Remote graphics and virtualization technology is set to be the next driving force in the VFX industry, according to projections presented by research firm Jon Peddie Research (JPR) at a press briefing at SIGGRAPH in Vancouver last week.

JPR President Jon Peddie said that even as SIGGRAPH attendance has declined over the last eight to 10 years, the market for computer graphics hardware and software is way up in the same time period, reaching $120 billion this year on the way to a projected $149 billion in 2017. The newest catalyst for growth, Peddie said, is remote graphics and virtualization. "This is the year the industry decided to stop being in turtle mode and come out and do something," Peddie declared. "Content creators are working across the spectrum on all kinds of machines — everywhere, anywhere, all the time."

By 2018, Peddie projected that the market for server-side remote graphics and virtualization would reach $1.8 billion — a small but impressive share of the overall CG market — in what he called "a conservative forecast."

A panel discussion during the briefing considered the impact of virtualization on the visual effects business, as representatives from Pixar, ILM, DreamWorks Animation, and others talked about how they're using the technology. ILM's director of IT, Kevin Clark, said the company's Vancouver studio is primarily running in a zero client virtualization model, tapping hardware back at home in San Francisco (with essentially zero latency) rather than bringing it on site in Canada.

Even at ILM's headquarters, virtualization has its advantages, he said. "Artists in San Francisco may have two or three workstations under their desks," which isn't ideal for controlling heat and climate in the office, Clark said, suggesting it would be better to move the workstation hardware into a data center and let individual users access it remotely.

Pixar's systems VP, John Kirkman, said that out of 800 workstation users, about half of them have a second, largely unitilized workstation at their desks. He said he's trying to improve the utilization percentage for the company workstations, which is hovering down in the 10 to 15 percent range. He said he'd rather spend money on GPU memory and system memory rather than buying more workstations, which he said represent "a huge investment in sheet metal."

Still, he said a lot of his company's infrastructure is already running on virtual machines, with the highest peaks in render demand being pushed to the cloud. He admitted that cloud rendering isn't cost-effective, running as much as five or six times more expensive than using on-site hardware. But for isolated peaks, makes economic sense, he noted. 

DreamWorks Animation CTO Lincoln Wallen lauded the efficiencies introduced by remote computing, which he said has allowed DreamWorks to essentially triple its output with the same head count. But he said the VFX industry tends to have trouble orchestrating its computing resources for maximum efficiency. "The CG market is still digging its way out from its artisan days, where the pipelines, processes and engines are different for not very good reasons," he said. "That makes it hard to create [new] computing platforms."

Still, Wallen said, virtualization is helping the industry work smarter. In fact, he identified one challenge as figuring out how to balance the fiscal and creative advantages it offers. At DreamWorks, he said, the general rule is that "half of the efficiency gains are on screen, and half go to the bottom line."