“The future is slime green,” jokes Christopher Johnson, president and founder of Mediaworkstations.net, when asked about the future of workstation computing. “Put it this way — artificial intelligence work is not being done on CPUs. There’s not enough juice in any way.”
He’s referring to the distinctively limey corporate color of Nvidia, whose hardware is driving GPU-accelerated trends in computing, rendering, and AI across the media industry, from the desktop to the machine room and on into the cloud. “We are a GPU company,” he says. “That is our strength, and where our depth of understanding is — when you need a Quadro card and when you don’t, what it will provide you and what it won’t provide you, what it can and can’t do.”
Johnson got his start building GPU-intensive workstations for gamers before picking up a few customers in the media industry who were interested in gaming-style rigs for certain GPU-intensive applications. Profit margins were better for the media customers than for the gamers, and he found himself building more and more systems for content creation. As the GPU space heats up, Johnson is banking on his company’s ability to match desktop systems, portable workstations for use on set by DPs and DITs, and servers loaded up with storage or computing horsepower with applications including Avid, Adobe Creative Cloud, Da Vinci Resolve, and more.
“Our value-add at this point is knowledge of VFX, editing, compositing, and color-correction,” Johnson tells StudioDaily. “We know what is going to best support the end user’s needs, and we select hardware that’s optimized for a GPU-centered workflow.” Part of that is staying up to date with the state of the art in PC hardware, but it also means working closely with VFX artists and vendors to match their workflow to specific hardware configurations.
“One barrier to productivity is not understanding how a specific piece of software makes use of hardware,” Johnson explains. “Users sometimes think the highest frequency CPU is the best for the job, but that’s not going to help them if what’s taking away their weekends is physical rendering in Cinema 4D. They need cores. They need a Xeon or dual-Xeon configuration or a low-budget AMD 1950X Threadripper 16-core CPU for a lot of cores at low cost.
“But the programs most in use in professional media worldwide are the oldest. If you’re talking about software-to-hardware efficiency, these are not terribly efficient applications. A lot of the time, Maya is on a single thread, so CPU frequency is everything. And with Adobe, the most we’ve seen on any benchmarks is that six to eight cores is the most you’re ever going to use. Also, After Effects is really RAM-hungry — another inefficiency of legacy code.”
Asked about customers’ misapprehensions about computing hardware, Johnson cites a tendency to overestimate the power of Thunderbolt. “The word Thunderbolt indicates the power of language in media,” Johnson says. “The number-one misconception is that Thunderbolt is fast. Thunderbolt is not fast. The drive you have connected through Thunderbolt is fast. If you have a 20 SSD RAID, a Thunderbolt connection is relatively low cost and very fast. But if not, it’s not going to make much difference in your workflow [versus Ethernet or USB 3]. If you do 4K from a 7200rpm drive in a Thunderbolt enclosure, you’re going to drop frames.”
The company’s offerings include traditional desktop computers tuned for different applications (starting at $3,095-$5,295) as well as fold-up portable systems that incorporate one or more video displays (starting at $8,195-$8,495) and CPU (starting at $2,495-$2,895) and GPU (starting at $3,995-$7,995) servers. That’s just to say, if your problem really just needs to have GPUs thrown at it, these guys can wind up the pitch. “If there’s an enterprise GPU need, our GPUx can have up to 10 graphics cards,” he says. “That will render pretty much anything you throw at it in [Otoy] OctaneRender in real time.”