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Linux Matures The Linux promise is being realized By John Virata When Jurrassic Park burst onto the big screen 10 years ago, people marveled at how the movie showing dinosaurs roaming the earth with humans. At the time, the only viable solution to create such realistic digital dinos were the purple/blue workstations from Silicon Graphics. The company enjoyed great successes with the help of that film, which won an Oscar in the category of special effects for that year.

Well, times have changed.

From the release of that film on up to the present day, digital artists in the Hollywood community have been inundated with technology promising to be the next best thing. In the mid to late 1990s, Microsoft's Windows NT operating system running on Intel/Alpha platforms made a valiant effort to unseat the king of the hill: SGI. NT-based workstation vendors sprung up like the velociraptors in Jurrassic Park, promising to give power to the creators at less expensive price points. This in turn created a cottage industry of effects houses, many of which were created from former employees of bigger firms that could afford the big iron SGI systems. And to a point, the NT solution did become an alternative to the proprietary systems from SGI. SGI even staked its claim in the NT space, first creating their own NT workstations (SGI 540 and SGI 320), and then acquiring the hardware assets of Intergraph Computer Systems (which at the time was mired in a legal battle with Intel Corp. over Intergraph's "Clipper" chip technology). Intergraph offered digital artists some of the most capable NT-based solutions at the time. However, vendors such as Intergraph came and went, leaving the promise of less expensive systems to others.

Enter the Linux OS.

Around the year 1998, Side Effects Software ported its Houdini 3D animation tool to an obscure OS called Linux. It was obscure in a sense that the Hollywood community knew virtually nothing about it. Named after Linus Torvalds, the chief coder and the man who freed it to the wilds of the Internet, Linux held promise that the power of the operating system would be in the hands of those who use it, rather than the company that owned it. Like SGI's IRIX, Linux is based largely on the UNIX operating system, a bulletproof OS that has more than three decades of technology behind it. But that is where the similarities stop. The Linux OS is an open source system whereby anyone who uses it can improve upon it, giving the ownership of it to no one company. And the Hollywood and applications communities have begun to embrace the Linux OS, porting over their existing applications to the OS, writing custom software specifically for it, and oftentimes converting entire workflows to it.

Hewlett-Packard, IBM, BOXX, Dell, and other workstation vendors have even taken note, offering and supporting creative workstations that run Linux. And the fruits of the Linux promise are being realized, with feature films being entirely created on the Linux OS, something that would have been balked at just a few short years ago. All the major 3D animation packages have been ported or written for the Linux OS, some compositors are available or will be soon, and many other digital tools have been written to run on the free operating system that is Linux. To gauge how Linux has evolved in the Hollywood community of special effects and animation artists, DMN Executive Editor John B. Virata conducted a series of Q&A's with various users and vendors of the Linux OS. Some of the responses you'll find quite surprising. So without further chit chat, read on and enjoy...

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