Review: Foundry’s Athera cloud platform

By David Cox

I’ve been thinking for a while that there are two types of post houses — those that know what cloud technology can do for them, and those whose days are numbered. That isn’t to say that the use of cloud technology is essential to the survival of a post house, but if they haven’t evaluated the possibilities of it they’re probably living in the past. In such a fast-moving business, that’s not a good place to be.

The term “cloud computing” suffers a bit from being hijacked by know-nothing marketeers and has become a bit vague in meaning. It’s quite simple though: it just means a computer (or storage) owned and maintained by someone else, housed somewhere else and used remotely. The advantage is that a post house can reduce its destructive fixed overheads by owning fewer computers and thus save money on installation and upkeep. Cloud computers can be used as and when they are needed. This allows scaling up and down in proportion to workload.

Over the last few years, several providers have created global datacenters containing upwards of 50,000 servers per site, entirely for the use of anyone who wants to “remote in.” Amazon and Google are the two biggest providers, but as anyone who has tried to harness their power for post production can confirm, they’re not simple to understand or configure. Amazon alone has hundreds of different computer “instance” types, and accessing them requires navigating through a sea of unintelligible jargon. You must know your Elastic Beanstalks from your EC2, EKS and Lambda. And make sure you’ve worked out how to connect your S3, EFS and Glacier. Software licensing can also be tricky.

The truth is, these incredible cloud installations are for cleverer people than those of us that just like to make pretty pictures. They are more for the sort that like to build neural networks and don’t go outside very much. What our industry needs is some clever company to make a nice shiny front end that allows us to harness that power using the tools we know and love, and just make it all a bit simpler. Enter Athera, from Foundry. That’s exactly what they’ve done.

What is Athera?

Athera is a platform hosted on Google Cloud infrastructure that presents a user with icons for apps such as Nuke and Houdini. Access to each app is via short-term (30-day) rental. When an available app icon is clicked, a cloud computer is commanded into action, pre-installed with the chosen app. From then on, the app is used just as if locally installed. Of course, the app is actually running on a high-performance computer located in a secure and nicely cooled datacenter environment. Provided the user has a vaguely decent Internet connection, they’re good to go, because only the user interface is being transmitted across the network, not the actual raw image data.

Apps available on Athera include Foundry’s products, plus a few others. Nuke is represented in its base form, plus a Nuke X variant, Nuke Studio, and a combination of Nuke X and Cara VR. Also available are the Mari texture painting suite, Katana look-creating app and Modo CGI modeling software.

Athera also offers access to non-Foundry products like CGI software Houdini and Blender, as well as the Gaffer management tool.

NukeIn my first test, I rustled up an instance of Nuke Studio and one of Blender. The first thing I wanted to test was the GPU speed, as this can be somewhat variable for many cloud computer types (usually between zero and not much). I was pleasantly surprised as the rendering speed was close to that of a local Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080, which is pretty decent. I was also pleased to see that user preferences were maintained between sessions.

One thing that particularly impressed me was how I could call up multiple apps together and Athera would effectively build a network in the background to link them all up. Frames rendered out of Blender were instantly available in the cloud-hosted Nuke Studio, even though it was running on a different machine. This suggests the Athera infrastructure is well thought out because multi-machine, networked pipelines with attached storage are constructed with just a few clicks and without really thinking about it.

Access to the Athera apps is either by web browser or via a local client software called “Orbit.” In web browser mode, each app opens in its own browser tab. With Orbit, each app appears in a dedicated local window. Orbit boasts lower latency and the ability to use local hardware such as multiple monitors. Latency, which would show itself as a frustrating delay between control input and visual feedback, was impressively low, even when using the web browser interface. Generally, it was easy to forget that the app being used was not installed locally.

Getting files in and out was also straightforward. A Dropbox account can be directly linked, although a Google or Amazon S3 storage “bucket” is preferred for speed. There is also a hosted app called “Toolbox,” which is effectively a file browser to allow the management of files and folders.

