Sherpa brings flexibility, power and remote working to WeWork

As we start our chat with Jake Williams, a US-based Senior Visualisation Manager at WeWork, it's mid afternoon in the UK. But for Jake in the US, the day's just beginning. Depending on the project, he could be working from any one of WeWorks more than 700 locations. And in essence, thats the focus of our conversation today.
With locations in more than 39 countries, WeWork is one of the leading global flexible space providers, committed to delivering technology-driven turnkey solutions, flexible spaces, and community experiences. Jake and his 3D rendering team have the challenge of producing high-resolution stills and animations of WeWork spaces. These assets form the backbone of marketing collateral, and the ability to bring these spaces to life visually, including virtual bespoke fit outs, is key to sealing the deal.
The way the studio works and the equipment it needs has changed significantly since Jake first joined WeWork seven years ago. "We had the server in the office, along with all of our computers. I managed the render farm and the computers myself, doing things like making sure they all had the same software on them. That was a very manual process, so I was having to split my time between being a creative manager and a technical manager.”
As the capabilities of the software and the team increased, the server started to run out of memory, and Jake found himself doing more of the technical, and less of the creative. With knowledge of machine limitations, Jake would spend his time optimising his artists' scenes so the render farm could handle them. It became more about efficiency and less about artistry due to the ageing system. Jake realised it couldnt take them much further.


Power and flexibility


In 2020, Jake began looking not just for a more powerful set up, but also a more flexible way of working for him and his team of artists.
The Visualisation team was tethered to the workstations in their offices. Whilst other teams could work from their laptops while travelling, off site or from home, Jake's team, spread across New York, London and further afield, just didn't have that capability. This obviously became even more of an issue in 2020 with the global need to work remotely.
Whilst researching possible solutions, Jake attended one of Escape Technologys webinars on remote working, and discovered the potential of Sherpa.


What is Sherpa?


Sherpa is a cloud-resource management tool designed from the ground up by Escape Technology. To put it simply, it provides access to a cloud-based creative facility that can expand or contract as you require. It includes everything a studio needs (workstations, storage, render nodes etc.), all accessible securely through the cloud, and controlled through a simple dashboard. It removes the need to have offices filled with workstations and render farms, with everything accessible through a laptop or similar thin client.


A new facility can be up and running in as little as 45 minutes, once the decision to go ahead has been made.



Simple switchover

With Sherpa promising all the power and flexibility Jake was looking for, the first stage of implementing the solution was for the Escape Technology engineers to start exploring what Jake's team would need and how they expected to work. This was done through a series of meetings with Jake and the artists themselves, which helped define WeWork's particular Sherpa solution: workstations (running Deadline, 3DS Max and Corona Renderer amongst others), storage and render farm all moved into the cloud.


From the outside, setting up a platform like this to serve multiple sites around the world can seem complicated. Luckily, our engineers remove the need for our clients to understand any of that process. All they need to do is tell the Escape engineers what they need Sherpa to do, and they make it happen. The clients control it all with a simple dashboard which puts the power of their new cloud-based studio at their fingertips.


This aspect of the switchover was something Jake particularly valued: "For me as a technical person, but not at anywhere near the level of an engineer, to work with a technical team where I could explain how I wanted things to work, and then let them get to work on the backend so it did exactly that, was great. We had weekly calls to troubleshoot, and to drive more efficiencies, but everything worked as it should work. It let me set up something way more complicated than I would have been able to do.”


All of the engineers at Escape Technology are ex-industry and/or VFX/design system administrators. Not only are they experts when it comes to the technical side of studios, they also understand pipelines, software and how it all needs to work together. Escape is a specialist resource which can be called on at any time if theres a problem.


WeWork anywhere


The flexibility Jake was looking for comes from the fact that Sherpa gives every artist a cloud-based workstation, accessed only from a standard laptop. The files and software are never actually on their machine – Sherpa simply sends an image 'of (in this case) the scene, sending and receiving pixels rather than the file itself.


The artist works as they would if they were connected directly to a workstation. None of the calculation is done by the artists laptop though, its all happening via Sherpa on a cloud-based workstation.


In the WeWork environment this is incredibly useful. Not only does it mean the team can work remotely when it needs to, but it also works perfectly with the companys hot-desking policy. Artists can simply pick up their laptops and move to a new desk, whether to chat through a scene with another artist, to get a new view or just to move to a quieter area of the office. This internal flexibility is something thats often overlooked until the benefits of it start to reveal themselves.



WeWork's Paris space, stunningly rendered using Sherpa


The potential to scale up, or even down


New levels of power are unlocked through Sherpa, with access to significant processing power. It's easy to scale up to match the needs of any particular project. If WeWorks marketing team puts in a request for a fly-through animation, then Jake simply adds more render nodes using the GUI, paying for them only for as long as he needs them.


And of course, what spins up can also be spun down – something that Jake has appreciated many times. He can scale down the memory on his workstation to match the task with a few clicks. This can be done on a daily basis for every artist, helping to bring a new level of efficiency to the team.


"When we did our original planning for Sherpa, we had workstations budgeted that were the same as our physical workstations. We assumed that because we needed 128GB of memory in our real workstations, that's what we should have in Sherpa too. Once I got familiar with the interface, I realised we could fluidly change on a daily basis, which saves us a lot of money.”


Jake now runs a three-tier system when it comes to machines: 128GB machines for hero projects, 64GB and even just 32GB for smaller workloads. The workstations match what the artist is doing at that time, a far cry from the traditional studio with machines being permanently spec'd out to handle the most challenging projects, even if that power is only needed very occasionally.


Well always have Paris


As we finish our conversation, Jake is pleased to share with us a recent project, and the first completed using Sherpa. It's impressive: a new WeWork location in Paris, stunningly realised with the power of Escape Technology's Sherpa.


Jake explains, "We couldnt have done something like that with our previous off-the-shelf setup. It would just have taken too long. We would probably have had to outsource to produce an animation of that scale. But Sherpa just unlocked another level for us. The team was into it and super excited to be able to do something on that scale, that we hadnt been able to do before.”


If you'd like to talk about unlocking more flexibility, collaboration and power with Sherpa, please get in touch.



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