The recent introduction by Apple of the PowerMac G5 and its associated marketing campaign touting it as the “first 64-bit personal computer” has focused some new attention on the differences between using 64-bit computing and the more standard 32-bit PCs running a Pentium processor. While every computer company likes to tout the reasons why they have the best platform for entertainment production, it’s certainly true that using a 64-bit platform can bring some real advantages in specific applications within a facility; particularly those requiring the movement or processing of large amounts of data.
64-bit processors have actually been around for a while; the Compaq (now HP) Alpha line has existed for more than a decade and Silicon Graphics put a 64-bit processor on the desktop in 1994. So, for most of the 1990s the special effects and animation systems favored throughout the entertainment community have actually been 64-bit systems running a UNIX variant. Apple’s “new” breakthrough is significant in part because it may portend a return to 64-bit processing under UNIX as opposed to the 32-bit processing on a 32-bit operating system like Windows or 32-bit Linux, which is currently on the desktops of many artists and animators. The emergence of 64-bit Linux is also significant, because that combines the benefits of open-source computing with the power of the 64-bit processor offerings from a variety of vendors, including Intel.
So What Are The Benefits, Really?
First, let’s look at the differences. 64-bit CPUs can address considerably more memory than a 32-bit processor. The largest amount of memory a 32-bit processor can address is about 4GB. This is the equivalent of about 14 seconds of 2K frames played back at 24fps. On the other hand, a 64-bit address is about 18 exabytes of information or approximately nine million full-length feature films at 2K resolution. Since this is more digital data than has been produced in the history of the world, it’s safe to say your entire movie will fit quite nicely, making this platform much more practical for producing high-resolution content. You can see that if all you want to do is have the art department do some Photoshop touch-up, then you probably don’t need this level of power. But if you want to do HD or film-level work with a client sitting over your shoulder, you may need the power of a 64-bit system.
The next important area of differentiation is in storage. Because 64-bit systems can access significantly more data than 32-bit systems, the majority of mass storage systems are based on 64-bit platforms. Today, many production companies are storing their content in a storage area network, or SAN. A SAN provides a number of advantages over hanging RAID arrays from individual servers or workstations. The first is that the content is accessible from each client on the SAN. This can be invaluable in a project that requires a workgroup of several artists or animators to access the same or related material. The second advantage is that the content can also be managed from a central location, which is much more efficient from a systems administration standpoint, saving both time and money. A third advantage can be gained when the SAN includes a heterogeneous shared filesystem, such as SGI CXFS, which is a fancy way of saying “a single filesystem that supports Mac, SGI, Windows, and Linux machines.” This would allow facilities to store their content in a single 64-bit virtual filesystem, attach all of their desktops to it, and have fast (Fibre Channel-rate) access to all of the content in a facility. This means those facilities could ingest content just once and not have to copy it from system to system, application to application, and platform to platform. Because of the file sizes and data structures involved, this next generation of advanced storage wouldn’t be practical (or even possible on a 32-bit platform).
A Balanced View
None of this means that the 32-bit platforms are going to be replaced anytime soon. Far from it. There are a number of vendors offering very cost-effective, efficient, and powerful systems using Linux or Windows that meet and exceed the needs of many users for tasks within their facilities. On the other hand, IT professionals have known for years that there are distinct advantages in using 64-bit systems for data-intensive applications. Industry innovators like mental images have built their companies around bringing powerful rendering tools into the market that wouldn’t be possible without 64-bit computing. They’re harnessing the power of new 64-bit supercomputing systems, such as the Linux OS-based SGI Altix machines. These systems achieve very short turnaround times for the high-quality rendering of even the most complex models and scene data in car design and styling, as well as for the creation of extremely realistic imagery for visual effects and entirely digital animated feature films.
So the cutting-edge, profitable facility of the future will be populated with a mixture of tools and platforms, each designed to deliver unique value and each designed with the right system architecture for the job.
Greg Estes is VP, Marketing, Silicon Graphics, Inc.