AMD 2.1

Workstations Roundtable

By Randi Altman

In our Workstations Special Edition, we spoke to pros working in offline editing, visual effects and finishing about what they need technically in order to keep creating. Here in our Workstations Roundtable, we reached out to both users and those who make computers and related tools, all of whom talk about what they need from their workstations in order to get the job done.

The Foundation’s Director of Engineering, John Stevens 

John Stevens

Located just across the street from the Warner Bros. lot, The Foundation provides post production picture services and workflows in HD, 2K, 4K, UHD, HDR10 and Dolby Vision HDR. They work on many episodic shows, including Black-ish, Grown-ish, Curb Your Enthusiasm and American Soul.

Do you typically buy off the shelf or custom? Both?
Both. It depends on the primary application the system will be running. Typically, we buy off-the-shelf systems that have the CPU and memory configurations we are looking for.

How often do you upgrade your workstations, and what process do you go through in finding the right one?
There is no defined time frame. We look at every system manufacturer’s offerings, look at specs and request demo systems for test after we have narrowed it to a few systems.

How important is the GPU to your work?
The GPU is extremely important, as almost every application uses the GPU to allow for faster processing. A lot of applications allow for multiple GPUs, so I look for systems that will support them.

Curb Your Enthusiasm

What are the questions you ask yourself before buying a new system? And what do you do with your older systems?
What is the primary application that the system is being purchased for? Does the software vendor have a list of certified configurations? Is the application well-threaded, meaning, can the application make efficient use of multiple cores, or does a higher core clock rate make the application perform faster? How many PCI slots are available? What is the power supply capability? What’s the reputation and experience of the manufacturer?

Do you feel mobile workstations are just as powerful for your work as desktops these days?
No, systems are limited in expandability.

 

Puget Systems’ Solutions Research & Development, Matt Bach

Based in Auburn, Washington, Puget Systems specializes in high-performance, custom-built computers for media and entertainment.

Matt Bach

What is your definition of a workstation? We know there are a few definitions out there in the world.
While many people tend to focus on the hardware to define what a workstation is, to us it is really whether or not the computer is able to effectively allow you to get your work done. In order to do so, it has to be not only fast but reliable. In the past, you had to purchase very expensive “workstation-class” hardware to get the proper balance of performance and stability, but these days it is more about getting the right brands and models of parts to complement your workflow than just throwing money at the problem.

For users looking to buy a computer but are torn between off-the-shelf and building their own, what would you tell them?
The first thing I would clarify is that there are vastly different kinds of “off-the-shelf” computers. There are the systems you get from a big box store, where you have a handful of choices but no real customization options. Then there are systems from companies like us, where each system is tailor-made to match what applications you use and what you do in those applications. The sticker price on these kinds of systems might appear to be a bit higher, but in reality — because it is the right hardware for you — the actual performance you get per dollar tends to be quite a bit better.

Of course, you can build a system yourself, and in fact, many of our customers used to do exactly that. But when you are a professional trying to get your work done, most people don’t want to spend their time keeping up on the latest hardware, figuring out what exact components they should use and troubleshooting any issues that come up. Time spent fiddling with your computer is time that you could spend getting your job done. Working with a company like us that understands what it is you are doing — and how to quickly get you back up and running — can easily offset any cost of building your own system.

What questions would you suggest pros ask before deciding on the right computer for their work?
This could easily be an entire post all its own, and this is the reason why we highly encourage every customer to talk to one of our consultants — if not on the phone, then at least by email. The right configuration depends on a huge number of factors that are never quite the same from one person to the next. It includes what applications you use and what you do in those applications. For example, if you are a video editor, what resolution, fps and codec do you tend to work with? Do you do any multicam work? What about VFX or motion graphics?

