Picture-Perfect Rendering for World-Class VFX and Animation

Avere FXT Edge Filers: Scalable Storage Performance for Production Workflows

Sony Imageworks - VFX Rendering Performance

Sony Pictures Imageworks was founded in 1992 as a new division of Sony Pictures Entertainment. Today, more than 25 years, two Oscars®, and around 100 major film projects later, Imageworks is one of the industry’s most respected and successful production studios.  

Imageworks Vice President of Systems Engineering Stephen Kowalski oversees the design, build, and operations of the company’s technical computing environments. Kowalski says that supporting today’s accelerated production schedules requires frequent scaling of the company’s render farm that already numbers in the tens of thousands of cores. “We recently completed a 20 percent expansion and expect to increase the farm by another 20 percent in the coming year. Avere Systems technology allows us to build out rendering capacity without storage ever becoming the weakest link in the infrastructure. Deploying Avere Edge filer solutions as a high-performance caching layer between the render farm and tier 1 storage ensures we can continue to run at scale, cost-effectively and without any change or impact to our workflows, even as we add thousands or tens of thousands of cores.”



As the visual effects and animation unit of Sony Pictures Entertainment, Imageworks is renowned for live-action visual effects, dynamic creature and character animation, and all-CG animation.  

Kowalski joined Imageworks as a technical assistant in 1995. He suggests that while production schedules have always driven demand for IT infrastructure, the scale and pace of current work puts pressure on computing resources. “Movie projects that we used to work on over a two-year period very often now require completion in just seven or eight months. Release-date strategies can also result in stacked projects. This coming year, for example, we’ll be delivering three full-length animated movies within a three-month span.”

In this kind of environment, IT can be strained. Kowalski continues, “All of that work puts significant load on compute and storage resources. Right now, for example, we run the render farm 24x7 at 95 percent utilization. The challenge for us is to continue to meet required turnaround times on renders without adversely affecting the artist workstations that require access to the same datasets.”



Sony Imageworks uses Avere for highest performance vfx rendering

Imageworks implemented its first Avere FXT Edge filer in 2010 and today utilizes a large installed base of Avere FXT clusters that serve as a caching layer between the render farm and a heterogeneous footprint of tier 1 NAS devices. Nick Bali, Imageworks senior systems architect, says that Avere FXT Edge filer solutions enable drop-in storage performance acceleration. “Avere technology lets us almost instantly address any bandwidth or latency issues to avoid bottlenecks that could impact production. Most recently we deployed an Avere FXT Edge Filer 5600 cluster to support the render farm expansion and to ensure non-disruptive scalability for the upcoming increase. This latest-generation of FXT Edge filers gives us tremendous flexibility to scale performance as well as cache capacity—in our current configuration, for example, we’re able to actively cache as much as 33 percent of our texture volumes.”



Faster Renders, No Workflow Disruptions

Bali says that heavily accessed geometry and texture files represent a “sweet spot” for improved performance through an Avere cluster. “In the past, our read-only random-access volumes—typically texture files—averaged up to 10TB per production. Today texture volumes are more likely to run 90 to 200TB. The expanded SSD capacity of the FXT 5600 enables dramatically faster access to those datasets.”

Targeted deployment of Avere Edge filers allows the Imageworks team to minimize latency, keeping it less than five milliseconds to all requests coming into the render farm. “Five milliseconds is actually a high-water mark,” comments Bali. “Our real goal is to stay between one and two milliseconds. Avere lets us consistently deliver that level of service. A few milliseconds may not sound significant, but the math is simple—twice the latency would mean twice the turnaround time on renders. The other advantage of the Avere technology is that we’re able to simply slip in a cache wherever we need the added performance—without any disruption or changes to our workflow.”

Cost Savings

Avere technology allows Imageworks to extend the life of its tier 1 storage systems and to configure those systems more economically. “We also recently deployed FXT 5600 clusters in front of a core filer that was bottlenecking at 4GB/second throughput,” continues Bali. “The Avere technology successfully offloaded that 4GB and freed the core filer to serve another 2GB of data. Avere gave us an immediate 50 percent boost in throughput.”

Scott Parker, Imageworks director of engineering, adds, “We simply could not sustain the throughput we need without the aid of the Avere clusters. The I/O requirements during some of our data pushes would otherwise grind core filers to a halt—that would not only impact rendering processes, but it would make it impossible for artists to work. We’re constantly looking at ways to maintain required responsiveness to both the render nodes and workstations while at the same time controlling costs. Another benefit of the Avere architecture is that it provides a path to cloud computing. We’re currently experimenting with cloud bursting and expect that at some point public cloud solutions will offer persuasive financial benefits.”

Long-term Effects

“When we first worked with Avere, our render farm was about one quarter the size it is today,” Kowalski concludes. “Avere has allowed us to continually scale performance to meet demand without making any changes to our pipeline or underlying NFS layer.

“As a long-time Avere customer, we’ve come to appreciate how the FXT Edge filer solution has evolved to continue to meet requirements in line with our own advances in animation and VFX, as well as with the significant growth across our render farm, production pipeline, and workforce. Avere solutions help us keep our artists working productively to deliver world-class creativity and innovation.”