Make me famous! How cloud is powering the success of the film industry

Film camera

Picture the scene. You’re sitting comfortably, popcorn and fizzy pop in hand, all ready to watch the latest Blockbuster. The anticipation is building as you’ve been waiting to see since it was released.

The curtains close and open again post trailer and then it’s time for the main event. The theme sequence and accompanying song get you in the mood and the film gets under way. You’re there to enjoy the action and be entertained and delighted by the production in front of your eyes. But did you ever wonder how those moving images got there?

The shift between analogue to digital film is usually well understood – it’s something if you pardon the pun that can literally be pictured. Similarly, people can generally get their heads around the move from big monolithic computers (mainframes) to the ever smaller and more intelligent and powerful machines we use today. However, the wider technological shift, generally speaking, and specifically in relation to the world of movie making is slightly more complex.

But therein lies the magic. This complexity enables sophisticated and unprecedented levels of data access, connectivity, security, storage and more. The low levels of latency afforded by the cloud today is orders of magnitude better than users could have dreamed of even five years ago.

The real beauty of the cloud is that complexity is hidden to the end user – whether that is the person in the cinema, the individual behind the camera capturing the action or the post-production worker stitching everything together at the editing desk.

Let us take you on a journey

Some 90 per cent of the world’s data has been created in the last two years alone. In 2012, for example, 2.5EBs of data was generated every day. Think of how much has happened since 2012 and it’s obvious such data volumes have only grown rather than shrunk.

We post around 6,000 tweets on Twitter every second – equating to around 200 billion per year and approximately 100TB in volume processed per day. That data goes on a massive journey constantly between where it’s stored and when you want it to appear, which could be any type of device, anywhere in the world. Yet this transit happens in the blink of an eye.

That’s the true power of cloud. It joins all the dots behind the scenes, connecting people to information and information to insight without baffling the user with details about bits and bytes, algorithms or server load balancing.

IBM and cloud

IBM recognises the power that cloud can bring to all industries, not just those focused on media creation. It recently embarked on a $1.2 billion cloud initiative to grow its datacentre and point of presence around the world to better serve global customers who need a partner they can trust and to whom data sovereignty really matters.

The company penned an open letter to customers in 2014 focusing in on the issue of privacy and sought to provide reassurance on its intentions and commitment to look after their most precious business asset – their data.

“For decades, clients around the world have trusted IBM with their data. We believe we have earned that trust,” Robert C. Weber, IBM senior vice president of Legal and Regulatory Affairs, and General Counsel, wrote in the letter.

“Data is the next great natural resource, with the potential to improve lives and transform institutions for the better. However, establishing and maintaining the public’s trust in new technologies is essential. IBM is committed to being a responsible participant in this discussion and a strong advocate for our clients.”

The SoftLayer advantage

SoftLayer was acquired by IBM back in 2013 for an estimated $2 billion. Since then though it has flourished – indeed its total cloud capacity has grown by 100 per cent since the acquisition - and can now offer customers even more than before. With the investment, resources and determination of IBM, SoftLayer can now deliver on its vision to provide a local presence backed by a global network.

“We are responding to broad, global, enterprise demand for SoftLayer services,” Jim Comfort, general manager of IBM Cloud Services, said earlier in 2015.

"With each new location, we’re not only adding more computing capacity; we’re also helping customers solve data residency issues, address security and audit controls, run and scale big data applications on bare metal servers, and more. We’re enabling enterprises to move to the cloud at the speed and in a way that makes the most sense for them.”

SoftLayer doesn’t just have to prove its credentials to its customers. It also has to ensure its customers’ customers can benefit from all it has to offer. In the highly demanding world of film, that’s no small ask.

Hollywood demands

The film industry is particularly demanding, given what it takes to transform an idea from paper to the big screen. It’s estimated that more than 50,000 movies are produced, on average, each year. Each of these films involves multiple technologies, multiple processes and a cast of many – that equates to a lot of data that needs to be accessed, digested, stored and transferred at any given moment.

James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar was also very data intensive, taking up 1PB of storage space. It’s also widely thought that 3D film increases data storage needs by a factor of two or more.

Take global data management specialist Sohonet as a case in point. Back in February 2015 it announced plans to offer SoftLayer’s IaaS platform to its 400-plus-customer base, which is made up of the crème de la crème of animation, postproduction and visual effects (VFX).

The company’s creative client base can take advantage of the highly scalable and customisable cloud resources regardless of where in the world they’re based. And, as Chuck Parker, executive chairman of Sohonet explains, datacentre location is linked to latency in addition to data sovereignty.

“If you think about most of SoftLayer’s competitors, they’ve chosen a strategy where they have a very small number of datacentres. This is probably good for cost control, but network latency at some level has a physical component to it. If you’re in a media city like London or LA, and your datacentres have to be very close, that’s good, but a lot of production these days takes place in cities like Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, Paris, Sydney, Singapore,” he says.

“You need to be close to those cities to be able to do high-speed rendering. Most of today’s features have a lot of VFX in them and you’re pushing a lot of data to a place where you have to have a lot of technicians on it and bring all that data back in a very quick amount of time. Latency is a really big deal.”

