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The tech behind Weta Digital's success

Fri 30 Mar 2012
FYI, this story is more than a year old

Five-time Academy Award-winning visual effect and digital production services company Weta Digital is no bit player. Its reputation for creativity and delivery keeps it in high demand with some of the world’s leading film studios, and film credits include the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The Adventures of Tintin and of course Avatar.

Much of Weta Digital’s global reputation lies in its ability to push creative and technical boundaries. Active in practical and foundational research, it has partnerships with a range of top research institutions around the globe.

The company is a computing-intensive business, particularly since the production of Avatar in 2009, which saw Weta build a data centre to house what was the largest number of CPU cores in the southern hemisphere at that time. The movie used more than a petabyte (1,000 terabytes) of storage for the rendering of its 3D CGI effects.

Weta Digital currently has three petabytes (or 3,000 terabytes) of storage online at any one time. Its product array, resold by Fujitsu, includes NetApp storage and Brocade, Juniper and Arista networking equipment. The company’s render wall contains 5,000 compact and efficient HP Blade servers.

In fact, the organisation is composed of over 800 crew at any given time across multiple local sites, linked via a private fibre network.  The network features a 10 gigabit core and 200 gigabits per second of capacity to the renderwall.

Weta Digital’s IT team of 60, headed by CIO Kathy Gruzas, includes an eight member systems group who must proactively build and maintain highly-available infrastructure in order for the facility to deliver upcoming films on time and on budget. The equipment refresh cycle does not follow a typical schedule; upgrades and expansion occurs in direct, rapid response to the creativity, innovation and technology requirements of each new project.

The volume of processing required puts constant pressure on Weta Digital’s network, storage and data centre. Despite the use of free cooling and achieving a PUE of 1.18, power consumption remains a concern, making it essential for the team to seek efficiencies..

"As whole of life operational costs can exceed purchase cost, we evaluate the cost of ownership of every piece of equipment, particularly the power consumption,” Gruzas says.

"It requires the commitment of a highly competent procurement and management partner.”

Weta Digital has been able to rise to the challenges presented, at least in part due to strategic alliances with other companies. Fujitsu, for example, has supported the ever-expanding IT infrastructure of the company since the late 1990s, and in many ways is considered an extension of the systems team.

This proven combination undertakes all IT infrastructure architecture and design. Fujitsu then provides pre-sales specification and evaluation, installation, testing, maintenance and support.

By outsourcing its equipment supply and maintenance requirements, the Weta Digital systems team can continue to focus on supporting core business requirements and providing high level strategy.

"Fujitsu has invested enormous amounts of time over the years getting to know our crew and understanding our business,” Gruzas says.

"They know who we’ll get on with and allocate only the right staff to our jobs.”

"By acting as part of our purchasing department, their people liaise with vendors and ensure we get the best quote. They then support our set up and maintenance. Vendors send their product road maps to Fujitsu so its team’s knowledge is always current. This helps us to set up evaluations, particularly in pressure situations. Fujitsu understands the different procurement processes of each of the suppliers and it’s much easier for us to deal with  just one interface.

"Maintaining our systems, including the 5,000 servers, is a huge job. Security of our customers’ data is of paramount importance and in our business, a contractual obligation. Fujitsu provides a single point of contact for the vendors and adhere to our rules and processes. Our top-notch crew combined with the support of Fujitsu as our systems partner means we can be confident that we have the infrastructure to deliver the big films and optimise our IT investment.”

The term ‘teamwork’ no longer applies only to the internal staffing structure of an organisation. Increasingly, the emphasis is on how well that teamwork can be extended to the relationships existing outside the corporate framework.

Done well, it can be an award winning formula.

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