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How DreamWorks Animation trained its data center with cloud-first networks

DreamWorks Animation's Jeff Wike explains how automation empowers artists to create movie magic.

21 June 2016
The bottom line

WHAT: DreamWorks Animation needs a robust data center to handle its intensive workloads.

WHY: Animated films equate to half a billion data files, and the studio has artists working on multiple films at multiple locations worldwide.

HOW: DreamWorks Animation partners with HPE to maximize compute power, minimize latency, and keep artists at their most productive.

MORE: Watch the full video from HPE Discover Las Vegas 2016.

By Ronda Swaney, contributing writer

A dragon and a data center. How different are they really? For DreamWorks Animation, creators of iconic movie franchises like Shrek, How to Train Your Dragon, and Kung Fu Panda, the answer is not very.

Jeff Wike, Head of Technology for Film, and TV Production at DreamWorks Animation, presented at Discover 2016 Las Vegas. He described working with HPE to simplify data center network architecture to boost team efficiency and productivity.

Enjoying an animated movie is child's play, but creating one is a huge undertaking, requiring massive digital resources. "Everything in an animated film is created on a computer ... every environment, every teardrop ... the dust from a footfall ... every single thing," Wike explained. All digital assets of an animated film are stored as files, and a complete film equates to roughly a half-billion files.

That's just for one film, but DreamWorks Animation doesn't work on just one film at a time—they release two films annually. It takes four years to produce a single film, and seven films are in production at any given time. They produce this creative work in three global data centers in Shanghai, Bangalore, and Glendale, California.

For Wike and his team, performance, efficiency, and automation are the key tenets that keep their data center infrastructure humming.

Performance keeps artists in the zone

"Simon Otto is head of character animation for all the How to Train Your Dragon films. He's a great animator, and he doesn't care about technology," said Wike. "I don't want him to care about technology. I want him to care about the art. To make him not care about technology, that means it has to be up all the time."

Like the 900 other artists at DreamWorks Animation, Otto manipulates characters and frames in real time. That means he's not, as Wike puts it, "latency tolerant." "Even a couple milliseconds of latency can take an artist out of their zone. We want to keep those guys in the zone."

To do that, DreamWorks Animation relies heavily on network performance. When each artist finishes his or her work at day's end, that work combines with that of all the other artists and goes to the "render farm." DreamWorks Animation performs 200,000 render jobs each night. With that many jobs, Wike said, "Any kind of latency is going to kill you. When we switched to Hewlett Packard Enterprise networking, we dropped a millisecond of latency immediately off the network. That is significant to these guys."

Efficiency drives the bottom line

Efficiency goes right to the bottom line. We want to be able to provide the best compute for the lowest cost.

 

Movie-making is deadline-driven, to say the very least. "We want to provide the best compute infrastructure for artists. If they have speed, if they have the reliability, and no downtime, that all affects whether we can hit our release dates," Wike explained. What does that mean for the company? "Efficiency goes right to the bottom line. ... We want to be able to provide the best compute for the lowest cost."

The need for efficiency included an initiative to instrument their code and compile data from the processes that happen during rendering. "We collect 1.2 million artifacts a night. ... We collect all stats about that job and every parameter that you can think of," Wike said. Through the data, they understand each job and extrapolate that knowledge to future jobs, pinpointing where resources should be allocated. "In that way, we can totally tune our complete environment."

Data center automation self-heals through machine learning

Automation allows Wike's team to marshal the digital resources in order to provide the reliability, stability, and security every project depends on at DreamWorks. "We want to monitor it, configure it on the fly, be able to react to changes and business opportunities," Wike said.

"We so finely tune our environments to be able to take advantage of the particular workflows that when they change, things go wrong," he continued. When an unexpected change occurred during production of Kung Fu Panda 3, the results were eye-opening. The team saw there was CPU availability, but it wasn't being used. Wike explained, "According to our models, we weren't going to be able to finish the film [on time]." Because their code was instrumented, they detected the problem quickly. "Within three to four hours, we were able to reconfigure our environment to accommodate that change."

Wike noted that this change was made after the fact, but added that the true value of automation will enable networks to change themselves. "I want it to detect anomalies that are happening," he said. "I want it to reconfigure itself," using machine-learning algorithms that allow the network to self-heal.

A cloud-first, mobile-first future

"For the past few years, we've been changing our pipeline to be cloud native," Wike noted. Part of the reason for that is to enable spinning up a new studio or group of artists as needed. "You have to be able to do that fast, which means you have to have a simple network [with] monitoring available. You've got to have processes and procedures in place that allow you to do that. ... [W]hen things happen, when change happens, I want to be able to flex to the public cloud."

Any artist, anywhere, anytime, any project, any location. That's a goal for DreamWorks Animation. "Now people will be just as fast on mobile devices as they are on their workstations," he said. "We're giving people that ability to do those things, create those apps that deliver applications to them sooner. ... Now we're actually delivering mobile-first applications to artists to be able to manage their production."

For DreamWorks, automation has made taming their dragons and data centers a little easier.

Watch the video of the full session on-demand at the Discover Las Vegas video page.

Ronda Swaney is a professional healthcare and IT writer, blogger, and content marketer.

 

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