As James mentioned in his post, earlier this year we were invited to participate in the Dell & NVidia Professional Editing Advisory Program. I really didn’t know what to expect. In my role as the head of technology for Dawnrunner, I’ve been chiefly responsible for designing and building our computers and network. It’s a role into which I’ve put a lot of time and thought, but to be honest the idea of going with a name brand computer system, like Dell, was not something that I had really considered. Okay, honestly, it’s an option that I mostly dismissed, mainly because I thought that any advantages to buying a pre-built system were outweighed by what they would cost. However, at the time we heard about the Dell & NVidia Professional Editing Advisory Program, we were coming off our first (extremely VFX heavy) feature film and were really taking a hard look at our cluster of computers and how we would expand.
Dawnrunner began as a Mac house. We edited with Final Cut Pro, we used the Mac version of After Effects. Our systems were networked so that sharing footage was easy, but just as often we’d pass around external drives. It was a setup that grew out of what we were familiar with from film school. And things worked okay for a while. Then we decided to make a feature-length film, completely shot on green-screen with 3D rendered sets in post. James and I had a discussion about how we were going to pull it off, and I knew that render time was going to be critical. After some planning we decided that building a cluster of bare-bones, render node PCs was the way to go. It meant becoming a mixed-OS environment, using our Macs as workstations and custom PCs as our render nodes, but we thought that if we could throw enough CPUs at the film, we could get through it. We did. But just barely.
I spent half of my time during post-production acting as a system administrator instead of an artist. We were lucky to have as much volunteer help as we did while working on the film, but any time we added a person to the project it was a scramble to get a workstation set up for them. And then a system would go down, and I’d have to jump back to troubleshooting. Or one system wouldn’t be able to access the network for some reason. By the end of the project I was sleeping at the computer just in case something happened during to our render farm.
But true to the Dawnrunner spirit, after the film we started talking about how we could do more complex shots and have more artists involved. I was having nightmares about trying to grow beyond the computers we already had. So it was at this point that we heard about Dell’s program, and decided we wanted to give it a shot.
Within a week of receiving our Dell Precision, it had become my primary workstation. I like to run tests to quantify the gains we get out of our equipment so I opened up some of the project files from The Darkest Matter. I was honestly amazed. I was able to recreate and re-render some of our trouble shots two to three times faster than when we were using a cluster of computers for rendering.
At first I was puzzled at how the system could really out perform ours by such a margin. Our render nodes were not outdated by any means and on paper should give the Precision a run for it’s money. But the Dell blows them out of the water. Now I’ve had time to use the system on a daily basis and reflect on why I’m so impressed with the Precision workstation there are some key advantages that I can point out:
There are more to specs than the raw numbers involved. The difference between the two is that the components that go into the Dell are carefully chosen to compliment each other; the ram doesn’t cause a bottleneck for the high performance processor, the bus doesn’t bottleneck communication with the NVidia GPU, the solid state hard drive streams the data faster. If any of these systems underperform they hinder the performance of all of the others, and I believe the Precision workstation is a very well balanced system. It’s this type of tuning that outside ability to replicate.
Another factor that I really like is the lack of noise and heat. Again, when we built our render cluster we knew it was going to be a lot of computers in a confined space and we erred on the side of caution when it came to cooling. That meant a lot of noisy fans. The T5500 is nearly silent even when running fully loaded, and we’ve never seen an issue with over heating. I can tell that a lot of thought has gone on at Dell’s end to create a system that is thermally efficient and quiet.
One thing we’ve always liked about our Mac Pros is the ease with which you can swap in a new drive. We actually do this more than most people due to the amount of data we deal in. While the Dell system isn’t quite as easy to reconfigure as our Macs, it still has our render nodes beat. And we’ve seen that in the latest update to the Precision line, swapping drives (and power supplies) has become even easier.
There’s also the intangibles. When you build a system yourself, even if you carefully match the components to eliminate bottleneck you still have to consider the software side. Drivers may not work well together, or may work okay but not be fully optimized. I can see that Dell has also put time into carefully making sure that the entire system, both hardware and software-wise works the best that it can. And in the end that means you get more for what you pay for.
Of course, there are things that I’d like to see improved in the future. I got used to having two ethernet ports on our Mac Pros, allowing us to have a separate network for footage sharing and another for internet access, a set up that gave us good results. I’d also like to see firewire 800 or Thunderbolt support in to support high-speed external drives.
Anyway, I’ll be posting more of my specific experiences with the system in the future, so if you’re interested in the hard numbers check back later.