Processing power: Rendering online, in-house hardware and software options

31 Jul, 2003 By: Ron LaFon Cadalyst

When we cover rendering and visualization software, a general assumption is that you can render the final image or animation on your equipment. This is the most common scenario, but high-end animation studios such as Pixar can’t produce their sophisticated animated films without massive computing power. This power usually takes the form of a rendering farm—a series of dedicated rendering systems hooked together on a network—that handles various aspects of a given rendering project.

We’re not suggesting you jump from a single workstation rendering a simple project to the elaborate and expensive render farms that produce amazing works of animation such as Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo. There is, fortunately, a middle ground between these two ends of the visualization spectrum.

To meet increasing rendering demands, self-service online render farms have appeared on the Internet. You simply prepare your files according to site specifications and upload them for rendering. The sites generally deliver the final renderings to you via high-speed online connection, CD-ROM, or DVD.

$0 and up

RenderCity accepts models in Radiance format, built in DesignWorkshop from Artifice or other Radiance-supporting software. On your desktop system, choose the view you want rendered, then export the 3D Radiance Scene. You can then submit these to RenderCity for rendering. Renderings up to 768×768 resolution are free. Rendering at higher resolutions is available for a fee. All arrangements are made online. Final rendered images are delivered by e-mail or private URL. Pay-as-you-go options and all-inclusive memberships for $19.95 per month are also available.

Prices vary

You can upload a variety of files to ResPower’s online render farm. You’re charged by file type and rendering time.
Another online render farm is ResPower, which offers rendering services from a broad range of applications. It supports Lightwave 7.5, 3ds max 5, and Maya 4.0/4.5, and recently added support for SplutterFish’s Brazil Rendering System images.

Rendering rates vary depending on your file type and how long it takes to render. For example, a LightWave 7.5 image costs $0.50 per GHz hour.

3ds max 5 and Maya 4.0/4.5 images cost $0.75 per GHz hour. Currently, ResPower has three Internet connections through three separate Internet service providers, and files are transmitted via fiber optic, cable, or wireless T1.

RenderDrive RD5000/RD3500
Prices vary
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If self-service render farms on the Internet don’t fill your needs, perhaps it’s time for your own in-house render farm. RenderDrive is a networked 3D rendering powerhouse that connects to a studio of workstations via fast Ethernet. ART VPS offers the RenderDrive RD3500 and the RenderDrive RD5000. The difference between the two models is speed of frame rendering.

We looked at the rack-mounted RD5000 system, which is based on an AR350 ray-traced rendering processor array with 7GB of hard disk texture cache and 768MB of system RAM. Connections to the controlling computer and other RenderDrive systems are through a 10baseT or 100baseT half-duplex network. The RenderDrive 5000 system is controlled via the ART VPS RenderPipe interface over TCP/IP, RenderPipe RIB (the ART VPS generic RenderMan language), RenderPipe MAX (a plug-in for 3ds max and VIZ), or RenderPipe for Maya (plug-in for Maya).

ART VPS also offers PURE, a PCI add-in board that features eight ART VPS programmable 3D graphics chips. While this solution offers less performance than the RenderDrive systems (about half the speed of the RD3500 and a quarter of the speed of the RD5000), it still delivers 10–15× the performance of software-based rendering, and at $3,699 is more affordable. RenderDrive is particularly useful for industrial design and architectural subjects.

For a small additional fee, ART VPS offers an annual subscription program that delivers all software updates, content libraries, and other benefits. To integrate its rendering engines with 3D applications, ART VPS provides free site licenses for its RenderPipe software plug-ins for 3ds max, VIZ, and Maya. ART VPS also has a generic RenderMan interface—RenderPipe RIB—that uses the RenderMan language as its data API, so you can program your own shaders, lights, and such.

ART VPS implements full ray-tracing and programmable shading within the hardware. Features include physically based lighting, ray tracing, materials, and camera effects such as depth of field secondary illumination, motion blur, and lens effects. Recommended prices for RenderDrive are $18,000 for the RD3500 and $27,000 for the RD5000. At these prices, the RenderDrive system is not for everyone.If it fulfills your firm’s needs and makes possible certain projects that would otherwise not be feasible, one or more of these systems might well form the foundation of your in-house render farm. For additional information, visit the ART VPS Web site.

About the Author: Ron LaFon

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