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Rendering environment accesses huge pool of resources

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Rendering the frames in a complex animation can tie up a work station, or a whole lab of them in a computer graphics class setting, for literally days or weeks, says Purdue Professor Gary Bertoline. But if the load could be shared among hundreds, even thousands, of machines a job that takes, say, 1,000 seconds on one might be done in a second, give or take a few ticks of the clock for latency and overhead.

Enter the Distributed Rendering Environment, or DRE, developed at Purdue and now available to users of the TeraGrid through TeraDRE. Like Purdue's DRE before it, TeraDRE draws on the Purdue Condor pool, a system for managing and sharing unused compute time on more than 7,000 linked computers on campus. Eventually, the idea is to incorporate computing resources from partners around the country connected through the TeraGrid, the world's largest open science computing network, said Bertoline, distinguished professor of computer graphics and director of Purdue's Envision Center for Data Perceptualization.

"Now when you press the render button, you have a huge pool of resources out there," Bertoline said. "We've got this working quite well here. It's being used in classes on a regular basis. We're working on taking it to a national level."

TeraDRE works with popular 3D modeling, animation, effects and rendering software such as Maya and open-source Blender. Laura Arns, associate director and research scientist at the Envision Center, said the list should continue to expand. Arns said Purdue also is refining the system to make it more aware of connected computers with special graphics-handling capability, so it can focus jobs on those automatically where possible. Another goal is refining the TeraDRE interface for better ease of use by users often more artistically than computationally centered.

Purdue Professor Nicoletta Adamo-Villani and her students use the DRE system in computer graphics technology courses that, among other things, are creating a highly graphical educational computer game, called "Nano Factor," designed to teach junior high school students about micro and nano technologies. Most recently, the assistant professor of computer graphics technology used TeraDRE to create a virtual rendition of a proposed satellite city for housing Istanbul residents in the event of a catastrophic Earthquake, a project with colleague Mete Sozen, Purdue's Kettelhut Distinguished Professor of Structural Engineering.

Adamo-Villani, also an Envision Center research scientist, said students in her class who built an introductory movie for "Nano Factor," which brings to mind the Oscar-winning feature "Toy Story," ended up with jobs at Pixar, the film's maker, and other major animation houses. But the DRE system is employed for visualization in cutting-edge science as well, such as a look at how a virus lands on, attaches to and implants itself in a host, Arns noted for example. She said the load-sharing system allows scientists and other animators to refine what they're creating on the fly, too, without waiting hours, or days, or weeks.

"The advantage is always speed," Adamo-Villani said. "It's a great resource to have."

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