“Understand how the provider will support geographically-dispersed workloads. If your application must move data throughout the globe, ensure that the provider not only has datacentres in the regions where you do business, but also a high-performance, private global network,” says Lynda Stadtmueller, vice president of cloud services a Frost & Sullivan Stratecast.

“Also consider whether the provider charges data transfer fees between and among cloud centres—any such fees can considerably add to costs if your company expands globally.”

We’re not talking about just moving the odd file from A to B here. Sohonet handles approximately 1PB of data on a daily basis. The sheer size of that data is no excuse for it not to move around seamlessly and quickly. After all, films all have budgets linked to project timelines and any extra minutes added on at any stage – whether pre, during or post-production will have a financial consequence. More money spent before the film even hits cinemas means less profit, especially when you take into account the big salaries the likes of Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts demand per flick.

The very nature of the cloud enables companies of all sizes and in all sectors to scale up and down when the need arises. This is much more cost efficient whilst also providing the levels of flexibility required – particularly for compute-intensive activities such as media production.

In the case of Sohonet, its customers can make use of both bare metal and virtual servers – and configure them according to their unique needs – as easily as if the equipment was based in-house. More specifically, they can host multiple web servers on one physical server that provides the high levels of processing functionality high I/O workloads, such as rendering, demand.

“We’re providing connectivity that is fractional direct access; the ability for our customers to quickly come in and use SoftLayer’s compute power for rendering for VFX and the ability to use storage as well. A lot of the workloads they have are very project-driven. They might have a huge project with hundreds of TBs of data they need to do work on and then it literally goes away. [They require] the true bursting capabilities of the cloud to leverage compute and storage,” adds Parker.

“The biggest benefit from SoftLayer in our business specifically for our customers is our customers’ trust with the cloud. Everyone is at the very beginning of their journey. There are a lot of PoCs happening in the media industry today. The real benefit again is this capability to have low latency and high speed of data and, because of our relationship with SoftLayer, the ability to get all that data back without an expensive bill is critically important.

“You can imagine when they’re doing a large visual effects render or a large amount of storage for a temporary project, it doesn’t stack up commercially if when they pull it back there’s a huge bill for egress. Most of the other cloud providers in the marketplace have built a commercial model around ‘it’s cheap to get in but incredibly expensive to get out.’”

Leading the way

Market research firm Technology Business Research (TBR) recognised IBM as a cloud leader in a number of fields in August 2015. Specifically, it noted the company was:

  • The undisputed growth leader in overall professional cloud services
  • The leader in hosted private cloud and managed cloud services
  • A leader in OpenStack vendor acquisitions and OpenStack cloud initiatives
  • A growth leader in cloud consulting services, bridging the gap between technology and strategy consulting
  • A growth leader in cloud systems integration services

Talking of leaders and, more specifically cost leadership, analyst firm Frost & Sullivan recently analysed the real cost of cloud computing. The results, published in a report entitled The truth about cloud price-performance made for very interesting reading indeed.

“Consider your business requirements, including the “agility” tradeoff. Can you afford to lock-in to a specific provider, unit type, volume, or time frame, even if it means a discount?” wrote report author Stadtmueller.

“Business leaders rely on data to make smart decisions. Unfortunately, in the case of the cloud, too often, IT decision-makers do not know the cost and price-performance data that can help them assess cloud solutions. Worse, they often do not know what they do not know—instead, many continue to purchase cloud services based on common misperceptions, without going through appropriate due-diligence,” she added.

“Choosing a cloud service provider should never be based on cost alone; instead, IT leaders need to assess value based on factors such as performance, breadth of portfolio, purchase experience, customer service, security, availability, and ease of migration and integration. Yet, price-performance should remain an important factor for making business investment decisions, and for continuing to assess value. By building price-performance analysis into their initial cloud purchase and on-going cloud management processes, IT leaders can help ensure the success of their cloud strategy.”

A question of value

SoftLayer also offers potential customers the option of trying before they buy. This can help them to prove the business case further for using cloud – no bad thing when you only have seconds to convince the busy, budget-holding film executive that you need more IT budget for this thing called cloud.

“Just as more and more businesses take advantage of cloud services, studios and production houses are equally taking advantage of scaling computing resources on demand, avoiding extra capital expenditure for resources they may only need for a few weeks,” says Benjamin Shrive, enterprise sales manager at SoftLayer.

“IBM Cloud’s SoftLayer infrastructure is particularly appreciated by new customers, as SoftLayer doesn’t charge for bandwidth used for file transfer between datacentres or therefore bandwidth coming onto the SoftLayer network. With provisioning taking as little as two hours, and all services accessible through SoftLayer’s single customer portal, deployment for new customers is painless,” said Shrive.

Maggie Holland

Maggie has been a journalist since 1999, starting her career as an editorial assistant on then-weekly magazine Computing, before working her way up to senior reporter level. In 2006, just weeks before ITPro was launched, Maggie joined Dennis Publishing as a reporter. Having worked her way up to editor of ITPro, she was appointed group editor of CloudPro and ITPro in April 2012. She became the editorial director and took responsibility for ChannelPro, in 2016.

Her areas of particular interest, aside from cloud, include management and C-level issues, the business value of technology, green and environmental issues and careers to name but a few.