I was about ready to buy some PCs to create a mini-farm at home, but I had the thought to revisit AWS and Azure. I won't go into exhaustive detail, but suffice it to say that AWS's Thinkbox and Nimble Studio, while very cool and useful, are way overkill for just one guy. I ended up rolling my own solution on Azure. Azure is dirt cheap and not too hard to use. Here's the workflow I settled on after several weeks of on and off testing:
- Install CentOS 8.2 on an Azure VM. CentOS has no hourly fee so you'll just pay for the vCPU time, not the OS.
- Install a desktop environment (although technically you don't really need it): I tried Gnome, Xfce and KDE and KDE was by far the best.
- Install whatever CG stuff you need. I put Maya, 3Delight, Arnold and Houdini Engine.
- Set up the azcopy utility on my local Windows machine and the Linux VM. This lets you easily transfer files to and from Azure blob storage.
- For the final test I created a short animation in Solaris, exported to USD, and uploaded the whole project folder structure to Azure.
- From there, download the project to the VM and run husk to render it in Karma.
- Finally, azcopy up to the blob and back down to the local machine.
Yes, this is a lot of steps and was a bit of a pain to get set up. Linux is never easy to deal with and all these industrial strength cloud services are designed for IT pros, not your average guy off the street. Still, Azure is pretty easy to learn and there are a lot of tutorials and good documentation.
In the end this render probably cost around $1 for VM time and a few cents for storage and bandwidth and such. Nothing fancy, just something quick and noisy as a proof of concept. But, once I get up to rendering 15,000+ frames for the finished film and accounting for longer render times for more complex scenes I'm still going to be paying like a 10th of what I might elsewhere. Plus, I have total control of what is getting rendered and when, what the status of uploads and downloads is, etc.
I've never seen anyone talk about this solution for indie artists so I wanted to write about it. If you have the patience to deal with the setup time then I highly recommend it. Seems extremely robust, reliable, affordable and scalable.
UPDATE: Tested out a spot Windows VM on Azure. The idea behind these is you get a huge discount (as low as 10 cents per hour) but can be kicked out of the instance at any time. Here's a 72 frame, 500MB sim that ended up costing about $0.60 to render. Only got kicked once, before the very last frame. Easy enough to log back in and finish just the frames needed. Loving this system!!!
Original Solaris test: