The Data-Crunching Powerhouse Behind ‘Avatar’

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A look at some of the high-density serer and networking gear inside the Wwta Digital data center used to render the animation for the new James Cameron movie "Avatar."

A look at some of the high-density server and networking gear inside the Weta Digital data center used to render the animation for the new James Cameron movie "Avatar." (Photo: Foundry Networks Inc.)

It takes a lot of data center horsepower to create the stunning visual effects behind blockbuster movies such as King Kong, X-Men, the Lord of the Rings trilogy and most recently, James Cameron’s $230 million Avatar.  Tucked away in Wellington, New Zealand are the facilities where visual effects company Weta Digital renders the imaginary landscapes of Middle Earth and Pandora at a campus of studios, production facilities, soundstages and a purpose-built data center.

The 10,000 square foot server farm manages thousands of work orders and a serious amount of data. Information Management magazine reports on the creative artists and rendering done for the movie, as well as the thoroughbred data center supporting it.

The Weta data center got a major hardware refresh and redesign in 2008 and now uses more than 4,000 HP BL2x220c blades (new BL2x220c G6 blades announced last month), 10 Gigabit Ethernet networking gear from Foundry and storage from BluArc and NetApp. The system now occupies spot 193 through 197 in the Top 500 list of the most powerful supercomputers.

Thirty four racks comprise the computing core, made of 32 machines each with 40,000 processors and 104 terabytes of memory. Weta systems administrator Paul Gunn said that heat exchange for their servers had to be enclosed. The “industry standard of raised floors and forced-air cooling could not keep up with the constant heat coming off the machines,” said Gunn. “We need to stack the gear closely to get the bandwidth we need and, because the data flows are so great, the storage has to be local.” The solutions was the use of water-cooled racks from Rittal.

Gunn also noted that tens of thousands of dollars were saved by fine tuning the temperature by a degree.  Weta won an energy excellence award recently for building a smaller footprint that came with a 40 percent lower cooling cost for a data center of its type.

For the last month or more of production those 40,000 processors were handling 7 or 8 gigabytes of data per second, running 24 hours a day. A final copy of Avatar equated to 17.28 gigabytes per minute of storage. For a 166 minute movie the rendering coordination was intense.

Based on the #avatar Twitter hash tag comments I would say the visual effects are a success.

We previously discussed the Weta Digital facility last year in One Data Center to Rule Them All.

About the Author

John Rath is a veteran IT professional and regular contributor at Data Center Knowledge. He has served many roles in the data center, including support, system administration, web development and facility management.

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49 Comments

  1. Justin

    I believe Isilon gear is also used in the production of Avatar. There was a press release a few days ago about that.

  2. Impressive geek stuff :) I didn't knew Weta was behind Avatar's visual effects. I guess this means that "The Hobbit" will be as visual rich as Avatar, which is awesome :)

  3. Max

    Isilon boxes were used to store the finished product... IIRC NetApp was used for the render farm at Weta.

  4. Pity that after sepnding so much effort and money on the FX, a few dollars had been spent on the script. 'Avatar' is certainly spectacular but its also dramatically empty and a bit dull.

  5. Whoa! Really cool stuff. Now I know how they got all those 3D effects. No wonder the movie was such a high-budget one!

  6. Mike

    Will it run Crysis?

  7. Funtomas

    How much was on the power supplier bill or what's the power consumption in total?

  8. Calus

    proberly not Mike

  9. Yogi

    I'd have liked to know about its software infrastructure too.

  10. This article does not mention that THIS COMPUTER USES LINUX, a free operating system which is the most used in supercomputers of the world. http://www.top500.org/system/10042

  11. ac

    As for software, the only sure thing is that it's Linux.

  12. paul

    I think that they using OS HP-UX

  13. marcus

    @Mike - will it run crysis? with the correct software probably yeah, but that sounds like killing a fly with a gun....lmfao

  14. Ty Williams

    I am so impressed with these efforts to go green and save the environment, especially for entertainment. Can't wait for DiCaprio's green resort!

  15. Ty Williams

    How green! The Haitians really are impressed wit this use of resources.

  16. Liperty

    Finally a rig that can probably play Crysis maxed out... ;p

  17. With such powerhouse surely there'll be more awesome movie coming out soon!

  18. Now, that's more than impressive...I want one in my cellar ;)

  19. 3Mo0

    @marcus - with the correct software probably yeah, but that sounds like killing a fly with a gun….lmfao I think you mean this is like killing a fly with the World's ENTIRE stockpile of Nuclear weapons!

  20. me

    If so much heat is produced by these machines why can't it be sent to where it might be useful, like heating public buildings, or even people' shomes?

  21. Hey Fellas!!! Quick Question, know your busy and all... Do you think when your done with that movie thingy - maybe I could use it for awhile? THAT WOULD BE AWESOME

  22. Very impressive numbers, like 107 TB of ram... I cry over 12 gigs for $300 and they have 107 TB lol. The processing speed is crazy; as well as, the staggering numbers on the size of the movie, 7TB per minute? How do they deliver the movie? In a box full of hard drives, lol

  23. If that server is generating that much heat, why is the guy in the picture wearing a beanie? Just kidding, massive cpu power 4 teh w1n. Now lets run SETI on it.

  24. Davy

    It feels surreal that all this happens a few blocks from where I live. I'm from Wellington New Zealand, and I know a few people who work at Weta. Of course they can't disclose any information to me, so it's just amazing to finally see what tech they have there.

  25. ahmed

    auwsum ... totally kool. now i know from where do dey get dose special effects

  26. Mega machine a true monster, must have been a lot of power being pumped in the making of Avtar.

  27. I thought they just use a powerful computer and some sort of software to do animation.

  28. But Will It Blend? Nah Only Joking, that really is a beautiful Server Farm. A great movie to go with it. I wouldn't mind watching the raw, higher quality rendered version of avatar if only i have a screen that could project that quality :) Any Idea of the servers OS and what they are using to share the rendering work load?