Bringing industry-grade hardware to the University of Hertfordshire

With its world-renowned and multi-award-winning VFX, Games Design and 3D & 2D Animation courses, The University of Hertfordshire has been providing creative film and TV studios with industry-ready talent for many years. In 2017 it took a quantum leap forward in terms of the storage and render power it had on site, and as a result the work produced by its students raised the bar even higher, as its trophy cabinet can attest.

But the story begins around 10 years ago, with the university’s first render farm: decommissioned hardware from one of London’s leading VFX facilities. “It was an old 32-bit farm, and it began to struggle with the newer software,” explains David Tree, a lecturer on the Digital Animation Programme and also the Technical Director for the Games and Visual Effects Research Lab. “We ran that for a little while, until we decommissioned it in 2011.”

To present the case for an up-to-date and robust storage and render farm solution and secure the funds needed from the university, the team needed to demonstrate the impact that a more powerful, on-site and accessible farm would have on student work and their experience overall. Their answer was to take on the challenge of building their own.

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Making the case

“It was a 60-node farm built on the back of Pixar’s Tractor. We ran Maya and rendered using Arnold, which was new and exciting at the time. The storage array was an old Mac Pro jammed full of as many hard drives as we could fit in, and an old switch.”

After running this solution for a couple of years and showing its positive effect on the quality of student work, the university was ready to invest. It was at this point that David and the team approached Escape Technology for advice. “The majority of our teaching staff are ex-industry, and many of them were already aware of Escape Technology and its reputation.”

“One of the crucial things was the liaison that David had with you initially,” continues Laith Shewayish, Team Leader for Digital Media and Loans, “and the fact that you actually helped us put together our bid. This isn’t my area of speciality at all, and it really helped me understand what was going on.”

More students, more power

By the end of 2017, Escape had successfully navigated the tender process and won the business, and was ready to begin the install. With the growing number of students and the continual evolution of power, the university needed a storage and render farm solution that could cope with 360 users looking to push themselves as hard as they could.

“We installed a Pixstor array,” says David, “which has 40TB of storage for student work. For context, before we had just 12TB.”

“Each person has solo projects and team projects,” takes up Alberto Marcis, Principal Technical Officer for Animation. “So currently we set up 100GB of storage per person, and then a group folder which usually has a limit of 200GB. That limit does depend on the type of project though - it moves up or down depending on what’s realistically needed.”

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“One of the things Escape insisted was that we needed redundancy on our storage,” says David, “so we have multiple host controllers, and multiple connections between the server and the render farm now.”

With the introduction of larger storage, students are now able to produce more complicated films. The previous single-frame render time-limit of 20 minutes has now been increased to 45 minutes, and where previously students didn’t necessarily trust the render farm and would use their own machines instead, now the queue is consistently full.

Aligning with industry and success

Deadline and Houdini have become the tools of choice too, chosen to keep the course in line with the needs of the industry. Ongoing conversation with some of the industry’s leading studios means the course gives the students in-depth training in the key tools they need to succeed in the real world.

“We’re a Houdini-certified school, Unreal Academic Partner and amongst a slew of other prizes last year a team from our Visual Effects degree won the Visual Effects Film of the Year at the rookies. We now have seven students applying for every single place on the course,” smiles David. “Even in the pandemic we’re seeing consistent numbers of our students get jobs when they leave here.”

Hidden benefits

The benefits of an on-site render farm go beyond just the quality of student work however. “One of the advantages of having the render farm on site is that we know just how much it costs,” David explains, “so we can budget properly. In addition, it’s a tangible, physical thing that we can not only show to prospective students, but also to university stakeholders who need to understand how their investment has been used.”

“Another important factor is simplicity. Students just connect to a single server and their stuff is there. We didn’t want multiple boxes, or levels of storage because we have to keep configuration to a minimum. So students don’t even notice it – its complexity is hidden away and it just provides predictable performance. We’ve had no trouble keeping it running at all, and it runs on standardised hardware too (Dell in this case).”

With Escape providing contracted service and support from June 2017 until June 2020, and then continuing until the present, the relationship with the university has continued to go from strength to strength. Laith considers this to be as important as the technology itself: “From my point of view the most important thing is the liaison with [Escape] directly. Sometimes with other companies there’s a reticence to get in touch if there are any problems, but with you I don’t feel that at all. We have open and frank discussions about things; having the confidence to have that level of discussion is really important to the School of Creative Arts as a whole.”