Inside the DreamWorks data center

Conventional wisdom would likely conclude that a creative, IT-driven company like DreamWorks Imagination Studios must embrace all of the latest computing trends and that cutting-edge technologies like the cloud, virtualization and solid-state storage play leading roles in its data center.

Conventional wisdom would be mostly wrong.

About 15% of the servers at DreamWorks are virtualized, about 20% of the movie maker's computer-generated image rendering is performed using cloud services, and the company has yet to find a need for solid-state drives, said Mike Cutler, global director of infrastructure operations.

The studio does, however, invest heavily in state-of-the-art server blades, storage arrays and networks to make sure its animation artists have the tools they need, Cutler said during a recent tour of the company's studio and data center in Redwood City, Calif.

The data center features about 3.8 petabytes of disk storage capacity and 4,000 servers with 25,000 CPU cores.

DreamWorks, which has two studios in the U.S. and one in India, tries to release three animated movies a year. One film takes about three years to create, so the company is usually working on eight to 10 productions at any one time.

The studio must invest in IT "to make sure our artists and engineers stay happy," said Kate Swanborg, head of enterprise marketing. "If we don't stay a couple steps ahead of state-of-the-art, they'll try to find it somewhere else."

The processing power and storage capacity required to produce computer-generated 3D films can be tremendous -- DreamWorks uses more than 300 high-end workstations.

The studio's servers run some 400,000 processing jobs per day and use Red Hat's Enterprise MRG integrated high-performance computing platform to schedule those jobs. "Most of it is done in parallel," Cutler said.

Not including developers working directly on film productions, DreamWorks has 150 software engineers who write applications and keep them and third-party products running smoothly, said Jeff Wike, director of R&D at the Redwood City studio. About 20% of the company's software engineers have Ph.D.s, he added.

For the past three years, the software engineers have been "parallelizing [in-house] software" to take advantage of the latest Intel 16-core Sandy Bridge processors in its servers, Wike said.

"We don't write all of our software, but we do write a lot of it. We buy where we can and build where we must," he said.

The cost of producing a DreamWorks film can be staggering: as much as $130 million for one 90-minute feature film, such as Shrek 4.

DreamWorks has standardized much of its IT infrastructure on Hewlett-Packard BladeSystem c-Class server blades; 3,000 of those are part of a preconfigured computing, storage and network architecture. It also uses HP NAS and 3Par storage arrays, along with a few Hitachi Data Systems and NetApp drives.

The pending release of MGM's film adaptation of The Hobbit could raise the IT stakes for all animation studios: It will be the first motion picture made using 48-frames-per-second technology. "If that's an experience consumers appreciate, it will have a huge impact on storage and rendering [needs]," Wike said.

Of course, investing in new technology to meet a new production standard always carries a price tag. "But if it provides a premium experience people are willing to pay for, that's OK," said Swanborg. "That's a great trade-off."

This version of this story was originally published in Computerworld's print edition. It was adapted from an article that appeared earlier on

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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