Depending on what applications you use, it is often also the case that you will run into times when you have opposing “optimal” hardware. A program like After Effects prefers CPUs with high per-core performance, while Premiere Pro can benefit from a CPU with more cores. That means there is no single “best” option if you use both of those applications, so it comes down to determining which application is more likely to benefit from more performance in your own personal workflow.

This really only scratches the surface, however. There is also the need to make sure the system supports your existing peripherals (Thunderbolt, 10G networking, etc.), the physical size of the system and upgradability. Not to mention the quality of support from the system manufacturer.

How do you decide on what components to include in your systems … GPUs, for example?
We actually have an entire department (Puget Labs) that is dedicated to this exact question. Not only does hardware change very quickly, but software is constantly evolving as well. A few years back, developers were working on making their applications multi-threaded. Now, much of that dev time has switched over to GPU acceleration. And in the very near future, we expect work in AI and machine learning to be a major focus.

Keeping up with these trends — and how each individual application is keeping up with them — takes a lot of work. We do a huge amount of internal testing that we make available to the public to determine exactly how individual applications benefit from things like more CPU cores, more powerful GPUs or faster storage.

Can you talk about warranties and support? What do you offer?
As for support and warranty, our systems come with lifetime tech support and one to three years parts warranty. What makes us the most different from big box stores is that we understand your workflow. We do not want your tech support experience to be finger pointing between Adobe, Microsoft and Puget Systems. Our goal is to get you up and running, regardless of what the root cause is, and often that means we need to be creative and work with you individually on the best solution to the problem.

 

Goldcrest Post’s Technical Director, Barbary Ahmed

Barbary Ahmed

Goldcrest Post New York, located in the heart of the bustling Meatpacking District, is a full-service post facility offering offline and picture and sound finishing.  Recent credits include The Laundromat, Godfather of Harlem, Russian Doll, High Flying Bird, Her Smell; Sorry to Bother You, Billions and Unsane.   

Do you typically buy off the shelf or custom? Both?
We do both. But for most cases, we do custom builds because color grading workstations need more power, more GPUs and a lot of I/O options.

How often do you upgrade your workstations, and what process do you go through in finding the right one?
This is technically a long research process. We depend on our trusty vendors, and it also depends on pricing and availability of items and how quick we need them.

How important is the GPU to your work?
For color grading and visual effects, using applications such as Autodesk’s Maya and Flame, Blackmagic Resolve and Adobe Premiere, a high-end workstation will provide a smoother and faster workflow. 4K/UHD media and above can tax a computer, so having access to a top-of-the-line machine is a key for us.

The importance of GPUs is that the video software mentioned above is now able to dump much of the heavy lifting onto the GPU (or even several GPUs), leaving the CPU free to do its job of delegating tasks, applications, APIs, hardware process, I/O device requests and so on. The CPU just makes sure all the basic tasks run in harmony, while the GPU takes care of crunching the more complex and intensive computation needed by the application. It is important to know that for all but the most basic video — and certainly for any form of 4K.

What are the questions you ask yourself before buying a new system? And what do you do with your older systems?
There are many questions to ask here: Is this system scalable? Can we upgrade it in the future? What real change will it bring to our workflow? What are others in my industry using? Does my team like it? These are the kind of questions we start with for any job.

In terms of what to do with older systems, there are a couple things that we think about: Can we use it as a secondary system? Can we donate it? Can we turn it into an experimental box? Can we recycle it? These are the kind of questions we ask ourselves.

Do you feel mobile workstations are just as powerful for your work as desktops these days? Especially now, with the coronavirus shutdowns?
During these unprecedented times, it seems that mobile workstations are the only way to keep up with our clients’ needs. But we were innovative about it; we established the capability to conduct most picture and sound post production work remotely. Colorists, conform editors and other staff are now able to work from home or a remote site and connect to the facility’s central storage and main desktop workstations via remote collaboration software.

This allows Goldcrest to ensure theatrical and television projects remain on track while allowing clients to oversee work in as normal a manner as possible under current circumstances.

