Sydney's 20-tonne cloud keeps Harry Potter flying

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Sydney's 20-tonne cloud keeps Harry Potter flying

Steam Engine considers expansion to India.

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What weighs 20 tonnes and gives Harry Potter the ability to fly? A very heavy animation and special-effects rendering cloud.

System integrator Frontline has built a high-performance computing infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) called Steam Engine to provide compute on demand for the processor-intensive film and visual effects industry in Australia and overseas.

The platform was recently used as a satellite facility to render Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Steam Engine used HP's C7000 C-Class servers which, fully populated, weigh almost 250 kilos per chassis.

"You put four of those in a rack and you're talking about one metric tonne per square metre," said Stefan Gillard, equity partner and commercial director for Steam Engine.

"Even with a raised floor there aren't very many floorplates within facilities that can accommodate dumping 20 of those on the deck in one place," Gillard said.

Gillard said he considered moving Steam Engine's servers into an APC hot-aisle containment system (known by its acronym, HACS) which prevents hot air recirculating into the server racks and can improve density.

The densities from HP's C Class were "far and away beyond what we could get from any other vendor at the moment", Gillard added.

Each rack of dual quad-core or hex-core servers requires 35kW - far above the 8KW conventional supply in most data centres. Steam Engine has 1000 nodes deployed in Sydney's Global Switch data centre with several terabytes of high-speed storage connected by 10Gbit switching.

The company planned to add 1500 nodes by December and another 1500 in early 2011.

Steam Engine has eight customers and expanded beyond entertainment to financial services and science. The greatest traction was from SMEs for whom high-performance computing was beyond the realms of their financial capacity, but "now they can play with the big boys", Gillard said.

"Customers are using anything from 100 nodes (at 12 cores per node) right down to six nodes for simulation analysis work on the Large Hadron Collider data," Gillard said.

Gillard claimed Steam Engine can deliver similar amounts of computing capacity at a lower cost than Amazon. However, Steam Engine was giving customers physical nodes and not just virtualised instances of nodes.

The heavy input-output (IO) requirements in high-performance computing require physical infrastructure which can provide better performance than virtual infrastructure, he said.

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