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Dell Workstations Go Hollywood

Consumer PC sales are down, but Dell sees potential for its workstations in the film industry.

Tablets are all the rage among consumers -- but if you need to run ultra-demanding software such as Nuke or Maya, an iPad or even a Surface simply won't cut it. That's why workstations still represent a multi-billion-dollar market, and why businesses such as Reel FX, an animation studio with offices in Dallas and Santa Monica, Calif., continue to buy them.

Reel FX's first feature-length film, Free Birds, hit theaters earlier this month. A computer-animated tale of time-traveling turkeys who want to keep their ancestors off the original Thanksgiving menu, the movie was created with technology from Dell -- one of several players hoping to gain in the professional workstation space as consumer PC sales continue to wane.

Reel FX's previous work includes visual effects and animations, commercials, theme park rides, and interactive projects, as well as films such as Sin City. But Free Birds was a more ambitious project. Every frame required complex physics, texture, and lighting simulations, from the realistic flutter of feathers to sunbeams filtering through trees. A full-length movie includes more than 100,000 such frames, so to get the film completed on a reasonable schedule, Reel FX needed serious hardware muscle.

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After surveying the field, the company opted for Dell's Precision T5600 workstations, said Scott Correll, Reel FX's senior operations engineer, in an interview. He said Reel FX also employed Dell networking and server products in its animation pipeline.

Correll said any workstation vendor can provide the basic things an animation studio needs: lots of computing cores, abundant RAM, best-in-class graphics cards, screaming-fast I/O, and so on. Reel FX went with Dell, he explained, because it offered not only the right power at the right price, but also the reliable customer service that a feature film demands. "We can buy these components from a lot of places, but with Dell, it was also about the packaging, reliability, and service," Correll added.

Reel FX put Dell's reliability and service to the test midway through production. The studio has originally intended to release Free Birds in late 2014, but when a desirable weekend in November 2013 opened up, the studio decided to seize the opportunity.

To meet the new deadlines, Reel FX needed to complete four to five times more shots per week --and to do that, the company needed to immediately scale out its render farm. The company chose Dell PowerEdge rack servers to handle the load, which included bumping systems to 12 processing cores and 48 GB of RAM.

Correll said Dell never missed a ship date and that Reel FX encountered few service issues. A delay would have been disastrous, he said, so Dell's reliability was crucial.

Dell hopes more and more customers will start to feel the same way. Dell director of product marketing Pat Kannar said in an interview that Dell wants to be the top workstation provider. He said about half the market involves design companies -- not just animation studios and movie makers but also automobile designers, architects, product manufacturers, and so on. The other major workstation verticals range from financial firms to scientific organizations to utility companies, he said.

With consumer PC sales shrinking, commercial customers are more important to Dell than ever before. But to assert itself in the design-heavy workstation market, it will face formidable contenders. Apple's upcoming Mac Pro looks to be a beast of a machine, for example.

Kannar said Dell will differentiate itself by integrating workstation technologies into the datacenter and by providing a range of options, including traditional static workstations and light mobile devices that don't skimp on power, such as the recently announced Precision M3800, as well as thin and zero clients.

Kannar also said that compared to Apple and many other competitors, Dell works with more ISV partners to certify its systems.

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