June 20, 2002

Disney, Linux and the "next big thing" in computing

- By Jack Bryar -

How does this work? Disney has opposed the Open Source community so
many times activists wanted to boycott the company. At the same time, Disney
is standardizing key parts of its operations
on Linux? If that seems
surprising, it shouldn't be.
A number of companies who look like unlikely
candidates for Linux are making the switch. Like at Disney, many of them have
executives who see the Open Source community as a threat to their business. Like
at Disney, whatever management may think of the Open Source movement, company
engineers are rapidly standardizing on Linux to solve a unique set of technical
problems.

You may have heard or read the Disney Company announcement this week that it
was standardizing its digital animation platform on Linux from Hewlett -Packard.
You may have been surprised. This is the same company that has
denounced Open Source activists. It is the same company which has lobbied for
restrictive legislation such as the bill that used to be called the SSSCA. It may seem ironic that a company
Open Source advocates once tried to boycott
is putting its multinational stamp of approval on Linux.

Whatever the political position of company executives, Disney employees
have been using Open Source products for some time.

Although recent press releases positioned Disney's decision as a major
change in philosophy, Linux and Open Source advocates have been active at the
company for a long time. Two years ago, Disney moved elements of its Go network portal to Linux as part of its last ditch effort to rescue the site. At the time it even opened up its "Tea template language," a Java program that
lets different users make use of the same news article, but present it in a new way, according to the style used at a given Web site.

Over at Walt Disney Feature Animation (the unit that makes movies like The Little Mermaid and Lilo & Stitch), Linux has been around for just as long. While the company has employed thousands of artists over the years, it has relied on technology to keep the process manageable. Computers have been part of the animation
process since the '80s. Until recently the unit, known at Disney as WDFA,
featured an unhappy amalgam of Sun, Microsoft, Mac, Linux and, mostly, SGI
platforms. Many of the WDFA's software is home grown. The company has become a
major Perl and Python shop as its technical team struggled to create tools
needed to integrate various content and image elements across multiple
platforms.

In many respects, Disney's recent announcement that it would finally
standardize WDFA on Linux simply helps the unit make more effective use of open
tools it has been using for some time. John Carey, WDFA's vice president,
claimed the decision was strictly a streamlining and cost-cutting move focused
on using "commodity technology systems." Cost-cutting was certainly
behind a program sponsored by Disney and HP intended to help the two
businesses to strong-arm suppliers of peripherals and cards to cut their
prices, and to push independent software vendors to reduce prices and, if
possible, open up their code.

However, there were also a number of technical- and market-based reasons that
pushed Disney to adopt Open Source. One has been the escalating cost of doing
quality animation, which has always been an extremely labor-intensive process.
The other is a rapidly changing definition of what quality means to a more
sophisticated audience. While Disney's newest features use some flat "cel" images
found in traditional animation, large parts of its newest movies are really computer
rendered images designed to retain the look of Disney's traditional movies. The
characters move in fluidly in three dimensional space in ways that traditional
"cel and background" animators would have found nearly impossible to
capture. Over the last couple of years, Disney has relied on Linux clusters for
rendering these images. Today Linux has become the platform of choice for
animators at competing studios, including Industrial Light and Magic, DreamWorks
SKG and Pixar Animation.

In time, the level of computer dependency, especially on Linux
standalone machines and clusters, may increase exponentially. Increasingly,
computer-intensive renderings of 3D images have begun to cross over into advertising and even Saturday morning television. Studio executives are increasingly
worried that audiences may not accept motion pictures that don't have the three-dimensional qualities of a film like Shrek. Several of the most popular 3D graphics rendering packages showed up in Linux long before they were adapted to Solaris or other proprietary Unix platforms. These Linux-based applications still beat
those proprietary systems on price, and Linux clusters cost substantially
less (and ran faster) than proprietary the Unix platforms the teams had used
before.

Mass producing ever more sophisticated images requires plenty of
processing power. Animation may be a niche market, but it is one of a number of
similar markets that require lots of data crunching on the cheap, and that
feature rapidly changing home-grown applications that only make sense in an
Open Source development environment.

Last week I referred to biotech as another market where Linux clusters
are taking over major computing functions. Like the entertainment industry,
most biotechnology entrepreneurs are hardly friends of the Open Source
the movement. Most are intellectual property absolutists. Like the
entertainment industry, biotech came to Linux and Open Source because it was the only
cost-effective solution available. The type of heavy number crunching needed
to run many of biotech's genetic and protein typing operations almost
mandate Linux-in-a-cluster, or even deploying a custom configured grid system
built with open components. Such systems can't replace symmetric
multiprocessor computing systems for all applications. However, the problems they can
solve are attracting oil and gas explorers, government and private weather
forecasters, weapons developers in the military, and researchers at a variety of engineering companies.

Many of these systems may be built using standard components and
software elements, but the systems are as unique as the companies that designed
them. A number of major auto makers and several globally recognized
pharmaceuticals companies have stitched together clusters and grid systems using a mix
of freely available source code and in-house routing and load balancing
software. Recently a number of Boeing engineers created an especially funky
configuration to test engine parts. Using a mix of software components, including
Open Source routines, they concocted a homegrown grid software that
hooked together a couple of Sun servers, a 16-CPU Linux cluster and at least
one SGI supercomputer.

None of these companies are likely to support or care that much about
Open Source as an ideology. However, they are using Linux and Open Source
tools to drive what may become the "next big thing" in computing. Thanks to
them, Linux will be at the center of it.

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