Render farms: Digital Agri-Culture

The ins and outs of render farm technology.
Render farms, Analysis, Delivery & Transmission
Amitaabh Naaraayan
Amitaabh Naaraayan

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Render farms are at the core of any animation or editing work. The faster you can render, the faster you can get closer to your deadline. It is common knowledge that an exhaustive number of processor hours are required to create visual effects and animations for films and TV shows.

For example, render times totalled 40 million hours for Monsters vs. Aliens, 30 million hours for Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, and 6.6 million hours for Revenge of the Sith.

A good render time for television visual effects is anywhere between 30 minutes to one hour per frame, while multiple hours per frame is common for feature films. Some of the IMAX resolution frames required for Devastator, a character in Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen, took up to 72 hours per frame.

How do studios get around this? They use render farms that are banks of machines with the express purpose of rendering finished frames. In addition to the systems that animators use, render farms simultaneously use many dedicated processors for rendering.

For instance, Industrial Light and Magic had a render farm with 5,700 processor cores (and 2,000 cores in their artists' machines) when Transformers 2 was produced. Even a small facility with only a dozen animators is likely to have more than a hundred processor cores at their disposal at any point.

Use of render farms isn't restricted to large studios and 3D artists. Smaller studios have their own render farms and many freelance artists have them as well. Compositors and freelance motion-graphics artists can also make use of them. Some editing systems support the use of additional machines called render nodes to accelerate rendering.

This type of setup can be extended to architectural visualisation and even, to digital audio workstations.

Most 3D software and compositing applications include network rendering capabilities, and many also have some form of a network rendering controller. So, the additional nodes can be managed from your workstation, making it possible to run them as headless systems with no mouse, keyboard, or monitor.

Adding a Virtual Network Computing (VNC) client to each node allows you to remotely manage the nodes without the additional expense associated with adding a multi-channel system keyboard, video, and mouse (KVM) switch for separate access to each.

The hardware in a render farm consists of many high performance, powerful desktop and rack mounted render servers and render boxes (or render nodes as they are more commonly known).

Render Servers are remotely configured/managed CPU rendering devices that are designed to make one’s creative projects easier. By removing the main rendering tasks from the design studio and onto dedicated Render Servers, they allow the end user to free up time to continue working (rather than sit around waiting for the render to complete). Rendering can be done anytime, day or night with a render farm manager distributing the render jobs (maximising speed, render farm efficiency and project deadlines).

Simply put, a render farm employs many PCs simultaneously by running a queue manager on each box.

The queuing software divides a job into multiple parts and decides which machine executes which part and when. Each machine refers to the job's scene file, which needs to reside in a location accessible to all the machines, and renders its share of frames. Once finished, each system stores the rendered frames back to that central location, ready for review. The operating system governs the choice of queue management software.

Dr Queue won't run on Windows, for instance; Smedge will only run on Windows, and so forth. There are several criteria to consider while sorting through the available applications.

Do you want a free or open-source application, or are you willing to pay for tech nical support?

What kinds of projects do you want to render out—Autodesk Maya, 3ds max, Adobe After Effects, or any of a number of others?

It is important to pick a queue manager that supports them.

Key render farm players:

Hardware:

HP – www.hp.com
Dell – www.dell.com
Verari Systems– www.verari.com
Boxx Technologies – www.boxxtech.com
Workstation Specialists –  www.workstationspecialist.com

Software / Queue Manager Solution include:

Dr.Queue – www.drqueue.org
Smedge – www.uberware.net
Qube! – www.pipelinefx.com
Rush – www.seriss.com
Muster – www.vvertex.com

Today, you no longer need to have a physical render farm at your office. There are plenty of online render farms that provide high-speed remote rendering.

www.rebusfarm.com
www.rendercubic.com
www.remote-render.com
www.respower.com
www.renderrocket.com

Amitaabh Naaraayan is a 3D and SFX professional based in Dubai.

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