 

Dell’s M&E Strategist, Client Solutions, Matt Allard

Matt Allard

Dell Technologies helps users create, manage and deliver media through a complete and scalable IT infrastructure, including workstations, monitors, servers, shared storage, switches, virtualization solutions and more paired with the support and services.

What is Dell’s definition of a workstation? We know there are a few definitions.
One of the most important definitions is the International Data Corporation’s (IDC) definition that assesses the overall market for workstations. This definition includes several important elements:

1. Workstations should be highly configurable and include workstation-grade components, including:
a. Workstation-grade CPUs (like Intel Xeon processors)
b. Professional and discrete GPUs, like those in the Nvidia Quadro line and AMD Radeon Pro line
c. Support for ECC memory

2. Workstations must be certified with commonly used professional ISV software, like that from Adobe, Autodesk, Avid, Blackmagic and others.

3. IDC requires a brand that is dedicated and known for workstations.

Beyond the IDC’s requirements, we understand that workstation customers are seeking the utmost in performance and reliability to run the software they use every day. We feel that workstation-grade components and Dell Precision’s engineering deliver that environment. Reliability can also include the security and manageability that large enterprises expect, and our designs provide the hooks that allow IT to manage and maintain workstations across a large studio or media enterprise. Consumer PCs rarely include these commercial-grade IT capabilities.

Additionally, software and technology (such as the Dell Precision Optimizer, our Reliable Memory Technology, Dell Client Command Suite) can extend the performance, reliability and manageability on top of the hardware components in the system.

For users looking to buy a computer but are torn between off the shelf and building their own, what would you tell them?
It’s a common misconception that a computer is just a sum of its parts. It can be better to deal with a vendor that has the supply chain volume and market presence to have advantageous access during times like these, when supply constraints exist on popular CPUs and GPUs. Additionally, most professional ISV software is not qualified or certified on a set of off-the-shelf components, but on specific vendor PC models. If users want absolute confidence that their software will run optimally, using a certified/qualified platform is the best choice. Warranties are also important, but more on that in a bit.

What questions would you suggest pros ask before deciding on the right computer for their work?
The first question is to be clear about the nature of the work you do as a pro, using what software applications in the media and entertainment industry. Your working resolution has a large bearing on the ideal configuration for the workstation. We try to make deciding easier with Dell’s Precision Workstation Advisor, which provides pros an easy way to find configuration choices based on our certification testing and interaction with our ISV partners.

Do you think we are at a time when mobile workstations are as powerful as desktops?
The reality is that it is not challenging to build a desktop configuration that is more powerful than the most powerful mobile workstation. For instance, Dell Precision fixed workstations support configurations with multiple CPUs and GPUs, and those actually require beefier power supplies, more slots and thermal designs that need more physical space than in a reasonably sized mobile.

A more appropriate question might be, can a mobile workstation be an effective tool for M&E professionals who need to be on the road or on shoot? And the answer to that is a resounding yes.

How do you decide on what components to include in your systems … GPUs, for example?
As mentioned above, workstations tend to be highly configurable, often with multiple options for CPUs, GPUs and other components. We work to stay at the forefront of our suppliers’ roadmap offerings and to provide a variety of options so customers can choose the right price/performance configuration that suits their needs. This is where having a clear guidance on certified system for the ISV software a customer is using makes selecting the right configuration easier.

Can you talk about warranties and support?
An advantage of dealing with a Tier 1 workstation vendor like Dell is that pros can pick the right warranty and support level for their business, from basic hardware warranty to our ProSupport with aggressive availability and response times. All Dell Precision fixed workstations come with a three-year Dell Limited Hardware warranty, and users can opt for as many as five years. Precision mobile workstations come with a one-year warranty (except 7000 series mobile, which has three years standard), and users can opt for as many as five years’ warranty with ProSupport.

