Sydney's 20-tonne cloud keeps Harry Potter flying

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Sydney's 20-tonne cloud keeps Harry Potter flying
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Outsourcing animation

Gillard has extensive experience in building render farms for the movie industry; his last big project was building a new facility to process animation and special effects for Happy Feet and Mad Max. Gillard kept thinking of the financial burden that building a high-performance computing environment placed on a film studio and what an alternative might look like.

"I was looking at moving to a model where our computing IT requirements become more like a utility company where you could bolt on additional capacity during peak demand rather than have it as a sunk cost.

"The rule of thumb for motion picture production on an animated feature, your negative cost is about $100 million. $30 million goes to cap. ex., $30 million to op. ex., $30 million in people and 10 percent tends to be margin," Gillard said.

Movie-making facilities were discussing collaborative approaches to pool resources and spread usage between films "to save them from having to capitalise and build out infrastructure in their own data centre, with their own network, with their own dime", Gillard said.

Gillard teamed up with Frontline to build Steam Engine and used his connections to find customers in the entertainment industry.

Steam Engine charged a single by-the-node price that included power, cooling, data transmission and the physical kit itself. Discounts kicked in based on the number of nodes and the length of the rental period.

"We can provide a real savings to an operation over even a short-term, mid or long-term of about 30 percent of what the market can provide that for. When you don't need it you just turn it off. There's no penalty for saying I'll have 100 nodes this month and none next month," Gillard said.

The initial plan has changed from providing bare-metal computing requirements to a managed service. Customers want queue management, asset management and a managed platform as a service.

Steam Engine has been approached by studios in Vancouver and India to build an HPC cluster which they could rent. 

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