Creating virtual products on the virtual cloud – Amazon RenderFarm


When we first started talking about what the web based Blank Label experience was going to be like my concern was the visual quality of the product our customers were going to see in the shirt designer. Blank Label allows you to create several thousands of custom shirt design combinations; building a physical product per combination to take a photograph would have been very very very expensive.

Not being able to physically touch the product, and not be able to feel the cloth and not have a good visual of what the product would look like was something were a lot of “not’s” that I was not okay with… so not known anything about 3d modeling nor shirts, I decided to take on the challenge of figuring out how we could come up with a modeling technology that would yield a somewhat realistic shirt… after all, anyone can easily tell a real shirt from a rendered shirt…. right?

The first mistake I made was try to find a company that could create what I needed – there were many; and once I explained the idea behind how I wanted it to work and render, the cost went from $14k to $48k to … over a $100k… yes I know its not cheap to render and design a model, but just because they couldn’t figure out how to automate actions and export clippings (I wont go into details) it did not mean that the client should foot the bill…. anyway., the second mistake I made…. which was the right one… was that I hired a 3d modeler (overseas) to work with me and understand what I was trying to create….  I did not learn much about 3d modeling, but I did learn more than I will every want to about a shirt during this time…. anyway, lets look at what we created back in the day.

Version 1 (2009)

version1

Version 1; wasn’t that bad… but it also wasn’t that good. It did a decent job of showing your fabrics and other selections, but the realism was lost., so fast forward several months we came out with version 2 with a different 3d modeler, and again several months after than version 3 with another modeler., (both below)

Version 2 (2010)

version2

version 3 (2011)

version3

The problem with each (besides it not being realistic enough) was that the modelers themselves did not understand the anatomy of the shirt; and because they didn’t, they couldn’t create a model that behaved like a real shirt. On top of that, they didnt really understand the need and desire behind having things done a certain way because they had never worked on a model that was controlled by code…. at some point we needed to add more features to the shirt, and also, since each modeler we had been through, had a non-automated way of generating renders., it would take weeks if not months to get 10-15 fabrics rendered…. so I went back to the design board, and looked hard…

By now I had some understanding of how the models work, and how things needed to be created., and fortunately for me I found someone who was willing to understand the shirt, and understand the entire process behind what I was trying to do., The best part about this was that he said “I don’t know if i can do this, I have never done this, I don’t know if it will work, but if you trust me and can be patient, I can give it my best shot”

See the image below, they are both zoom shots

shirtIn this image, the one on the left is a picture of a real shirt; the one on the right is a rendered zoom shot of the chest area

below is version 4 (current: 2012) of the shirt

version4

With version 4; we have achieved enough realism. There was a lot of attention to detail, both he and I understood every single part of the shirt; how its stitched, how the layers go on each other, etc… and the model we have now., is not just realistic-ish., its also automated… if you head over to Blank Label you will see that there are several rendered views/zooms of the shirt.. which finally brings me to the topic of this post.

We use to render the model on his machines, he had a small network of 3 machines, a decent amount of CPU power, and he would spit out 5 fabrics rendered(each is 86 frames) each day; approx 1.5-2 hours per render. Not that bad…  but for us, when we launch new fabric selections, we usually launch 30+ at a time; which means 2 weeks to get those rendered and that is if he isn’t busy rendering other stuff….

We looked at render farms that are out there…. way to over priced and you have to hand over your files… your intellectual property to a third party.. who wants to do that? so we thought that we would give Amazon (AWS) cloud a try…. in theory it sounds great, and there are a few articles out there on how to accomplish it, but they are based on theory…

The best part is that I had no idea what I was doing and it was going to be a challenge to figure it out…after going through the motions and having burnt 20 hours; I can confirm that it works, but it takes time and patience.

To build our renderfarm on amazon AWS using only EC2’s; I simply took a windows 2008 r2 AMI and started configuring it, installing the trial version of 3d studio max and setting it up. Once it was setup, we had the issue of “Who would be the manager”… we decided that it made most sense to have the 3d modeler be the manager so we opened up ports through his firewall into his machine, and viola, the render server connected to his machine and was ready to accept work…. there was just one issue., the files on his machine mapped to a UNC path that did not exist on Amazon…. in hindsight, I would have had him fix it a different way, but we ended up mapping everything to drive Z (took several hours to remap) and once remapped, we used google drive to sync between the amazon cloud instance and his machine; once synced, the server started doing work and started spitting out renders….

Great… but that’s just 1 machine though…

Once the first machine worked, it was pretty challenging to setup a repeatable image; i.e. an image that you could just start, and it would automatically connect to the manager and start doing work. Its not as easy as it sounds, there are permissions that need to be setup, things that need to run as a service, virtual folder to drive mappings that need to be created and the hardest of all, ensure that they connect to the manager. 🙂

I will definitely dedicate a post to walk through an amazon render-farm setup; but I will leave you with this.

What use to take 1.5 – 2.0 hours per fabric, now takes 15-20 minutes with 7 virtual machines; up that to 14 machines and your time decreases by 1/2.

This render-farm allows us to create our virtual products much quicker, virtually on the cloud.

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