Render Farm Management for Digital Media Pipelines



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The arguments for Qube! are pretty simple – automated, fast, customizable, stable – but what sometimes gets left out while explaining the value of efficiency is the idea that efficient software can be enhanced through strategic planning.

Our education customers – now nearly 200 strong – are brilliant at this, and usually for the same reason: they are all on a fixed budget. Maximizing their resources is important, because unlike a production firm, expenses can’t be billed back to a client. Their response is to set up systems that keep users informed and Qube! humming, which effectively optimizes their farm even more.

We interviewed a few of them recently to get their thoughts on how they did it and what schools should consider if they want to do it too. Here are some of the topics that kept coming up.

Desktops Are Your Friends

While a few schools have dedicated render farms, most use what’s already there – their desktops. These are resources to be maximized. But because these computers are often multi-use, availability can be an issue. To help, Qube! can be set up to prompt computers for idleness. When it sees they’ve been idle for too long, it turns them into a worker, adding to the rendering capacity of the farm.

“We are strictly using the desktop workstations as our farm,” says Rob Gibson, Technology Officer at Academy of Art University. “This allows us to keep the machines working around the clock and take advantage of days and times where lab use is slower.”

Where Academy of Art looks for slow points, University of Portsmouth, who is currently producing a full-length CG feature called “Stina & the Wolf”, found that the only time where that made sense was after hours, since all the desktops they use belong to teachers during the day.

Whatever hardware or platform is at your disposal (Mac OS X, Linux, Windows), running it through Qube! is going to provide a lot more efficiency – no matter when you use it.

Set Some Standards

Vancouver Film School’s Pipeline Supervisor, Craig Shiells has some candid advice for all you administrators out there: “Develop a set of rules and standards early. Students aren't part of a team working towards an end goal, they are looking out for themselves. If they aren't managed they will tear each other apart.”

Casey Wayland, Chapman University’s Digital Application Specialist, found a great workaround for this tendency in his students – train them! His self-made guide, which you can read here, not only walks you through how to submit jobs correctly for Autodesk 3ds Max and Maya, it offers key troubleshooting tips for errors students can make along the way. Training against a set of standards is an excellent way to add extra efficiency to Qube!, as it builds the skills that will prevent human error.

Find Your Render Wrangler

While anyone can learn to use or customize Qube! for an organization, most schools find that assigning a wrangler, also known as a farm administrator, keeps students from monopolizing the farm.

“A ‘person in charge’ is important,” added Gibson. “The students and staff need to know where to go to get answers. Plus, at peak use times, some prioritization of the use may be required.”

School of Visual Art’s Richard Hagen, Technology Specialist extraordinaire, had a similar take. “We find that having a render wrangler is a great help, since they can assign job priority and troubleshoot common issues when the main administrators are not available. The good part is the wrangler can be a student or set of students who know their way around the software."

With Qube!, giving students some amount of control doesn’t have to mean giving up the whole farm. Settings like ArtistView confine them to simple acts like blocking, killing, or re-attempting a job. More features can be added by opening up WranglerView or removed via scripting. It’s really up to the school.

Dealing with the Peaks

Where there is rendering, crunch periods are sure to follow. It’s an occupational hazard of the trade. One of the interesting things about schools is that they say you can always predict when the peak periods will happen. They call them “finals.”

At Vancouver Film School, students get priority based on their class number. The higher your grade, the more priority you get. That way, graduating seniors working on capstone animation projects can get more out of the render farm when they really need it to be there.

Another tool for schools is burst licensing, a program exclusive to Qube!. For the uninitiated, all PipelineFX education customers on maintenance and support can double their current license capacity twice a year, at no additional charge. Users then get to choose between a one-month burst that starts on the first of the month and a 30-day burst that begins on a day that works best.

“A problem schools face all over the world is: ‘how do we scale support when our rendering needs go from zero to over capacity?'” said John McIntosh, chairman of the School of Visual Arts. “This burst license policy satisfies that question, and gives us room to breathe in the face of looming deadlines.”

Some Final Tips

  • School of Visual Arts on “Storage” - You'll need a central file repository for all the files. Something that can support being accessed by all the machines you have at the same time. Your render machines should have as much RAM as you can afford and as many fast CPUs as you can afford.
  • Chapman on “Testing” – Make sure to test a few frames on the render farm throughout the production to ensure that the output is what you expect. Like a cinematographer will test certain stocks of film, animators must test renders so that everything comes out technically correct.
  • University of Portsmouth on “Support” – Setting up a farm is a big task, so on-site installation assistance is a great help. As is easy access to after-sales support as Universities do not usually have dedicated render wranglers. Talk to your PipelineFX support team, they’ll help you!


Qube! is now available to schools as a site license!
See all of our pricing here.

To learn more about Qube! for education, check out our dedicated microsite.

And if you really want to know more, free 30-day trials are available now.


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