 

Performance Post’s Owner/President, Fausto Sanchez

Fausto Sanchez

Burbank’s Independently owned Performance Post focuses on broadcast television work. It works with Disney, Warner Bros. and NBCUniversal. Credits include TV versions of the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise and SD to UHD upconversion and framerate conversions for HBO’s At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal.

Do you typically buy off the shelf or custom? Both?
We look to the major suppliers like HP, Dell and Apple for off-the-shelf products. We also have
purchased custom workstations, and we build our own.

How often do you upgrade your workstations, and what process do you go through in finding the right one?
If we have done our homework well, our workstations can last for three to five years. This timeline is becoming shorter, though, with new technologies such as higher core count and clock speed.

In evaluating our needs, first we look at the community for best practices. We look to see what has been successful for others. I love that we can get that info and stories here on postPerspective! We look at what the main suppliers are providing. These are great if you have a lot of extra cash. For many of us, the market is always demanding and squeezing everything it can. We are no different. We have bought both preconfigured systems from the primary manufacturers as well as custom systems.

HBO’s At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal.

How important is the GPU to your work?
In our editorial workflows — Avid Media Composer, Adobe Premiere, Blackmagic Resolve (for editing) — GPU use is not a big deal because these applications are currently not relying on GPU so much for basic editing. Mostly, you select the one best for your applications. Nvidia has been the mainstay for a long time, but AMD has gotten great support, especially in the new Mac Pro workstation.

For color work or encoding, the GPU selection becomes critical. Currently, we are using the Nvidia Titan series GPUs for some of our heaviest processor-intensive workflows

What are the questions you ask yourself before buying new systems? And what do you do with your older systems?
When buying a new system, obviously the first questions are: What is it for? Can we expand it? How much? What kind of support is there? These questions become key, especially if you decide to build your custom workstation. Our old systems many times are repurposed for other work. Many can function in other duties for years.

Do you feel mobile workstations are just as powerful for your work as desktops these days?
We have had our eye on mobile workstations for some time. Many are extremely powerful and can find a good place for a specific purpose. There can be a few problems in this setup: additional monitor capabilities, external GPU, external mass storage connectivity. For a lot of work, mobile workstations make sense; if I do not have to connect a lot of peripherals and can work mostly self-contained or cloud-based, these can be great. In many cases you quickly learn that the keyboard, screen and battery life are not conducive to a long-term workflow. For the right workflow though, these can be great. They’re just not for us right now.

 

AMD’s Director of VFX/Media & Entertainment, James Knight

James Knight

AMD provides Threadripper and Epyc CPUs that accelerate workflows in M&E.

How does AMD describe a workstation?
Some companies have different definitions of what makes a workstation. 
Essentially AMD thinks of workstations as a combination of powerful CPUs and GPUs that enable professionals to create, produce, analyze, design, visualize, simulate and investigate without having to compromise on power or workload performance to achieve their desired results. In the specific case of media and entertainment, AMD designs and tests products aligned with the workstation ecosystem to enable professionals to do so much more within the same exact deadlines. We are giving them more time to create.

For users looking to buy a computer but are torn between off the shelf and building their own, what would you tell them?
Ultimately, professionals need to choose the best solution to meet their creative goals. We work closely with major OEMs to provide them with the best we have to offer for the market. For example, 64-core Threadripper has certainly been recognized by workstation manufacturers. System builders can offer these new CPUs to achieve great results.

What questions should pros ask before purchasing a workstation, in order to make sure they are getting the right workstation for their needs?
I typically ask professionals to focus on their pain points and how they want the new workstation to resolve those issues. More often than not, they tell me they want more time to create and time to try various renderings. With an optimized workstation matched with on optimal balance of powerful CPUs and reliable GPUs, pros can achieve the results they demand over and over.

What trends have you seen happening in this space over the last couple of years?
As memory technology improves and larger models of higher resolution are created, I’ve seen user expectations increase dramatically, as has their desire to work easily with these files. The demand for reliable tools for creating, editing and producing content has been constantly growing. For example, in the case of movie mastering and encoding, AMD’s 32-core and 64-core Threadripper CPUs have exceeded expectations when working with these large files.

