Dell Precision and the Democratization of Visual Computing

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  August 2, 2017

Context is critical for understanding compute performance. It is expressed most often in terms of speed or volume and the resulting percentage gain improvements new systems offer over previous generations. But situational details can also come into play. For example, their ability to survive extreme temperature, humidity and vibration/impact help underscore the unique qualities of ruggedized systems and solutions.

Additionally, there are cases where the work that solutions perform best defines their value. That’s clearly the case with the workstations and systems used to create or render computer generated imagery (CGI), including visual computing effects for films and interactive games. In fact, for more than three decades visual computing has essentially reinvented films and games, and revolutionized related businesses of every size and kind.

These points highlight the new Dell Precision solutions announced this week at SIGGRAPH 2017, the annual conference hosted by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) in Los Angeles.

30+ years of visual innovation

You could argue that CGI began in 1982 when special effects mavens at Star Wars creator George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) developed the first completely computer-generated film sequence (the “Genesis sequence” in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan). That launched a steady commercialization of CGI by specialty vendors, particularly Silicon Graphics whose workstations and rendering systems became synonymous with Hollywood blockbusters.

In fact, Silicon Graphics systems were used in all of the films nominated for Academy Awards in Visual Effects from 1995 to 2002. But that heady success obscured the company‘s path toward a spectacular fall due to disastrous management errors and the steady rise of commodity systems for visual computing.

Those solutions, leveraging Intel-based hardware running Windows or Linux, and technologies from graphics specialists, including NVIDIA and ATI, continue to dominate sales. However, like every other form of commodity technology, steadily improving performance coupled with regular declines in cost enabled thousands of visual computing entrepreneurs and innovators to enter global markets.

Along with major players, like ILM and Pixar (both owned by The Walt Disney Company) and Dreamworks Animation (part of NBCUniversal), today’s CGI market also supports hundreds of visual computing specialists, like Double Negative, OLM Digital, 30 Ninjas, Cinesite, Rising Sun Pictures, and KRU Studios. They and others in related fields are the beneficiaries of what might be called the democratization of visual computing that paralleled similar developments in high performance computing HPC) and supercomputing.

Dell’s Precision – Yesterday and today

Dell entered the visual computing and CGI markets in 1997 with its Precision workstation portfolio. Though the company sold just 700 units in its first quarter, it increased sales by 10X to over 7,000 units in the second. By 2000, workstations were contributing over $1B to Dell’s annual revenues and the company enjoyed a solid market leadership position.

More importantly, similarly to Silicon Graphics being synonymous with Hollywood films in the late 90s and early 2000s, Dell Precision is the platform of choice for many of today’s biggest blockbusters and Oscar winners. For example, Dell’s customer Double Negative, took home the 2016 Best Visual Effects Oscar for “Ex Machina,” surpassing other blockbusters like “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

As a result of that win, Dell has now played a central role in five of the last seven Academy Awards in Visual Effects, including “Inception” (2011) and “Hugo” (2012), and “Gravity” (2014), and “Interstellar” (2015) (which were both Double Negative efforts), as well as numerous other Oscar nominees.

Dell at SIGGRAPH 2017

A close look at the Dell offerings launched at SIGGRAPH offers insights into why Dell Precision is the solution of choice for so many leading-edge visual computing efforts. The meat of the announcement was in the three new, completely redesigned Precision Tower (models 5820, 7820 and 7920) and the Precision 7920 Rack solutions.

The three Precision Towers incorporate the latest Intel Xeon high core count CPUs, along with next gen AMD Radeon Pro and highest performing NVIDIA Quadro professional graphics cards. In addition, the new Towers leverage Dell Reliable Memory Technology (RMT) and Dell Precision Optimizer (DPO) to improve memory and overall system performance.

The new Dell Precision Towers can also be customized to support high performance workloads, including machine learning and deep learning for artificial intelligence (AI) applications, virtual reality (VR) environments, computer aided engineering (CAE), and editing/rendering applications, like Adobe Premiere Pro and Adobe After Effects.

The new Dell Precision 7920 Rack system can be used to support secure remote environments. That’s a critical point for companies leveraging offshore resources and contractors. But along with protecting valuable intellectual property (IP), including CGI projects and special effects technologies, the 7920 Rack also provides remote workers access to the same power and scalability they would enjoy with Dell’s highest performing Precision 7920 Tower.

Finally, Dell announced the commercial availability of its new Canvas workspace solution. The Canvas features a 27” QHD touchscreen that can be powered with existing PCs and Microsoft Windows 10 Creators Edition, and uses a digital pen and totem to create/manage visual and other projects. The company also announced a 20th anniversary edition of its Precision 5520 mobile workstation featuring a brushed metallic finish in a new color (Abyss) and two high-end configuration options.

Final analysis

The IT industry loves to hype emerging developments over current technologies, but that obsession with the “new” tends to neglect or overshadow the impact of longer-term trends and achievements. That includes visual computing and the way that offerings, including Dell’s Precision workstations and rendering systems have helped to reinvent film making and support sustainable opportunities for thousands of businesses.

Dell entered the visual computing market just as previous generation, proprietary technology players, like SGI were heading for the exits. You could say that Dell and its customers were simply beneficiaries of visual computing democratization trends impacting the rest of the industry. However, that oversimplifies and neglects the kinds of innovation Dell brings to its Precision workstation and other solutions.

As is evident in the new Precision Tower, Rack and mobile offerings announced at SIGGRAPH 2017, as well as the Canvas workplace solution, Dell is not simply following broader industry trends. Instead, as it has since 1997, Dell is leading the continuing democratization of visual computing. That revolution has certainly benefitted the company and its customers but it is also revitalizing and remaking entire industries.

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