eventually opted to replace the NFS with a SAN based on an EMC CX700 box, linked to Dell Linux servers running parallel file system software from startup Ibrix.

The new system, which was deployed last year, has helped cut Pixar's rendering times to their previous levels, while keeping hardware costs to a minimum. "We only have eight little Linux boxes that are serving up that data. We believe strongly that commodity hardware with lots of heads is the way to solve this problem."

This fits in nicely with Pixar's corporate ethos, according to the exec. "When we got started, we didnt have two nickels to rub together. We never bought the big SGI boxes or InfiniBand -- we use basic Ethernet and standard Dell boxes."

This, apparently, was Ibrix's big selling point. "The idea they have is that instead of building special-purpose hardware, they solve the problem by using inexpensive, CPUs."Pixar is not the only organization to go down this route. Last year the National Center For Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and Amazon.com subsidiary Alexa Internet all opted for commodity-hardware approaches to their file storage. (See NCSA Selects Ibrix, UT Deploys Ibrix , and Alexa Adopts Ibrix.)

— James Rogers, Senior Editor, Byte and Switch

Organizations mentioned in this article:

  • Dell Inc. (Nasdaq: DELL)

  • EMC Corp. (NYSE: EMC)

  • Ibrix Inc.

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