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What Ever Happened to Cloud Rendering?

Why hasn’t cloud-based rendering taken off the way it was predicted? There are certainly more options than ever. Application support is growing, albeit slowly. Both Amazon and Microsoft recently added systems with GPU (graphics processing unit) acceleration in their cloud offerings. But cloud-based rendering has been held back by a combination of technology, security worries and simple inertia.

“We actually tried cloud rendering with Bunkspeed back in 2007,” says Brian Hilner, product manager for SOLIDWORKS Visualize (formerly Bunkspeed). “We tried it for a few years, then we tried it again in 2010. We had a service for it, we had machines on Amazon, we also had our own cluster machines in our office that people could tap into. It just wasn’t getting any traction. I think we were about 10 years too early,” he concludes.

Security

One major hurdle facing cloud rendering are persistent worries about data security says Hilner. Companies have been reluctant to upload their proprietary data to the cloud. “In my opinion,” says Hilner, “one of the biggest reasons why cloud rendering didn’t take off like people thought it would is that the data can’t leave the insides of these proprietary networks. That’s what I’ve heard talking to previous Bunkspeed – now Visualize – customers. These are Fortune 500 and Fortune 100 companies, major players in the automotive industry, aerospace industry, medical industry and in product design. They can’t upload data that hasn’t been released yet — of their newest car or new airplane interior or new product. That stuff literally can’t leave their servers. IT guys won’t let them. Admins won’t let them.”

Some big companies, he says, actually disable the USB ports on their computers to prevent data from being downloaded, transferred or, even worse, taken home.

“If they’re disabling USB ports, cloud rendering is going to be a hard sell,” Hilner adds.

Companies, understandably, want to keep their proprietary data safe, but how best to do that?

Bye-Bye Data Center

“A couple years ago,” says Justin Boitano, VP of Marketing at Frame, “a lot of businesses thought that their private cloud — because it was private — would be more secure. But look at the data breaches that have happened. Sony had a big security breach where they lost core intellectual property from their own data center.”

And Sony is certainly not alone in that.

“Over the past few years,” says Boitano, “a lot of IT organizations have come to the realization that they underinvest in the security of their data center, and that their core competency as a business isn’t really in data center security. Almost every executive that we talk to says: ‘You know, you’re right. We do underinvest in data security and, frankly, I’d rather outsource [the data center] to Amazon or Microsoft and let them manage the security aspects so we can focus on what we do best, which is creating great content or products or buildings.’”

And there is indeed a change underway. More and more large companies are using Google Drive, Amazon Web Services and other cloud offerings. More than half of all Fortune 500 companies use Azure for at least some data. Many are getting out of the data center business completely — or nearly so. General Electric is closing down all but three of its 30-plus global data centers, shifting most of that data to the cloud. Yamaha America is shutting down all of their data centers. Manufacturers, banks and insurance companies are following suit.

“A lot of global engineering firms want to move all their customer data to the cloud,” says Boitano. “They provide people access for the time [they’re] doing a certain phase of work, and then remove that access when they’ve completed their work. You’re not moving the data around; you’re just providing application access to the data as needed.”

That may not seem central to the idea of cloud rendering, but it is. To begin with, it represents an increased willingness by companies to entrust at least some of their data to the cloud — a necessary first step. In addition, cloud rendering solutions have wrestled with the problem of packaging your data and uploading it to the cloud renderer without breaking your workflow. If the data is already sitting in the cloud, you get to skip that step. And it opens up other, intriguing possibilities.

Data Gravity

“At Frame, we talk about the concept of ‘data gravity,’” says Boitano. The idea is to move your applications closer to the data they act on. If your CAD program and your CAD data are both sitting on your desktop workstation, the workflow is seamless. But when your CAD program is running on your desktop and your CAD data is sitting on the other side of the internet, the user experience can grow awkward.

Many of the problems surrounding the cloud rendering user experience center around the problem of moving data between your local PC and the cloud-based rendering application. But what if you moved your applications to the cloud where your data lives, and ran them there? Now, there are no slow offline transfers, no packaging the data for movement to a different part of the workflow.

Frame lets you install Windows applications on the cloud and then run them from a browser. Your local workstation just plays a video stream and relays keystrokes and mouse clicks. In fact, because so little is asked of your local PC, it doesn’t have to be a powerful workstation at all. It can be any kind of device capable of running a browser.

Frame’s fastest system — a Quad NVIDIA GRID GPU system with 16 CPU cores and 64GB of system memory — will cost you about $3.60 an hour to use. “If you do interactive rendering only a few times per week,” says Boitano, “it’s much cheaper to rent that time in the cloud than buy a $15K workstation that sits idle a good part of the day.” In fact, even at 40 hours per week, it’ll take two years to reach $15K. And, by that time, the machines in the cloud will probably have been upgraded.

Overcoming Inertia

In large part, the slow adoption of cloud-based rendering — like the adoption of any new technology– comes down to inertia. People like to do things the way they’ve always done them and that thus far has not included the cloud. But there are new technology companies starting up all the time. Those new, younger companies have less inertia to contend with and are more likely to already host everything on the cloud. As they find the need for 3D visualization — or any heavy computation task — they’re likely to turn directly to cloud-based services. And as we’ve seen, even the biggest of companies are moving their data to the cloud. It’s up to the application developers to streamline access to it.

“The winners in the cloud rendering space,” says SOLIDWORKS’ Hilner, “will become winners by having direct access to services like Google Drive, Dropbox and [Amazon Web Services] within their cloud rendering infrastructure, providing their users with a seamless workflow.”

Cloud rendering does seem poised to break through into the mainstream. Of course, you may have heard that before.

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About Mark Clarkson

Contributing Editor Mark Clarkson is Digital Engineering's expert in visualization, computer animation, and graphics. His newest book is Photoshop Elements by Example. Visit him on the web at MarkClarkson.com or send e-mail about this article to DE-Editors@digitaleng.news.