HP, Linux snag DreamWorks deal

Linux has infiltrated the brains of the DreamWorks digital animation studios, with Hewlett-Packard machines displacing SGI workstations.

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NEW YORK--Linux has infiltrated the brains of the DreamWorks digital animation studios, with Hewlett-Packard machines displacing SGI workstations, the film company revealed Wednesday.

With its last hit, "Shrek," DreamWorks used Linux servers to help "render" each frame, the brute-force job of creating detailed images from skeletal outlines, said Ed Leonard, DreamWorks' chief technology officer. But the brainier animation work took place on dozens of SGI computers running its version of Unix, called Irix.

During the past two years, though, Linux has taken over almost completely during the making of DreamWorks' upcoming "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron," the company said at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo here. Though the company had to rely on HP to fill in some gaps in the Linux software, the system cost about half as much as the SGI systems used to produce "Ants" two to three years ago, and has quadrupled the power, Leonard said.

"We're in the process of shifting away from specialized high-end computing hardware and software to Intel-based PCs running Linux," Leonard said in an interview.

But the process DreamWorks had to go through to make the change illustrates one of the biggest impediments to commercial adoption of Linux outside its core use on servers: the availability of specialized software.

Though much basic Unix software works with little difficulty, it's often expensive to move and test complex packages. Windows software is completely different.

But gradually, technical software for jobs as 3D animation, car crash simulation or chip design is arriving on Linux.

"We worked very hard with our third-party software partners and convinced them why we believed this was interesting. We brought most of those key partners on board," Leonard said. And with HP's help, the company translated to Linux its own in-house animation tools, millions of lines code long.

HP Chief Executive Carly Fiorina announced the deal in a keynote address at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo.

Elevated Linux focus
HP has elevated the profile of its Linux division, forming a specific group called the Linux Business Development Organization, whose job it is to market HP's Linux products more broadly, said Martin Fink, Linux Systems Operation general manager. "The way we were (running) the sales force before was in a more targeted and surgical fashion. This makes it more broad," Fink said.

HP has a sizable presence at the show. Among the more than 30 demonstrations at the booth, HP and its Linux business partners will show HP's new Linux servers and higher-level software for telecommunications customers; software that lets Linux computers print on home and office inkjet printers; HP's consulting group that helps companies translate their software so it runs on Linux; its Secure OS version of Linux; its Linux-based digital entertainment center; Linux running on its PA-RISC chips; and Linux versions of high-end graphics programs from SoftImage, SideFX, and Alias/Wavefront.

The three-year deal with DreamWorks is worth millions of dollars, Leonard said. The company currently can create movies at a time and is adding a third "pipeline," he said. The current Linux pipeline used dual-processor Pentium III-based workstations, but the new one will use Pentium 4 chips and possibly Intel's high-end Itanium chip as well, Leonard said.

For the "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron," DreamWorks used more than 200 HP Intel workstations with HP's FX graphics cards, and now the company is buying hundreds more as it upgrades the studio that produced "Shrek."

HP is working with graphics hardware specialists Nvidia and ATI for future models, said Terry Brown, HP's manager of entertainment industry solutions.

But DreamWorks had to struggle to ensure necessary software was available, though.

"Missing pieces"
"There are some giant missing pieces in Linux," Leonard said. The biggest one remains the lack of a paint program, he said, and market-leading Adobe wasn't inclined to follow DreamWorks' entreaties to create a version of Photoshop for Linux. Consequently, some of the Photoshop work was done on Apple Macintoshes, he said.

But Dreamworks persuaded other software makers to create Linux versions, and HP helped fulfill Linux software needs.

HP wrote the software that let Linux machines use all the features of Wacom digital drawing tablets, including sensitivity to how much pressure the artist is using when drawing, Brown said. HP also wrote software to support dual monitors and to accurately calibrate color.

All this software has been released as open source, meaning that others can use or improve it freely.

The two companies' relationship began when DreamWorks added 40 HP servers to its "render farm" to finish off "Shrek" four months before the movie's debut. Most of the film was rendered using generic "whitebox" servers and systems from VA Linux Systems, which last year exited the hardware business to focus only on collaborative programming software.