Putting the farm into digital signage content production

October 13, 2010 by Dave Haynes

A couple of recent presentations I’ve done talked a little about cloud computing, and I used content rendering farms as a good example of using web-based services to get work done without investing in infrastructure.

With one exception, no one I was in front of had ever heard of rendering farms. And I really hadn’t either until Denys Lavigne mentioned them to me when I was up in his Arsenal Media offices in Montreal recently.

So … I thought I would mention them here … as they seem like an interesting option for content creators in this sector. I get the sense these services are not all that well known.

If you run a DOOH company or digital signage services that include ad creation, you have probably seen your motion graphic designers set a process running on their big Mac desktops, and then get up and leave for the night, hoping the rendering job would be done by the time they came back in the next morning. In lay terms, rendering is the process of getting a final video output file from the layers and layers of elements within the file of a software program like AfterEffects or Maya. They are BIG files, so on a single computer, outputting a file can take a looooong time.

For really sophisticated animation – the stuff coming out of Hollywood – it can take an hour just to render a single frame, and there will probably be 30 frames per second in a given file.

The way this has been handled for a few years has been by ganging computing power. Explains Tom’s Hardware:

How do studios get around this? They use render farms, which 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.

Now what gets done in digital signage and DOOH is light years away, generally, from what’s coming out of Industrial Light and Magic and Pixar. But they are still processor intensive and therefore can take a lot of time. But a freelancer or a small creative team is not likely going to buy and build a clustered environment of heavy-lifting servers.

Getting clustered

Cloud-based render farms would seem to take away that requirement, effectively letting motion graphics designers rent space on farms that have huge amounts of shared capacity. They only use what they need to get a job done.

The value really boils down to time. Render jobs can get done to meet timelines the client demands but just aren’t going to happen with the available hardware in the studio.

The farms use the Internet to let clients upload source files, tweak settings and then hit start. The render time is metered based on hours of CPU time needed. From what I could figure out – and I will stress I don’t know a bunch about this stuff – a 15-second file cost $21 using one the estimation tool on one of these  render farm services.

I have no ties and know almost zippo about the companies that do this stuff  – like RenderRocket and Rebus Farm – but these services look like the sort of thing that could solve some real problems for creative folks working in smaller operations.

Leave a comment