Lenovo DCG and DreamWorks –Technical Innovation Meets Real-World Experience

By Charles King, Pund-IT®  December 2, 2020

Cementing relationships with well-known companies is something most every IT vendor hopes to achieve. That is hardly surprising since doing business with organizations that are household names suggests that vendors are doing something very right. Often that assumption is entirely correct since successful companies can pick who they want to do business with and typically choose vendors whose products best fit their needs.

Landing a client like this and keeping the relationship on track qualifies as a big deal but so does being supplanted by a powerful rival. At Lenovo’s recent Tech World conference, the company announced that animation leader DreamWorks Animation had chosen Lenovo’s Data Center Group (DCG) to update its legacy data center. DreamWorks had a longstanding strategic relationship with data center vendor HPE.

Let’s consider what likely drove DreamWorks’ decision and why Lenovo is the right vendor for the job.

Links between Hollywood and Silicon Valley

The technology and entertainment industries have been linked at the hip for well over three decades, with computer-generated imagery (CGI) making a giant leap into mainstream films in 1991. That was the year that audiences flocked to James Cameron‘s Terminator 2: Judgment Day featuring the awesomely liquid metal T-1000 killer robot and Disney‘s Beauty and the Beast, the second traditional 2D animated film to be entirely made using CAPS (computer animation production system) technologies. Since then, CGI and CAPS have dominated mainstream films—the fifty highest grossing movies of the past decade virtually all utilized or depended entirely on CGI or CAPS.

While a tiny handful of IT vendors (notably, Silicon Graphics/SGI) dominated early productions with proprietary solutions and tools, the shift toward industry standard components and systems sparked fundamental changes. That was due in large part to synergies between graphics rendering processes and high-performance computing (HPC) technologies, the end result being the emergence of Intel-based systems vendors as major players and partners in CGI and CAPS production.

Those included the 2002 strategic alliance between HP (now HPE and HP Inc.) and DreamWorks, which followed the companies’ collaboration on Dreamworks’ Shrek and continued through other DreamWorks franchises, including Kung Fu Panda, How to Train Your Dragon, Trolls and The Croods. The alliance survived HP’s 2015 split into separate client/printing and data center companies. While remaining partnered with HP Inc., when DreamWorks began planning to upgrade its rendering data center, it turned to Lenovo DCG.

Why DreamWorks chose Lenovo

What led to the deal? While few details about the project’s size and scope are available, it’s reasonable to assume that DreamWorks was attracted to Lenovo’s deep experience in high performance computing (HPC), the company’s innovative system designs and technologies and its global supply chain prowess.

As was noted in the story detailing the agreement, HPC is vitally important in digital content creation where “producing a computer-generated animated feature typically takes 4 years with hundreds of artists and engineers working in tandem to create half a billion digital files that require 200 million compute hours (22,000 compute years) to render.”

Lenovo is deeply experienced in all phases of HPC both at the highest levels of supercomputing-assisted research and in a broad range of commercial and industrial applications. The company has earned more places on the Top500.org list of best performing supercomputers than any other vendor since pushing HPE out of the top spot in June 2018.

In other words, it is hard to think of a better partner to help develop and deploy a world-class HPC cluster. Additionally, the experience Lenovo gained working high end supercomputing customers, including the Leibniz Computing Center, Cineca and the Barcelona Supercomputing Center has informed and inspired Lenovo’s commercial HPC solutions, including the ThinkSystem SR670, ThinkSystem SD530 and ThinkSystem SD650.

The ThinkSystem SD650 also features Lenovo Neptune, a notable liquid cooling technology that the company says can deliver up to a 40% savings in data center energy expenses or help customers pack significantly more compute power into a smaller space. Those points were especially important to DreamWorks which runs its data center at a high utilization rate (currently 98%) and wanted to avoid expanding the footprint of its rendering facility.

Finally, the complexities of the DreamWorks’ project, along with challenges caused by the Covid-19 pandemic required high levels of design, development and deployment expertise. Lenovo worked with DreamWorks contractors to integrate the plumbing and cooling systems so the systems could quickly go live and start adding value. Lenovo’s logistics team leveraged the company’s global supply chain, pre-ordering components with long lead times, staging them in Europe so they would be available as needed and working with global suppliers to ship the systems and synchronize their arrival.

According to Skottie Miller, a Technology Fellow at DreamWorks Animation, “It was a beautifully orchestrated logistical masterpiece. I was joking that I couldn’t buy a roll of toilet paper during the pandemic, but I could buy and install a supercomputer.”

Final analysis

IT vendors like to focus on the value of marketing-leading performance and new technological innovations. However, having the experience to understand a customers’ business needs and the flexibility to deliver and deploy new solutions as they are required is equally important. DreamWorks Animation’s effort to update its rendering data center is an example of how, with a partner such as Lenovo DCG, an organization can enjoy or address all these issues and be ready to pursue ever greater achievements.

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