Passing of an old friend

Since 1994, if a post house wanted to install the fastest most powerful finishing room it meant a discreet Onyx solution. After ten years, sgi is discontinuing the Oynx line configuration used by Discreet, meaning the end of Inferno and Fire as we know them on Onyx. With the sale of IBM’s PC business in the press last week, what will be the hardware choices moving forward? Will inferno and fire live on, running on new platforms or does the move to an even

Discreet first learned of the demise of Onyx several months, but was unable to disclose it until sgi made public its plans, sgi has been one of discreets most strategic hardware partners since discreet started. Discreet has been shipping software on SGI Onyx configurations for more than 10 years. Their first Onyx-based flame configuration with RealityEngine graphics shipped in 1994. However as graphics and computer platforms continued to gain in both performance and capabilities, Discreet migrated its flame product to first the Octanes and now the Tezros, with flint moving this year to non-sgi Linux hardware.

We asked Discreet’s Maurice Patel what now for the future of inferno and fire. “Now that would be telling!” he remarked. “We have been working for some time on evaluating alternative hardware configurations that could still provide the hallmark performance that clients expect of their inferno or fire systems: i.e. as much interactive power as possible particularly when working with high-resolution media.” Discreet would not be drawn further other than to say that they hope to make an further annoucement at next years NAB in Las Vegas.

byeonyx/Onyx2aIt was widely understood that Discreet had discontinued any further development work on the Onyx 2, and many users speculated that this new decision by sgi would mean the end of any future onyx development. In reality discreet has only ended development of the R10K (speeds less than 300Mhz). Discreet is still planning to support Onyx 2 systems with R12, R14K and R16K processors through the next major family of releases, although exact details can not be committed to until that actual the release as discreet many uncover issues that prevent release on some configurations, but we have received direct assurances that it is “our intention to support the Onyx 2 at this time”, comments Patel. In fairness, the Onyx 2 has been out since 1997 – a long life time in high end computing – discreet has provided full support for those intial systems for over 7 years now.

Looking forward, sgi has a policy of providing support for products for at least 5 years after the end of production, which sgi Sydney informs us is now stated for March 2005 when current inventory will be exhusted. Discreet certainly aims to keep the fire and inferno brands alive. While discreet had predicted the sales of the Oynx would be adversely affected following the release of the 4 processor Tezro, Onyx sales have been higher than expected in the last 12 months, although mainly in the inferno product line. Rumours have been circulating of a super fast parallel server processing solution for the inferno product line, a rumour discreet will neither confirm nor deny. Discreet’s Bill Roberts, “This is one of the areas we have been actively researching for some time now as a means of enhancing the performance Discreet products, but it is important not to leap to any early conclusions. While there are clear applications of this technology for certain types of image processing it is not clear that it can deliver Onyx like capabilities.”

It would appear ideal for discreet to find a new platform for the fire and inferno brands as in many countries the “brand cachet” of Inferno is extremely strong. Any such move would need to address the growth of integrated solutions involving high resolution editing, effects and digital intermediate soltuons. “We are seeing a number of facilities invest in integrated high-performance DI infrastructures that include inferno, fire, lustre and supporting infrastructure such as the stone shared SAN and/or Discreets switchable storage solution,” according to Patel. Discreet offers one of the few fully functional integrated suites of products that can work interactively in client supervised sessions at virtually any resolution, SD, HD or film.

In recent years the difference between flame an inferno suites has narrowed, first the product tool sets were made virtually identical and then the performance between the workstation and Onyx product lines narrowed. Onyx offered not only a box who processed very quickly but also it provided a great interactive experience especially in 3D due to the system architecture, high bandwidth and InfiniteReality graphics subsystem, which at the end of it’s life cycle offered 1 GB of texture memory with fast access to main host memory and up to 8 CPUs. This narrowing of performance was highlighted by the very impressive SD performance of the new flint LINUX product line, based normally on an IBM workstation.

