Data center plays supporting role in Avatar

The futuristic world and blue creatures in the hit movie Avatar have their roots in an unusual data center situated in Miramar, a suburb of Wellington, New Zealand.

The stunning images in the James Cameron movie were created by Weta Digital Ltd., a visual effects company co-founded by filmmaker Peter Jackson that was also responsible for the computer-rendered scenes in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The company's digital artists transformed the director's vision into screen reality using 3-D imaging software, fine-tuning every frame multiple times. Each minute of Avatar represents 17.28GB of data, according to Weta Digital.

At the heart of the data-intensive process is a 10,000-square-foot server farm that's packed with 34 racks and more than 4,000 Hewlett-Packard blade servers, said Paul Gunn, the data center's systems administrator, in an e-mail. The computing core includes about 35,000 processors and 104TB of RAM, he said.

Because the servers run 24 hours at full capacity when a deadline looms, typical air conditioning techniques couldn't keep up with the heat generated by the servers. So the center uses water-cooled racks from Rittal Corp. and "free cooling" courtesy of the area's chilly climate, Gunn said.

Moreover, "the server farm is only cooled to 25C (77F), which is warmer than many data centers," said Gunn. "By not cooling unnecessarily, we make additional energy efficiency gains."

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