By Randi Altman
As history shows, when Ted Schilowitz finds a product he believes in, he’s all in.
Shortly after his retirement last year from Red Digital Cinema, where he had been the public face of the company since its inception, Schilowitz began talks with Silverdraft, a company known for its on-set services truck housing a supercomputer for post production needs, including rendering.
He was impressed with the technology and what it offered, but knew the strategy of the company needed to focus more on what he calls “the flattening out of the entertainment industry,” where a lot of small- to medium-sized companies are tackling a lot of big, important jobs. “We needed to create a better solution for those companies,” he says.
Serendipitously, Silverdraft founder Amy Gile and managing director John Parenteau had already started down the path to harness the power of the supercomputer — designed by Silverdraft co-founder Dr. Srinidhi Varadarajan — into smaller packages.
Head of engineering Erik Smith was tasked with taking that supercomputing technology out of the truck and putting it into two customizable and smaller footprint versions that are now accessible to the masses — the Devil and Demon.
The supercomputer system in the mobile rig, which has been renamed The Devil’s Playground, offers over 1,700 cores, says Schilowitz. “It’s one of the fastest computers in the world and it happens to be on wheels, which allows us to take it to where the big companies with massive render needs want it to work. We took what we learned from building the Devil’s Playground and built a product strategy around that power, scaling it to allow many companies to have access and own the rendering and computing power that previously only very large VFX and post environments could have in their facilities.”
Schilowitz, who in addition to being president of Silverdraft also has roles with 20th Century Fox (as its “Futurist”) and Barco (as its “CinemaVangelist”), believes this will change the way artists in our industry look at their workstations.
Devil and Demon will make their debut at NAB with the Devil’s Playground providing the backdrop. They will have a variety of software running on the systems, from Autodesk’s VRed simulator to Chaos Group’s VRay RT to Digital Vision’s Nucoda.
Schilowitz recently sat down with postPerspective to provide some details about the Devil and Demon.
These new boxes are built specifically for M&E workflows?
Yes. Typically, the computing industry is trying to service media and entertainment using mainstream desktop computers, which isn’t perfect. What you really need is dedicated computer systems that are designed to do the job.
Are these solutions customized for each user?
Everything we do is custom, but we’ve built preconfigured product lines that we know fit into users’ workflows, and that’s what we call the Devil & Demon Strategy. The Demon boxes are fast GPU/CPU computing stations designed to be a desk-side system. They don’t look like something you would buy at Best Buy or Staples.
They are shaped in a way that allows them to cool more efficiently using liquid cooling, therefor making them quieter and more efficient than your standard tower. Partnering with Micron and AMD means we are choosing the best, fastest and most efficient, as well as cost efficient components, for the market. When you put that together and start experimenting, you realize you can build a lot better computer with a lot better performance if you give it a little bit more breathing room. Plus the right kind of enclosure designed for our business as opposed to trying to shoe horn it all in.
We can deliver highly stable processors running much higher clock speeds than a typical system, and they run more efficiently than if someone were to go and over clock a processor on their own. What’s most important is that we have taken the learning we have gained from the supercomputer market and applied that concept to workstations, effectively creating a faster, more stable, more efficient computer because of that background.
What makes it a supercomputer?
Demons are standalone workstations. But for the highest performance, we connect the Demon workstations to Devil’s in an ultra fast network that makes the artist much more efficient than any other system.
A Devil is essentially a supercomputer in an artist-friendly box, but built in a way that you simply have to plug it in to a couple wall circuits, and hook in your Ethernet cable, and it’s ready to go.
It’s based on technology, which is a very fast IO fabric that has been developed and refined over years and years by our supercomputing scientist Srinidhi. This is how he built the Devil’s Playground.
What do you mean by the Devil & Demon Strategy?
If you are building a facility, or doing a refresh on your existing facility, we can save you money and do things a lot faster, because instead of trying to link up a bunch of desktop computers or a bunch of render blades and hope for the best, we have a methodology and a technology that works better. That is the Devil & Demon Strategy.
We are trying to make the idea of very sophisticated very fast computing as plug-and-play as possible. It’s not totally plug-and-play, but it’s as close as we can get.
So let’s talk customization. Someone comes to you and says, “I work in film VFX, and I am using Nuke, Side Effects, etc.” You will design a special system for those needs?
A Devil can be customized based on the type of processing you’re doing, so all CPU, or a lot of GPU, or a mix of the two. The workstations themselves are built in several “flavors” that accommodate programs that don’t use a lot of cores but love a fast CPU, or other software that loves a lot of cores.
For example, our DSPa, the single-processor AMD chip running at 4.7GHz, runs Nuke amazingly fast because Nuke doesn’t use a lot of cores but loves a fast processor. But if you’re doing a lot of 3D, and rendering locally on your machine, you might prefer a dual-proc DMPa, which offers far more cores. We realized that the industry does not need just one type of computer. Our strategy allows for companies spending money in the right place, on the right machines.
For roto/paint people, or matte painters, compositors, etc., save the money and get them a single proc, fast processor system. Then only spend the big bucks on the dual-proc systems if you need to. Beyond that, the Devil gives you unique flexibility by providing fast-turnaround processing, a distributed processing render machine for huge renders, or a super fast ultra-blade system that will run circles around a standard blade render setup.
So it’s sort of pick your adventure and we can get you there. Even as a young company, our advantage is we are streamlined to customers and helping them achieve these goals.
How do you keep the costs down while keeping the efficiency up?
Our systems are a better price because we made crucial strategic relationships with companies like AMD and Micron. Both offer components that are already aggressively priced compared to their competitors, while still exceeding their competitors’ performance, and they are excited to work with us, and us with them, to show off this price/performance. So they work closely with us to make sure we can build a system that is less expensive yet performs at the highest levels. To be honest, we simply make a much more efficient product, and work hard to provide high value while still providing high performance to our customers.
Can you talk about the pricing?
We’re discounting our Demon workstations as an incentive for early adopters, and to celebrate our big NAB roll out. For example, the DSPa, our single-processor AMD solution, which is normally $5,600, is selling now and through NAB for $4,760. Our dual-proc AMD, the DMPa, has been discounted from $7,800 to $6,630.
Devils are a bit more custom, depending on your needs, and can range from $85,000 to $130,000 or so. We are offering a 15 percent discount off the Devil from now until NAB.
We can also do configurations with Intel and Nvidia if someone requests it, but the biggest cost savings is when you go with AMD because they have a less expensive chip that has high performance.
The cost of the Devil might be a bit steep for smaller studios.
I don’t think of the Devil as expensive, even for small studios. Think of it like this: You can buy 20 inexpensive workstations, averaging $7,000 a piece and a small render blade farm (20 systems for a total of $80,000). But what that gives you is inefficient machines for the artists, and a farm that only does one thing, namely render like a regular machine.
With the Devil & Demon Strategy, you can get a 400-core Devil for $120,000 (equivalent to about 25 blades) that can render at speeds twice to 10 times as fast, depending on the software, as a standard blade system. Plus you can use it as blades or as a supercomputer, namely attacking one complex frame at a time (because it’s a supercomputer).
That said, I do expect there will be rental companies that buy Devils and provide them to small- and medium-sized companies when they only need them for a week or so.
Are there people out there using this now?
Our first big client is YouTube. YouTube Nation is processing their show delivery on a Demon system. They are using more CPU for processing now. It’s a daily show that’s shot in 4K on Red cameras.