Last week IBM sold its personal computer business to Lenovo, China’s largest personal computer maker. Under Lenovo’s ownership, the IBM personal computer business will continue to be based in the US and run by its present management team. IBM will take a stake of 18.9 per cent in Lenovo, which is based in Beijing but now plans to have headquarters in New York. Lenovo is paying: a total of $US1.75 billion ($2.3 billion) in cash, stock and debt.

The Sydney Morning Herald points out that the transaction, first rumoured late last week, signals “a recognition by IBM, the prototypical American multinational, that its own future lies even farther up the economic ladder in technology services and consulting, in software and in the larger computers that power corporate networks and the Internet”.

Discreet, while unable to comment on the deal directly, points out that this is the PC group and not the Systems and Technology group that Discreet is currently doing business with. flint, smoke and lustre products work on the IBM IntelliStation workstations and burn on eServer x-series servers. These are part of IBM’s Systems and Technology Group and not the PCD or Personal Computing that builds and sells laptops and desktop computers. Discreet points out that in their opinion none of their code is ” really OS or hardware specific” and that while they tune their products to various key configurations, their code is designed to be cross-platform. “Once we choose to release on a given platform we take the time and effort to ensure that the performance experience is as optimized as possible,” states Patel. “We are fully aware that platforms change rapidly irrespective of manufacturer (SGI, IBM or other) and our ability to be flexible is critical to our success. We tend to find that it is the desired performance level that is more hardware/OS dependent than our actual software.”

Given Discreet’s stated hardware and OS independance – we asked if Apple hardware and OSX look any more inviting now. And could the discreet team see any changes Apple could make that would lead them to consider an Apple platform for future products? It apears that there are two technical limitations that limit discreet’s use of an Apple solution, the first is the number of expansion slots and the second is Apple’s decisions on graphics cards. Discreet generally requires driver support for the highest-end graphics cards such as the NVIDIA 3000G and 4000SDI Apple’s continued decision to not support these cards limits the G5’s effectiveness as an alternative to other high-performance hardware configurations. “It all boils down to the best platform for the task at hand. I would not ever rule out offering solutions on that platform, but we currently have no plans to support Macs and OSX with the current G5 configuration,” explains Bill Roberts. “What changes would we like to see in Apples future? Support for more high-end graphics cards, particularly those which offer graphics-video and genlock capabilities, dual I/O busses with more slots (so we can have RGB dual link video I/O on one bus and the F/C storage subsystem on another for better RGB HD and 2K capabilities.”

So for the next few months discreet will continue to offer in the area of systems products:

  • SGI Onyx / Irix for fire and inferno, until stocks run out or NAB 2005
  • SGI Tezro / Irix for flame, smoke HD and backdraft
  • IBM IntelleStation / Red Hat Linux for flint and smoke SD
  • IBM IntelliStation with windows XP for Lustre.

All of this begs the question – where does this leave the Tezro? Just how solid is discreet’s relationship with sgi; is this the beginning of the end or just a new chapter? We asked Maurice Patel it was safe to buy a tezro? “In a word yes! Tezro is a fantastic machine and represents a near perfect digital media workstation – why? Tezro provides a very high bandwidth internal memory architecture with integrated access to:

  • 4 MIPs based 64-bit RISC CPUs
  • 12 bit graphics RGB graphics pipe
  • Powerful graphics-video subsystem
  • Enhanced digital media I/O with support for dual-link 4:4:4 RGB I/O
  • High bandwidth I/O bus with support of up to 2×2 2Gb HBAs

“If by safe you are asking whether the Tezro provides a good return on investment then the answer is yes. The Tezro is still the leading computer platform for handling high-quality, complex digital media production problems. Discreet Tezro solutions will continue to outperform competitive systems for years to come. Discreet systems always offer a very safe investment.” Furthermore discreet is adamant that their relationship with sgi is strong and that sgi remain their number one hardware supplier.

We will need to wait until NAB to discover the fate of the two old friends who have served the visual effects community well over the last decade.