Early adopters in a range of vertical markets show that Grid computing
is driving a new model in the economics of enterprise IT. The use of
Grids in life sciences, financial services and electronic design
automation is being well documented as users share their experiences.
However, very little has focused on how the use of Grid technologies
has impacted the digital media industry.
The 451 Group has found that Grid computing technology has become a
critical resource for the digital media industry -- necessary to
deliver more sophisticated animation and special effects. The movie and
electronic gaming industries are the markets -- within the aggregate
digital media industry -- where 451 analysts have seen the widest
deployment of Grid computing technologies. A form of Grid computing has
long been used by the digital media industry; though Grids have always
been called "render farms," as they're known by industry insiders, so
"Grid computing" remains a foreign concept to some.
The Movie Industry
Being involved in IT in the media industry is often a glamorous
position, and the large studios, in particular, have gone out of their
way to recruit the best programmers and IT specialists. Although the
person running IT for a studio works under a number of different job
titles, this person often has wide budgetary control and reports to
either an operations chief or the head of the studio. Despite this
glamour, the IT group is often under intense pressure to reduce costs.
Although there is an ongoing need to have the latest and greatest
technology, all sorts of strategies are used to cut costs. These
include finding IT vendors willing to provide free or discounted
hardware and software in return for the public relations benefits of
being associated with a given movie, as well as using open source
technology and in-house development.
Apart from lowering costs, another factor driving IT decisions is the
ever-increasing demand for heightened realism from special effects.
This applies equally to live action and animated films. Generally
speaking, industry experts are working on applying lighting techniques
like global illumination and subsurface scattering to their scenes. The
use of these techniques has forced software companies to adapt their
Certain movies can't be made without Grid computing. However, they can
be made without using the word "Grid." As much as ever-growing
Grids enable faster production of a film, artists are always using
extra capacity to do more iterations of a scene. As one user explained,
films are never finished, only abandoned. Where Grid technology
underpins utility computing services, however, there is an opportunity
to provide the extra compute resources needed to complete projects on
Large movie studios are used to building proprietary tools to achieve
new creative effects, and Grids will sometimes fall into the same
category of expense. In some cases, the use of Grid technology is being
publicly noted, but in many cases the companies want to keep its use a
secret. While the largest studios and production houses can afford to
build their own Grids, there is potential adoption for Grid technology
at smaller firms, as well. Desktop applications like Adobe Premiere
have been Grid-enabled for faster rendering of graphics, and there are
signs that this technology is being well received.
The Film Industry Vs. Other Vertical Markets
The big difference between the film industry and other vertical markets
is that in the film industry, technology is being used by people who
think of themselves foremost as artists and creative types -- not IT
people. The implication here is that the traditional approach to
creating IT does not apply -- instead, the perspective is one of making
tools look and feel appropriate for this community.
While Grids to enable utility computing could be of great advantage to
this industry, many companies are wary of the outsourcing/utility model
for a number of reasons. First, the studios generally believe it is
more efficient to build their own core technologies such as rendering
engines, Grid management components and so on, rather than outsourcing
such activities. If a third party were to do a studio's processing, the
cost has to be right, and the ease of provisioning a service has to be
addressed. Also, the studios are very sensitive to the idea that data
will be compromised. Letting a bureau or third party touch the data
increases the risk that it will find its way onto the Internet or into
Are all of the concerns justified? To a degree. Vendors still have a
lot to do in order to address these concerns in terms of offering
concrete benefits instead of theoretical ones. Utility computing is of
interest, but access to raw horsepower isn't the most pressing concern
right now for the larger studios. Rather, they've built such huge Grids
that data management is the main issue. Keeping the render farm fed
with data has forced studios to invest in high-performance storage
systems and consider other novel ways to move data to the processor.
Other challenges include concerns over linking sites, lack of
Grid-enabled software, software licensing issues and storage
The Gaming Industry
Grid computing is also used across the electronic gaming industry --
from development to distribution -- but the most excitement seems to be
around enabling online entertainment. Publishers have traditionally
been reluctant to outsource any aspect of their businesses, instead
preferring to sustain whatever differentiation exists by doing
everything in-house. The increased popularity of online gaming demands
significant resources, and the ability to quickly scale the network is
becoming increasingly important -- thus, there is interest in utility
The electronic entertainment industry is famously tight-lipped about
the technologies it uses. Competitive differentiation is proving
increasingly difficult to sustain. As game development costs have
skyrocketed, publishers have grown wary of supporting risky or unproven
genres. The result is an industry characterized by relatively
indistinguishable titles. Therefore, studios want to vigorously protect
any perceived advantage and have been unwilling to discuss their Grid
usage on the record.
Despite this reluctance, The 451 Group has identified six areas in which Grid computing is finding traction:
- Online program distribution.
- Internal creation of in-game art.
- Rendering of in-game cut scenes.
- Packaging of game assets for multiple platforms.
- Hosting a single persistent-world massively multiplayer online game.
- Distributing the variable load of one or multiple online titles.
For film production companies, licensing, data transfer and IP security
issues leave utility computing a difficult and expensive option. But
for games, the priorities are scalability, fault tolerance, load
balancing and providing an always-on, complex world. The 451 Group
expects to see more activity in this space going forward.
For more information about this topic, please visit www.the451group.com/intake/gridtoday-oct05
About Jim Davis
Jim Davis is a senior analyst at New York-based The 451 Group -- an
independent technology industry analyst company focused on the business
of enterprise IT innovation.