Monday, November 22, 2010
Local IT Firm on Cloud Nine
By Michael Hartranft
Copyright © 2010 Albuquerque Journal Journal Staff Writer
A small IT company in Corrales is getting some high-profile gigs with an animated film-making giant on the West Coast — without setting a foot outside New Mexico.
Cerelink Inc. is quietly carving out a niche in the digital media industry with a remote computing model that has already produced parts of "How To Train Your Dragon" and "Shrek Forever After."
And that, the company confidently says, is just the beginning.
Not long after "Shrek's" release came an announcement in June that the Glendale, Calif., studio that produced those films, DreamWorks Animation, had entered a multiyear agreement with Cerelink.
"The combination of those two things in that time frame kind of took us from a seed, early-stage developmental position to what they call 'open for business,'" said CEO James Ellington, one of nearly a dozen former Intel employees who are investors or part of the Cerelink management team.
"Because of the agreement put in place, we essentially are part of the production road map for this customer," he said. "... I can't tell you specifically, because even they won't describe specifically what is being done, where it's being done and how's its being done, but anything going forward you see coming out of DreamWorks Animation has a high probability of having been produced, at least in some part, by the capabilities that we're putting in place."
In general, what they are doing is using a ton of computing power to process or render millions of animated digital images.
Most of the Cerelink staff — six fulltime and four part time employees — and its 31 investors, who've capitalized the company to a tune of more than $3 million, are native New Mexican, including Ellington, who is from Española.
'A terrific opportunity'
"We've all had the opportunity to go elsewhere," said chairman and co-founder Bill Garcia, another Intel alum, Gallup native and a former secretary of economic development for the state of New Mexico. "But we found we have a common purpose: What can we do here in New Mexico that makes sense from a business case, that would create high-tech kinds of jobs?
"We've been in business five years and it's been over the last two years, we've come across this one. It looks like we really have a terrific opportunity."
With annual revenues of $1 million-plus, Cerelink is headquartered in a historic adobe home converted into offices along Corrales Road. Its specialty is hybrid cloud computing, with its principal focus on computer-generated 3-D film production.
"I think we're close to $3 million capitalization," Garcia said.
"Our specific product is remote rendered services," Ellington said. "And render is what it sounds like... It is the modern-day equivalent of the flip book."
The concept for Cerelink evolved, in part, from the fruits of a program begun at Intel to link its research and development efforts with the "real needs" of the community, according to Cerelink President Rod Sanchez, still another Intel alum and Española native. His job, he said, was to be the "interface" between the hardware and software solutions side of Intel and the community.
"One example was we did the first robotic pharmacy at Presbyterian, which has been replicated in several hundred hospitals around the world," he said. "That evolved to taking that same concept out of Intel into Cerelink and thinking, how do we look at technical trends and technology and apply it to an industry, in this case, digital media."
Cloud or 'remote' computing
Cloud computing —"the fancy name for remote computing," Cerelink co-founder and vice president Richard Draper and yet another Intel alum said — is deploying a set of computers or servers at a geographic distance and connecting it to the user by a high-speed fiber optic link.
In the case of Dreamworks, the studio's artists are linked via the national Lambda Rail with Cerelink computers inside New Mexico Computing Applications Center's research and development space at Intel's Fab 7 and the Oso Grande center in Downtown Albuquerque.
"There's some 24 or so individual frames that have to come together just to make one second," Ellington said. "In each frame there is the image, the texture, the coloration, the shadowing, all that stuff. So you have to run a computer program that integrates all these different kinds of things."
Sanchez added, "Traditionally, the way it is done, an artist produces all of the images, puts them on a computer in the studio, come backs the next day and the images are melded together. In our case, using the remote rendering facility, we are able to do that almost in real time. An artist in LA can send us the image, it can be rendered and sent back in a matter of seconds."
The studios are finding that very attractive from a time, as well as cost, point of view.
"If a company based in Southern California, for example, is deploying more and more technical capacity, it consumes more power and real estate," Sanchez said. "As we know, power and real estate are not only scarce but very expensive in California."
New Mexico, he said, has an abundance of relatively inexpensive power compared with California, successful state-offered film production incentives as well as "excellent" technical resources in the Rio Grande corridor. Ellington said Cerelink already has six local contractors providing a range of services. Its only real North American competition is in Vancouver, Canada.
The perfect outsource
"There are several studios that are now to the point where they're embracing the idea of not having to build their own computing capability in-house and looking for companies that can provide a service, hardware or software, or a combination," Ellington said. "That's this cloud computing model. We provide a very specific, very high-end, high-performance computing solution specifically tailed for the digital media industry."
The Cerelink-DreamWorks partnership began taking shape about 2 1/2 years ago, said Draper, who's been in New Mexico for more than 25 years.
"We could start to see the intersection where digital media was going," he said. "One project led to another, which led us to DreamWorks and that led us to many months of collaboration to do the proof of concept and the technical development."
That included determining if New Mexico could pass a key computing physics test, something called "acceptable latency."
"The further you get away from the epicenter, if you will, in Northern or Southern California, the harder it is to do what we're doing," Ellington said. "If you were on the East Coast, today's technology won't work for our brand of high performance computing ...
"There are other locations in that radius, but right now, we have a significant head start on some of those other companies."
Cerelink subsequently provided nearly 2 million render hours — the computer time it takes creating a movie — for "How To Train Your Dragon" and about 3 million for "Shrek Forever After." "Shrek," for the record, required a total of almost 46 million render hours.
Though focused on 3-D now, Ellington said the Cerelink technology would supply the same types of capabilities for visual effects.
"Think of 'Transformers' that was shot in Albuquerque Studios," he said. "Somehow, somebody had to make the robots, and all the explosions and all the action come together to make it look like a live action film. All of that is computer generated.
"What we're doing lends itself to a very broad spectrum of the industry."
The potential for Cerelink doesn't end with digital media, in itself a tens of billions of dollars industry, according to Ellington.
"Inherently, high-speed computing and high-speed networking lend themselves to other forms of visual technology," he said, citing as examples architectural 3-D modeling and simulations or visualizations that could be used by engineers to analyze building stress or by medical doctors to make diagnoses.
But for now, Cerelink intends to build on what it's started. He said Cerelink is in proof-of-concept stages with three other major animation studios and a fourth studio that specializes in visual effects.
"And also we're going to see a lot of smaller customers," he said. "I call them subcontractors that work for major studios or independent producers with a great need for efficiency."
ABQJOURNAL BIZ: Local IT Firm on Cloud Nine
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