Blade Servers Make the Movies

Go to the movies, and whenever you see a rocket zoom through space, a robot reduce a city to rubble or a superhero flying in the sky, it’s likely that high-powered computer technology generated that effect. At Threshold Digital Research Labs (TDRL), one of the world’s leading digital animation and visual effects production studios, a bank of modern blade servers is the hardware behind the flash.

TDRL created the effects for movies such as I Know What You Did Last Summer, Scary Movie and Spiderman 2, as well as for the TV show Frasier (they made canine actor "Eddie" talk) as well as numerous other movies and television series. The company, located in Santa Monica, Calif., is currently halfway through the process of installing 250 IBM BladeCenter HS20 blades, each containing a pair of Intel Xeon processors.

At TDRL, creating movie-quality animation is a two-step process, requiring both servers and high-end animation workstations (IBM IntelliStation models). "The animation happens on the workstation, and the realization of the animation takes place on the servers," says George Johnsen, chief technology and animation officer at TDRL. The blade servers are replacing conventional form-factor machines (mostly IBM xSeries servers) that were "taking huge amounts of real estate and air conditioning resources to fire up," Johnsen says. Although cooling remains a problem, he notes that "the blade server offers us a tremendous amount of horsepower, a much smaller footprint and the ability to batch render animations much faster."

Johnsen says the blade server technology has exceeded his expectations. "Very quickly, you learn that they do a whole lot more than just another bunch of servers," he says. "So don’t be afraid to push them hard, because they can take it."

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