When Virtualisation Is Better Than Bare Metal

Rolling out virtual machines is an easy way to set up new servers, but conventional wisdom holds that the overhead from running virtual machines means performance won't match native workloads. But that isn't always the case if you're doing highly complicated tasks like rendering movies.

Stefan Gillard is the CEO of StudioEngine, which effectively provides outsourced rendering and production for major movie studios. Projects StudioEngine has worked on recently include Happy Feet 2 and the Harry Potter series. Using an outsourced model allows studios to quickly access resources during busy periods; Happy Feet 2, for instance, engaged 1400 nodes continuously over a period of nine months.

Given the demands of his business, Gillard is a big fan of processor speed improvements. But speaking at the launch of Intel's latest model Xeons, he noted that raw increases in speed weren't always fully exploited by the software. For instance, newer processor models had the ability to cut the requirements for servers, since rendering speeds doubled. However, that meant the hardware often wasn't being used to its full capacity: "While the speed of the renders halved, workloads were finishing before the renders get up to speed."

While raw processor capacity is important, StudioEngine has also found that using virtualised environments actually enables better use of memory:

We're getting far better rendering on virtual platforms than on bare metal. We need to get far more effective with memory management. The challenge isn't the processors anymore.

The biggest niggle with virtualisation for StudioEngine is ensuring that licensing conditions are met. While many of the products it uses do allow multiple virtual instances, its queue managers don't always recognise that fact.

Gillard's other key reminder was that simply improving available hardware doesn't always produce better results:

It's a cat and mouse game. If you give an artist a node that has 64G of RAM, they generate a scene that needs it. But we're getting to a tipping point where there's so much technology, that's not a problem. Over the next three years, we're going to see far less inhibition and constraint coming from the technology side.

Your server demands may not be Hollywood-scale, but there's a useful lesson for everyone: intelligently using your available processors is just as important as raw grunt.

Evolve is a weekly column at Lifehacker looking at trends and technologies IT workers need to know about to stay employed and improve their careers.


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