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Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 April 2007, 07:06 GMT 08:06 UK
The power behind LucasFilm magic
By Darren Waters
Technology editor, BBC News website

Data Center LucasFilm
A small robot cleans the floor of the data centre

The BBC News website takes a look at the computing power and storage which drives the creations of LucasFilm, effects gurus Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) and games division LucasArts.

It should come as no surprise to learn that the firm behind Star Wars has a robot cleaning the floors of its data centre, at the heart of the Letterman Digital Arts Center, in San Francisco.

Peter Hricak, senior manager for network and telecoms at LucasFilm, says: "We have a small Roomba vacuum cleaner for the data centre - it's about half operational right now.

"We usually have a wireless webcam on its head so we can watch it cleaning the room from our desks."

It may not be R2D2 - who tends to mess things up rather than clean them - but it is a reminder of LucasFilm's rich heritage.

The data centre at LucasFilm is mammoth - scores of racks holding number crunching processors and hard drives filled with special effects - stretch off into the distance.

Space battles

It is easy to get lost in the room.

That power is harnessed to provide visual effects for films such as Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest.

Bill Nighy's startling genesis as Davy Jones and the epic space battles in the final Star Wars film were created on machines in this room.

Data center
All of our render farms are named Death Star
Peter Hricak

"At the time it was built, in 2004, it was the world's largest 10-gigabit backbone network in the world," explains Mr Hricak.

"We have a theoretical network capacity of 11.38 terabits per second," he adds.

That means at any given second 11 trillion bits of data can be sent and exchanged over the network at LucasFilm.

The company has the processing power equivalent to 10,000 home PCs at its disposal, rendering computer graphics, and powering the work of Industrial Light and Magic, LucasFilm and LucasArts - four times the power it had just three years ago.

But that kind of horsepower comes at a cost, explains Mr Hricak.

'Unfortunate truth'

"The unfortunate truth is that there is a financial restriction to keeping the film with budget - if we had an unlimited budget we would have unlimited processing power. That's not the reality.

"We pride ourselves on using every processor we have - we turn the artists workstations into part of the rendering farm at night."

Data center
Each 3rd generation rack has the processing power of 500 machines

He adds: "So we do distributed rendering not only in the data centre - the entire facility will light up at night and add their CPUs to the rendering power."

The centre has gone through three generations of rack-mounted computers in just three years.

In 2004, one rack was the equivalent of 60 home PCs, but now each one has the same processing power as 500 machines.

The data centre bears more than just a passing resemblance to the innards of the Death Star, the Emperor's battle star in the Star Wars films.

The racks are suitably black, forbidding and each blade in the rack is labelled Death Star.

"All of our render farms are named Death Stars - we have also silk screened the imperial logo on all of the nodes, regardless of the vendor that provides them," explains Mr Hricak.

Growing need

That increase in processing power has also been reflected in the growing need for ever more storage.

Three years ago there was 32 terabytes of storage available online to the artists, while today there is more than 250 terabytes of storage.
ILM data center
You can easily get lost in the data center

"Although we have 250 terabytes, one year from now none of the data on these discs will be here anymore," says Mr Hricak.

"The data will be archived to tape, sent to studios and kept in our vaults. We're generating 10 terabytes of new data each day."

And keeping those systems running at the right temperate is 25-tonnes of coolant in 32 air conditioning units, flanking the centre itself.

Megawatts

Feeding the data centre is more than 2.4 megawatts of power.

Mr Hricak says the need for ever more processing power and storage has stemmed from requests from directors and the demands of the industry.

"If you build it, they will come. As you do one movie for one director who wanted one wave one year, another director will want to do a movie entirely underwater.

"The needs are constantly increasing. Poseidon had more visual effects elements than any other film we have ever done.

"That initial pan sequence around the ship in the opening scene - everything was CG; there were cigarettes burning in ashtrays, bubbles in hot tubs.

"Every one of the those objects hand to be rendered individually - it really taxed this room quite heavily."

On Wednesday, we will be speaking to Roger Guyett, visual effects supervisor at Industrial Light and Magic.




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