PFX‘s Partner/VFX Supervisor, Jan Rybar 

Jan Rybar

PFX is a Czech-based company focused on animation, post and visual effects. They work on international projects ranging from short films to commercials, TV series and feature films. The 110-member team works in their studios in Prague

How often do you upgrade your workstations, and what process do you go through in finding the right one?
We upgrade the workstations themselves maybe every two or three years. We try to select good quality vendors and robust specs so we won’t be forced to replace workstations too often.

Do you also build your own workstations and renderfarms?
Not really — we have a vendor we like and buy all the hardware there. A long time ago, we found out that the reliability of HP and their Z line of workstations is what we need. So 99% of our workstations and blade renderfarms are HP.

How do your needs as a VFX house differ from a traditional post house?
It blends together a lot — it’s more about what the traditional post house specializes in. If it’s focused on animation or film, then the needs are quite similar, which means more based on CPU power. Lately, as we have been involved more and more in realtime engine-based workflows, state-of-the-art GPU technology is crucial. The Last Whale Singer teaser we did was created with the help of the latest GeForce RTX 2080ti hardware. This allowed us to work both efficiently and with the desired quality (raytracing).

Can you walk us through your typical workflow and how your workstations and their components play a part?
The workflow is quite similar to any other production: design/concept, sculpting, modeling, rigging, layout, animation, lighting/effects, rendering, compositing, color grading, etc.

The main question these days is whether the project runs in a classic animation pipeline, on a realtime engine pipeline or a hybrid. Based on this, we change our approach and adapt it to the technology. For example, when Telescope Animation works on a scene in Unreal, it requires different technology compared to a team that’s working in Maya/Houdini.

PNY’s Nvidia Quadro Product Marketing Manager, Carl Flygare

Carl Flygare

Nvidia’s Quadro RTX-powered workstations, featuring Nvidia Turing GPU architecture, allow for realtime raytracing, AI and advanced graphics capabilities for visualization pros. PNY is Nvidia’s Quadro channel partner throughout North America, Latin America, Europe and India.

How does PNY describe a workstation? Some folks have different definitions of what makes a workstation.
The traditional definition of the term comes from CAD – a system optimized for computer aided design — with a professional CPU (e.g., Xeon, Ryzen), generous DRAM capacity with ECC (Error Correction Code), a significant amount of mass storage, a graphics board capable of running a range of pro applications required by a given workflow and a power supply and system enclosure sufficient to handle all of the above. Markets and use cases also matter.

Contemporary M&E requires realtime cinematic quality rendering in application viewports, with an AI denoising assist. Retiming video (e.g., from 30 fps to 120 fps) for a slow-motion effect can be done by AI, with results essentially indistinguishable from a slow-motion session on the set. A data scientist would see things differently. GPU Tensor TFLOPS enable rapid model training to achieve inference accuracy requirements, GPU memory capacity to hold extremely large datasets, and a CPU/GPU combination that offers a balanced architectural approach to performance. With so many different markets and needs, practically speaking, a workstation is a system that allows a professional to do their best work in the least amount of time. Have the hardware address that need, and you’ve got a workstation.

For users looking to buy a computer but are torn between off the shelf and building their own, what would you tell them?
As Henry Ford famously said about the Model T: “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.” That is the off-the-shelf approach to acquiring a workstation. Large Tier 1 OEMs offer extensive product lines and daunting Configure to Order options, but ultimately, all offer similar classes of systems. Off-the-shelf is easy; once you successfully navigate the product line and specifications maze, you order a product, and a box arrives. But building your own system is not for the faint-hearted. Pick up CPU data sheets from Intel or AMD — you can read them for days.

