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AWS acquisition of Thinkbox could lead to more heavy-duty tools, users

You have to spend money to make money. At least that's what AWS hopes with its acquisition of a suite of rendering tools that may draw in more high-performance computing workloads.

A recent AWS acquisition taps into vertical market technology, hoping to entice new customers with high-performance workloads while also bolstering its cloud management capabilities.

Earlier this month, Amazon Web Services acquired Thinkbox Software, which provides a suite of image and particle-rendering management and geometry caching tools for media visual effects (VFX) design and development, for undisclosed terms. The AWS acquisition is the latest example of Amazon, and other large public cloud players, adding services that appeal to specific markets and customers, and it could improve existing cloud services with specific capabilities such as support for compute-intensive workloads.

Image and particle rendering require high volumes of compute power, with multiple machines often needed to back up a single VFX designer. This could translate into business for AWS' cloud resources, such as large compute instances, storage and databases.

This follows a pair of similar recent AWS buys: Two years ago it acquired Elemental Technologies, a video-processing startup, and last year it acquired Italian high-performance computing (HPC) software and services provider NICE. Rival cloud provider Google acquired Zync Render in 2014, which it uses for a cloud-only render as a service option; last July, Google added Anvato, a video encoding, editing, publishing and distribution platform.

Acquiring such niche technologies -- and their customer bases -- require less time and effort than building them from scratch, and it takes a page from the playbooks of larger vendors such as Oracle and Microsoft, said Meaghan McGrath, analyst at Technology Business Research Inc. based in Hampton, N.H.

"I don't think AWS would have as much success if they developed the exact same technology internally," she said. "It's a really strong sort of customer use case that AWS immediately acquires with the technology."

AWS acquisition could land big fish in VFX market

The Thinkbox portfolio of tools, which has helped process imagery and effects for films in the Harry Potter, Avatar and Thor movie franchises, could fill a variety of in-house needs at Amazon, such as for its movie and TV wing, Amazon Studios, and the Amazon Lumberyard game engine, which is still in beta.

"I think the end game is building up infrastructure and platform services that enable customers that have rendering workloads or video hosting, such as media companies, to come to the cloud and run efficiently," McGrath said. "It drives a lot of underlying compute for a company that is able to win those customers."

Straightface Studios, a boutique visual effects company in Seattle, has used Thinkbox software for roughly a decade, including its Deadline high-volume render-management system across 20 on-premises machines, to create TV commercials, web banners and videos for live-action performances. "Deadline allows us to distribute all of the tasks that our render farm in-house needs to handle," said Gavin Greenwalt, a VFX supervisor at Straightface Studios.

Hybrid cloud, HPC must evolve

At the same time, high-performance computing could apply across a number of AWS tools to help bolster the company's hybrid cloud capabilities. The Deadline hybrid rendering tool meets a need for customers who want portability to render on premises and in the cloud, particularly with Google Zync limited to cloud-only usage, McGrath said.

"It is focused right now on the private cloud, but they have made a lot of effort to also integrate mixing processing between your private cloud and public cloud resources," Greenwalt said.

Thinkbox's rendering tools could also apply across a number of vertical markets, such as media and entertainment, engineering firms that use computer-aided design and manufacturing, and medical imaging. Deadline, which is compatible with AWS, Google Cloud Platform and Microsoft Azure, offers hybrid cloud cluster compute capabilities that could reach beyond the VFX market.

Cost in this niche area is still prohibitive for some VFX shops. Straightface Studios only uses AWS for nightly off-site backups to Amazon Simple Storage Service and smaller tools that run on micro instances. Greenwalt estimates it would be four times more expensive for Straightface Studios to operate in the cloud versus on premises.

Some projects are simply too large, at several terabytes apiece, to migrate to the cloud in a timely fashion. Many VFX shops already have plenty of on-premises power with dual processors and high yields of RAM so it's more feasible to run projects locally.

One potential benefit of the AWS acquisition of Thinkbox could be smarter on-demand data transfers that focus on uploading specific files or parts of files to the cloud, including smarter overnight caching, Greenwalt said.

AWS could also resolve bandwidth issues by running the entire studio in the cloud. That would challenge Autodesk's Maya, a 3D computer graphics software for developers to build interactive applications, video games and other media.

"There's always the concern that Amazon priorities will start to push out the historical priorities that the company has had," Greenwalt said. "If Amazon was really interested in competing with Autodesk in building the future of visual effects, this might be the start of that. I don't know what Amazon intends to do with Thinkbox, but Thinkbox would certainly be an excellent basis to work in that direction."

David Carty is the site editor for SearchAWS. Contact him at [email protected].

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