The Athera platform also contains management and reporting features. A manager can set up projects and users, setting out which apps and projects a user has access to. Quotas can be set, and full reports are given as to who did what, when and with which app.

Athera’s pricing is laid out on their website and it’s interesting to drill into the costs and make comparisons. A user buys access to apps in 30-day blocks. Personally, I would like to see shorter blocks at some point to increase up/down scale flexibility. That said, render-only instances for many of the apps can be accessed on a per-second billing basis. The 30-day block comes with a “fair use” policy of 200 hours. This is a hard limit, which equates to around nine and a half hours per day for five-day weeks (which is technically known in post production as part time).

Figuring Out Cost
Blender is a good place to start analyzing cost because it’s open source (free) software, so the $244 Athera cost to run for 30 days/200 hours must be for hardware only. This equates to $1.22 per hour, which, compared to direct cloud computer usage, is pretty good value for the GPU-backed machine on offer.

Modo

Another way of comparing the amount of $244 a month would be to say that a new computer costing $5,800 depreciates at roughly this monthly rate if depreciated over two years. That is to say, if a computer of that value is kept for two years before being replaced, it effectively loses roughly $241 per month in value. If depreciated over three years, the figure is $80 per month less. Of course, that’s just comparing the cost of depreciation. Cost of ownership must also include the costs of updating, maintaining, powering, cooling, insuring, housing and repairing if (when!) it breaks down. If a cloud computer breaks down, Google has a few thousand waiting in the wings. In general, the base hardware cost seems quite competitive.

Of course, Blender is not really the juicy stuff. Access to a base Nuke, complete with workstation, is $685 per 30 days / 200 hours. Nuke X is $1,025. There are also “power” options for around 20% more, where a significantly more powerful machine is provided. Compared to running a local machine with purchased or rented software, these prices are very interesting. But when the ability to scale up and down with workload is factored in, especially being able to scale down to nothing during quiet times, the case for Athera becomes quite compelling.

Another helpful factor is that a single 30-day access block to a particular app can be shared between multiple users — as long as only one user has control of the app at a time. This is subject to the fair use limitation.

There is an issue if commercial (licensed) plug-ins are needed. For the time being, these can’t be used on Athera due to the obvious licensing issues relating to their installation on a different cloud machine each time. Hopefully, plugin developers will become alive to the possibilities of pay-per-use licensing, as a platform like Athera could be the perfect storefront.

Mari

Security
One of the biggest concerns about using remote computing is that of security. This concern tends to be more perceptual than real. The truth is that a Google datacenter is likely to have significantly more security than an average post company’s machine room. Also, they will be employing the best in the security business. But if material being worked on leaks out into the public, telling a client, “But I just sent it to Google and figured it would be fine,” isn’t going to sound great. Realistically, the most likely concern for security is the sending of data to and from a datacenter. A security breach inside the datacenter is very unlikely. As ever, a post producer has to remain vigilant.

Summing Up
I think Foundry has been very smart and forward thinking to create a platform that is able to support more than just Foundry products in the cloud. It would have been understandable if they just made it a storefront for alternative ways of using a Nuke (etc), but they clearly see a bigger picture. Using a platform like Athera, post infrastructure can be assembled and disassembled on demand to allow post producers to match their overheads to their workload.

Athera enables smart post producers to build a highly scalable post environment with access to a global pool of creative talent who can log in and contribute from anywhere with little more than a modest computer and internet connection.

I hate the term game-changer — it’s another term so abused by know-nothing marketeers who have otherwise run out of ideas — but Athera, or at least what this sort of platform promises to provide, is most certainly a game-changer. Especially if more apps from different manufacturers can be included.


David Cox is a VFX compositor and colorist with 20-plus years of experience. He started his career with MPC and The Mill before forming his own London-based post facility. Cox recently created interactive projects with full body motion sensors and 4D/AR experiences.


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