The same applies to GPUs. System memory is easier, but mass storage offers a dizzying array of options. HDD (hard disk drive) or SSD (solid state drive)? RAID (and if so, what kind) or no RAID? How much power supply capacity is required for stable performance? A built-from-scratch workstation can result in a dream system, but with a system of one (or a few), how well will critical applications run on it? What if an essential workflow component doesn’t behave correctly? In many instances this will leave you on your own. Do you want to buy a system to perform the work you went into business to do, or do you want to spend time maintaining a system you need to do your work?

A middle path is available. A vibrant, lithe, agile and market-solutions knowledge-based system builder community exists. Vendors like Boxx Technologies, Exxact, Rave Computer, Silverdraft Supercomputing and @Xi Computer (among others) come to mind. These companies specialize in workstations (as defined by any of the definitions discussed earlier), have deep vertical knowledge, react quickly to technological advances that provide a performance and productivity edge, and vigorously support what they sell

What questions would you suggest pros ask before deciding on the right computer for their work?
Where is their current system lacking? How are these deficits affecting creativity and productivity? What use cases does a new system need to perform well? What other parts of my employment environment do I need to interact with, and what do they expect me to provide? These top-line questions transition to many others. What is the model or scene size I need to be able to fit into GPU memory to benefit from full GPU performance acceleration? Will marketing show up in my office or cubicle and ask for a photorealistic render even though a project is early in the design stage? Will a client want to interact with and request changes by using VR? Is a component of singular significance — the GPU — certified and supported by the ISVs that my workflow is built around? Answer these questions first, and you’ll find the remainder of the process goes much more easily. Use case first, last and always!

You guys have a relationship with Nvidia and your system-builder partners use their Nvidia GPUs in their workstations. Can you talk about that?
PNY is Nvidia’s sole authorized channel partner for Nvidia Quadro products throughout North America and Latin America and Europe, Middle East, Africa and India. Every Quadro board is designed, tested and built by Nvidia, whether it comes from PNY, Dell, HP or Lenovo. The difference is that PNY supports Quadro in any system brand. Tier 1 OEMs only support a Quadro board’s “slot win” in systems they build. This makes PNY a much better choice for GPU upgrades — a great way to extend the life of existing workstations — or when looking for suppliers that can deliver the technical support required for a wonderful out-of-box experience with a new system. It’s true whether the workstation is custom-built or purchased through a PNY Partner that specializes in delivering turnkey systems (workstations) built for professionals.

Can you talk about warranties and support? What do you offer?
PNY offers support for Nvidia in any system brand. We have dedicated Nvidia Quadro technical support reps available by phone or email. PNY never asks for a credit card number before offering product or technical support. We also have full access to Nvidia product and technical specialists should escalation be necessary – and direct access to the same Nvidia bug reporting system used by Nvidia employees around the world.

Finally, what trends do you see in the workstation market currently?
First the good: Nvidia Quadro RTX has enabled a workstation renaissance. It’s driving innovation for design, visualization and data science professionals across all major market segments. An entirely new class of product — the data science workstation — has been developed. Quadro RTX in the data centers and virtual GPU technology can bring the benefits of Quadro RTX to many users while protecting essential intellectual property. This trend toward workstation specialization by use case offers buyers more choices that better fit their specific criteria. Workstations — however defined — have never been more relevant or central to creative pros across the globe. Another good trend is the advent of true mobile workstations and notebooks, including thin and light systems, with up to Quadro RTX 5000 class GPUs.

The bad? With choice comes confusion. So many to choose from. Which best meets my needs? Companies with large IT staff can navigate this maze, but what about small and medium businesses? They can find the expertise necessary to make the right choice with PNY’s extensive portfolio of systems builders. For that matter, enterprises can find solutions built from the chassis up to support a given use case. Workstations are better than ever before and purchasing one can be easier than ever as well.


Randi Altman is the founder and editor-in-chief of postPerspective. She has been covering production and post production for more than 20 years. 


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