Every three years, Ken Walker surveys the marketplace and chooses the best workstations he can find to teach animation at the Sheridan Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning in Ontario, Canada. This year, he chose HP Z600 Workstations with dual Intel® Xeon® quad-core Processor X5550.
"We're one of the leading animation programs in North America, and it's very important for us to have professional-level resources for our students," says Walker, technologist for the computer animation program at Sheridan. "HP had the very best product combined with excellent support. I'm confident they will serve us well for the next three years."
Leading animation education
Sheridan Institute is one of Canada's premier polytechnic institutes. The Ontario-based school delivers career-focused education and training to some15,000 full-time students annually at its campuses in Oakville and Brampton. Sheridan has been teaching animation since 1971, and attracts students from all over the world. Its graduates work at leading animation studios including Pixar, DreamWorks, Cookie Jar, Cuppa Coffee, Studio B, Corus Entertainment, Electronic Arts, C.O.R.E. Digital Pictures, ILM, Guru, Starz Animation, Rainmaker, Ubisoft and others.
Walker considers the selection of technology very important to the overall student experience. "We like to buy the same desktop workstations that professional animation studios would buy, because we want to give our students a professional experience," he explains. "We don't want students working in isolation on their own—the cooperative lab experience with upper-level students as mentors is part of the education we offer— so we opt to give them workstations that far outshine whatever they might bring to campus."
HP Z Workstations are a generational advance over the previous technology available at Sheridan. They combine Intel Xeon quad-core processors with the latest NVIDIA video card technology, and expandability to extend their useful life and accommodate shifting standards in animation and rendering.
Walker issued a request for proposals to several technology vendors serving the area, and found they offered three alternatives. Surveying the professional studios in Toronto, he saw a propensity for HP Workstations. Then he began benchmarking the options available to him.
Best benchmark performance
His benchmark testing revealed the Z600 offered the best performance. "We performed a rendering exercise, and on our previous workstations it took two minutes. On the HP Z600 Workstations, the same render was complete in 12 seconds," he says. "That speed alone should keep our students in the lab."
Speed is important to most users simply because they can accomplish more in a shorter period of time. But in the animation program, speed also means a greater opportunity for feedback from the instructor and from one's peers.
"We teach in groups of 15 students or so," Walker explains. "An instructor can get around a class pretty quickly and give multiple iterations of input in a class session. If you have something new to show each time the instructor looks over your shoulder, you'll get more feedback."
Years ago, he notes, workstations were dramatically slower so that students didn't even render their work during class; all they (and the instructor) could see was a wireframe representation. "Now, they can render and see it very quickly. The instructor sees what it looks like and tells students what's good and bad, and a few minutes later they can revise and show it to the instructor again," says Walker.
Intel processors well-suited to animation
The HP Z600 Workstations at Sheridan are configured with dual Intel Xeon quad-core X55502 processors (for a total of eight processing cores), an NVIDIA FX 3800 video card and 12 GB3 of RAM. They run Genuine Windows® XP Professional 64-bit to take advantage of hyper threading and 64-bit processing.
Walker says he was very aware of HP Z Workstations' use of Intel processors. "The Intel chipset demonstrates both performance and capability. Intel has just hit this one out of the park."
Multithreading capability makes the difference especially acute, he says. And that's important to Walker because the compute-intensive software his students use, such as Adobe® Photoshop® and Autodesk® Maya®, take best advantage of the Intel processor's capabilities. "The Intel processor is geared toward what we're doing, and we take advantage of that."
Other software included in the standard image in Sheridan's animation lab includes Autodesk Toxik and Mudbox; the Adobe® Creative Suite® 4, Microsoft® Office and Symantec Endpoint. Walker builds the image himself on a single workstation, then propagates it across the network using Clonezilla Server over a four- or five-day period.
Walker opted for Blu-ray disc players in the workstations, and matched them with 24-inch HP LP2475 monitors. He selected the HP LP2475w Widescreen LCD Monitors based on their color fidelity, LCD technology and16 x 9 aspect ratio. Walker kept the school's previous LCD monitors to enable a dualmonitor setup on all workstations in the lab: the LP2475 displays are used to display the actual animation, while the older monitor contains tools and palettes.
Looking ahead, Walker says HP Workstations are well positioned to accommodate emerging technologies and new standards. For animation, that includes the V-Ray rendering engine and graphics processing unitbased rendering. "Our Z600 Workstations give us the option of adding a second graphics card, which will then accommodate CUDA processing." CUDA (Compute Unified Device Architecture) is a parallel computing architecture developed by NVIDIA for GPU rendering on its graphics cards.
HP: superior support, technology insights
Sheridan is on a three-year technology refresh cycle and leases all its workstations to get the most from its budget, while matching the warranty coverage. Walker works both with HP and with a local partner/reseller, 3Group, which provides hardware, software and support solutions for film, game, and television postproduction studios. The tandem team works well for Walker.
"3Group people really know the animation market. And HP is obviously very knowledgeable, but more importantly, HP has given me by far the best support and the best pipeline of insider knowledge of upcoming technology products. In the process of selecting and implementing our workstations, they stayed in touch with me constantly and thought of things that I hadn't considered, which ultimately made my life easier."
Walker says his local sales representative from 3Group took him to the HP regional office to learn about the technology roadmap. "No other vendor offered to let me come in to show me their plans," he says. "So it was obvious to me why other people in our marketplace were already working with HP. It felt like the right connection and the kind of disclosure that I needed for decision-making. Having a vendor with solid products and good support is important. Having one that truly considers our needs and helps to solve my problems is truly invaluable."