Will the VFX industry start embracing the cloud with Foundry’s Athera?

A case study in highly specialized DaaS: The VFX industry lags behind others when it comes to moving to the cloud. Foundry hopes to change that with Athera.

Visual effects (VFX) companies are incredibly picky when it comes to end user experience and pixel-perfect fidelity. The types of applications used and the sensitivity and expectations of users can really push EUC technologies, such as protocol compression and latency. Data sets and models are often extreme, pushing resources and storage to their limits. As such, it’s been an industry with slow adoption of cloud and dominated by beefy workstations.

Foundry hopes to change that with their latest product. Foundry is a U.K.-based company that supplies software (i.e., Nuke, Katana, Modo, and Mari) for different parts of the VFX workflow, and it has been known for several years that they were working on a cloud-delivered pipeline product. The cloud hub was previously known as “Elara,” but at FMX (a key VFX event) in April Foundry unveiled the final product, now renamed “Athera.”

Essentially, Athera is a highly specialized desktop-as-a-service offering, providing access to VFX apps running on CentOS Linux, hosted on Google Cloud.

VFX industry publications have already weighed in on Athera, but the BrianMadden.com team and I thought that this was an interesting case study for those of us in the desktop virtualization and remote graphics space. So sit back, relax, and let’s dig in.

First, a little background info on VFX companies and their technology

Media and visual effects users talk in terms of “pipelines.” It’s basically about the way the industry works in terms of process; numerous teams and technologies are used when developing a game or film, all requiring different software. There’s a nice overview by Andrew Whitehurst of a generic VFX pipeline, which gives you an idea of the numbers of teams involved and the demands of the software and various work units, e.g., CAD and LIDAR modelling, texture and shader application, and animation and rendering.

Up until now, we’ve always thought of VFX as a media industry technology, but there has been an explosion of interest in generating VR/AR experiences and simulations from architectural and engineering models in Autodesk Revit, ESRI CityEngine, or Dassault Solidworks, and from gaming engines such as Unity, Epic’s Unreal Engine, Renderman, or Iray. This is further increasing demand, and, of course, creating more complex pipelines).

On paper, cloud is an excellent solution for VFX, as it addresses many issues in that industry:

  • Protection of intellectual property and security
  • Complexity of projects with different timelines, teams, companies, and contractors
  • Lack of significant IT support for smaller companies and freelancers
  • Overhead and cost of specialist staff and their time
  • Storage of huge models and data sets

Because VFX projects typically involve a large number of applications (for textures, lighting, meshed data, etc.), the industry has tried to standardize platforms and tools. The high graphical demands mean the VFX industry evolved around Linux, so the VFX Reference Platform focused on this. In practice, this means older OSes and a lot of CentOS (including RHEL) usage; too many in the industry are still on CentOS 6.0. To date, many of the hypervisor and GPU vendors focus on Windows, and when they do get to Linux, they’re focused on more recent OSes.

A quick run-down of Athera

As mentioned, Athera runs on Google Cloud and initially uses CentOS. It supports a number of Foundry products, plus a few from third parties.

Rather than delivery of a single application, this solution provides access to the collection of applications used for a VFX pipeline. Targeting smaller VFX studios and freelancers, access to individual applications is through 30-day units with no lock-in, and pricing for each application varies. There is also the capacity for pay-as-you-go for offloading to rendering nodes, too. 

For the remote display protocol, Athera uses TurboVNC (and NoVNC for the web browser interface), but Foundry plans to also add support for Teradici’s PCoIP.

Foundry provides a browser interface, but recognizes that spending all day in a browser isn’t how most designers and VFX users work. So the company also built a desktop broker, called “Orbit,” to manage connections to application sessions via TurboVNC. User can take advantage of a file transfer API and support for peripherals such as Wacom tablets and multiple monitors.

Athera doesn’t look like a vanilla VDI desktop or CAD in a browser product. Upfront, the user is presented with a “Context,” which is essentially a project-based role. A user has multiple Contexts, e.g., “Making cat videos project,” “Exciting feature film,” or “Animation for cornflakes advert.” The Context helps set user groups and permissions, as well as what virtual infrastructure is available to the user for the project, i.e., what storage is available where, the private SDN, and what hardware resources are available.

