27 Jan, 2011 By: Ron LaFon

First Look Review: Dedicated rendering module from Boxx is a compact, cost-effective alternative for users dreaming of a render farm.

Undoubtedly many users would like to have a render farm at their disposal for off-loading rendering jobs and freeing processor time on their primary workstations — but the sticker shock from a rack-mounted render farm and its associated IT costs usually puts that fantasy to rest quickly. A new option is both efficient and more cost-effective: the renderPRO series of personal dedicated rendering modules from BOXX Technologies.

The lack of an up-to-date benchmark test for Autodesk 3ds Max Design, which I typically use to conduct this type of review, limits my ability to evaluate hardware performance objectively (and for that reason, I won't be specifying a letter grade for this product). For this First Look, I'll aim to provide an understanding of this new rendering hardware option and whether it could be a viable, cost-effective option for your work environment.

The BOXX renderPRO units are compact, 6.75" x 3.8" x 20" (W x H x D) devices that allow you to off-load rendering operations from your primary system. Three models are available, the PRO4, PRO8, and PRO12, each of which can be configured according to user needs, including the amount of RAM in the unit and the size of the optional solid-state hard drives. The company works directly with users to determine the model and configuration that will best suit their processing and budgetary needs.

RenderPRO units can be used singly (positioned next to or on top of your workstation) or clustered in stacks and configured individually or in nodes comprising several units. You can even pack renderPRO units easily to use in other locations as needed. Although there is a limit to how many BOXX renderPRO units can be clustered together, that limit is high; some installations have hundreds of units functioning quite well, the company reports.

Technical Specifications

For this First Look, BOXX loaned me a renderPRO12 system equipped with dual Intel Xeon X56770 2.93-GHz six-core processors that featured a 12-MB cache. A total of 12 GB of 1,333-MHz ECC DDR3 RAM was installed using six 2-GB DIMM cards. This renderPRO12 also was equipped with a 160-GB, 7,200-rpm SATA drive and Microsoft Windows 7 Professional x64. The system had a 300-W power supply and featured two USB 2.0 hubs, two Intel gigabit Ethernet connections, one VGA (DB15) port, one COM (DB9) port, and one RJ45IPMI connection. The system included one low-profile PCI Express Gen2 x16 slot. Not included were optional accessories such as a powered USB hub, an external CD-R drive, and a standard keyboard and mouse.

The BOXX renderPRO is a personal, dedicated rendering solution for 3D graphics, animation, and compositing workflows.

BOXX offers QUBE! (starting at $3,500) and EnFuzion ($360) render farm software, and includes a one-month free trial demo version of EnFuzion to get you started. Both EnFuzion and QUBE! are supported by a host of independent software applications and rendering engines. Among the supported applications are Autodesk Maya, 3ds Max, Showcase, mental ray Standalone, and Combustion; V-Ray; eyeon Fusion; and Adobe After Effects CS5. Although EnFuzion and QUBE! are not required to use renderPRO12, BOXX Technologies recommends them for users of cross-platform or multiple-vendor applications — for example, if you run Autodesk applications as well as Adobe CS5. If you work exclusively with Autodesk software, Boxx recommends Autodesk Backburner. BOXX renderPRO is available for Microsoft Windows and Linux operat-ing systems.

The renderPRO units require only networking and power. Intelligent Platform Management Interface (IPMI) 2.0 technol-ogy featuring KVM over IP enables efficient and flexible management of a render farm network. The installation and configuration process is not difficult if you have at least a minimal knowledge of networking.

Who Needs One?

The BOXX renderPRO is not for everyone, but it could be the perfect option for advanced users who need to free up access to design applications but are not at the point of investing in or managing a render farm. One of the great advantages of the renderPRO solution is its expandability. Whether you add processing power to an individual unit or add more units to use in tandem, you can do so incrementally according to your workload and budget.

Considering price alone, the renderPRO units might seem to be relatively expensive — especially the individual units that are fully loaded with configuration options. However, they are a cost-effective solution for design firms that need to get more design and rendering work done in a given time without adding personnel, workstations, or a render farm with all its associated expenses and IT concerns. Freeing up access to a design workstation while you off-load rendering to a renderPRO unit makes better use of existing personnel and hardware.

Pricing for individual units start at less than $2,000 but can rise substantially, depending on the configuration options selected for each renderPRO unit. The renderPRO12 unit that I looked at carried a price of $6,400, which reflected the additional configuration options. Units include a limited three-year warranty. Expert help is available during business hours by telephone and e-mail.

Worthy Alternative to the Farm

The compact, quiet BOXX renderPRO series is ideal for space-constrained environments. For those who need a render farm but can't justify the financial overhead for a rack-mounted system and its ongoing IT costs, not to mention the additional cooling and security concerns, the BOXX renderPRO series offers a capable, versatile, and expandable alternative. For the right environment, the BOXX renderPRO is a very good choice. I have been especially impressed with the products I've seen from BOXX Technologies this year, including the renderPRO12.

About the Author: Ron LaFon

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