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Pixar switches from Sun to Intel

The "Monsters Inc." animation studio is swapping its Sun-based rendering system for servers containing Intel chips, as the Sun-Intel squabble bubbles along.

Pixar Animation Studios, which brought the world "Monsters Inc." and "Toy Story," is switching from Sun Microsystems to Intel, as the melodrama in the server market heats up.

The Emeryville, Calif.-based film studio is replacing servers from Sun in its "render farm"--a bank of servers that fuses artists' images into finished film frames--with eight new blade servers from RackSaver. In all, the blade system contains 1,024 Intel 2.8GHz Xeon processors, and it runs the open-source Linux operating system.

Pixar installed the RackSaver system over the last six months and will use it to develop its next film, "The Incredibles," which will likely hit theaters in 2004.

While the financial impact of the individual contract may be negligible to Sun, the symbolism is tough to ignore. A number of film and entertainment studios in the past year have swapped out Unix computers containing reduced instruction set computer (RISC) processors, like Sun's UltraSparc III, in favor of systems running the Linux operating system and chips from Intel or from Intel rival Advanced Micro Devices.

Last July, for instance, Industrial Light and Magic replaced RISC-based computers running Unix on artist workstations from SGI, choosing instead Dell desktops containing Intel chips and Linux software. ILM also installed a render farm running AMD's Athlon processors. Other Intel-Linux installations took place at DreamWorks and Sony Pictures' Imageworks.

"We've got coverage now with the brand-marquee companies," said Tom Gibbs, director of industry marketing at Intel. "This is a complete migration. They are moving off Sun Solaris and onto Intel-based servers running Linux."

While Intel-based servers are generally less expensive than Unix-RISC-based servers, Gibbs said that the conversion is taking place because the performance gap between the two types of setups has largely been erased, and even reversed for certain functions.

"They (film studios) will pay what they have to pay to get the image quality," Gibbs said.

As part of the switch to Intel for rendering, Pixar has ported its Renderman software to run on Linux.

Sun and AMD both submitted bids on the Pixar deal, sources said. Pixar and Sun did not return calls for comment.

The conversion to Intel systems is something of a bottom-up--as opposed to top-down--phenomenon in the entertainment industry. Many of the studios have installed these servers in render farms, where repetitive, brute-force computing power is required. Unix-RISC workstations, on the other hand, remain popular for more sophisticated tasks; artists who "draw" scenes depend on them. But Intel-Linux systems are beginning to catch on there as well.

The likely next area where the Unix-RISC and Intel-Linux camps will clash is the market for the back-end systems used to run studio databases or swap images. Right now, the artists, the film's director and studio executives often live in different cities. Actor Morgan Freeman, for example, lives on an island, but is actively involved in "Rendezvous with Rama," a coming science-fiction film, said Gibbs. To get approval on a final scene, the studios have to fly people around the country.

Intel is working to improve collaborative systems so that complex scenes can be viewed on standard notebooks. Currently, these back-end systems run on Unix-RISC computers.

The Pixar deal comes amid a spate of shuttle diplomacy taking place between Intel and Apple Computer. Both Pixar and Apple share the same CEO, Steve Jobs. At Macworld in January, Intel President Paul Otellini sat in the front row for Jobs' keynote as a VIP guest of Apple. Jobs also gave Otellini a tour of the show floor.

Later in January, Jobs delivered the morning keynote address at Intel's annual sales conference in Las Vegas. "Andy (Grove) always tries to bring someone in from the outside," said an Intel representative. "Andy has always thought of Steve as being a quite a creative force in the industry."

The Intel chairman and Apple's CEO are, in fact, old friends. Still, "I'm sure one of the reasons he did it was for the shock value," the representative said.