Foundry Athera: A bespoke solution

There’s a good overview video of Athera from the launch available. What’s really quite striking is how much infrastructure Foundry built to offer a solution that really fits with how people work in VFX. There are plenty of generic VDI and graphical application streaming technologies they could have used to provide access to their VFX pipeline products but chose to develop their own.

Foundry product manager Mathieu Mazerolle agreed to speak to me about what they have developed with Athera and why. I was expecting this to be a graphics focused discussion, but far more interestingly, it became clear that the team really had done an awful lot of work on the storage and networking.

‘Why not just use traditional VDI or app streaming?’
Building their own container-based platform using a mixture of technologies (including Kubenetes and Docker) was key to enabling the Context-based infrastructure. Under-the-hood management of storage and the capacity to handle very large datasets were significant challenges Foundry addressed by building storage management architecture (replication, duplication, redundancy, data hierarchy), called “Atlas.” Existing solutions weren’t available out of the box; so Foundry essentially built a feature-full CAD PLM system to compensate.

Why Google Cloud?’
Mazerolle explained that Google’s commitment to the partnership and the access to developer relations proved very useful. The coverage offered by Google (the advised latency to Athera is 80ms) and the quality of the storage infrastructure and fiber availability were also key factors.

‘How does Foundry Athera address cost, performance, and security concerns?’
Athera’s initial beta users have responded very positively to the overall pay-as-you-go model. Long term, Foundry is looking at how to build more flexibility into the business model pricing. This is especially useful for smaller customers. Moving from CAPEX to OPEX models and having access to hardware with 1 TB of RAM and 64 CPUs for short-term projects without the upfront costs of hardware is a boon. It’s worth checking out the initial pricing information here.

The initial VNC-based protocols and mobile/remote working Athera enables are working well for most users. However, Mazerolle hopes to be able to offer Teradici’s PCoIP Cloud Access Software as an additional option for users soon.

Mazerolle stressed that they have built user and tenant segregation into the container architecture. In addition, the solution has been audited by an independent security consultancy and that report is available to users upon request. This is a particularly nice touch beyond the usual “secure” marketing—I really wish more vendors would document these key concerns upfront.

Athera roadmap plans

Foundry’s solution isn’t fully baked. There are improvements in progress and probably a few rough edges, however the product is polished enough that a first release makes sense, and early adopters can provide feedback.

Mazerolle mentioned that his immediate considerations for enhancements include:

  • On-premises solution and integration, which larger customers have expressed interest in
  • Performance enhancements, including Teradici integration
  • 10-bit HDMI color support (most cloud graphics are 8 bit today)
  • Tweaking the licensing and pricing model in response to feedback from the first release
  • Working with more third-party vendors to get more software apps onto the platform

Longer term, over the next year or two Foundry plans to get Athera working on Windows, in addition to CentOS.

Mazerolle revealed that Foundry is following developments in feature and object recognition, machine learning and artificial intelligence closely. With Athera providing a centralized platform for a large numbers of users, it also could provide the data source for identifying and rationalizing and reusing pipeline work.

Final thoughts

In EUC, technology advances are usually driven by the niche or most demanding customers. This development filters down, benefiting the average user or opening up the technologies to new use cases. Cloud VFX demands are likely to lead to:

  • Significant drive for GPUs in cloud
  • More development and support around Linux OSes, such as those based on CentOS
  • Protocol advances
  • Markets for protocols and brokers beyond the enterprise-oriented offerings of Citrix, VMware, etc.
  • VDI/protocol vendors reevaluating their audio codecs and synchronization to graphics
  • GPU support for hybrid protocols (encoding regions rather than full screens)

VFX software and the specialist staff are expensive. These customers are willing to spend for the highest user experience, and demand improvements and technologies ahead of the mass VDI market. Along with the technologies creeping from VFX into the mainstream, e.g., AR/VR, rendering, CGI, the developments and ISV models this industry is developing really are worth watching.

Although designed for VFX, somehow Foundry has come up with a really attractive, generic platform for application and resource use for large-scale projects. I could see it being appealing for delivering CAD/CAE and GIS solutions especially with multiple users using multiple applications.

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