It’ll be as useful as a gift-wrapped cow at a vegetarian’s birthday bash.

At first glance, this is possibly the most boring announcement that a creative company can make. Adobe, it seems, is going to deploy ‘grid computing’ (yawn) in order to network together computers using complex, scientific software (pay attention at the back) to speed stuff up in After Effects. Cool. Personally, I can’t wait to plough through the inevitable White Papers that will accompany the first release, detailing sophisticated network topology and data flow rates – it’ll be absorbing reading, hopefully on absorbent paper for later reuse in the loo. Forget the extra effects Adobe, just bring on the boffins.

Yet, at second glance, grid computing is a real technological leap. OK, so 3D-making readers will probably be muttering about render farms and wonder what all the fuss is about, but for the rest of the creative community – especially professionals working in studios – the move makes sense.

Here’s how it works. After Effects can work with video footage on your computer at a certain speed – for ease of explanation, let’s say 12mph (movies per hour). Grid computing lets you use another computer to help. Say you have two networked computers linked via Ethernet, you can use the processing power of the second computer to go twice as fast.

Essentially, grid computing divides the job into as many parts as there are networked CPUs, shares it all out like birthday cake, then stitches the entire job together once all the parts have been processed. The results get very interesting when you use lots of computers – say, 20 in an average studio – then a 20-minute job is reduced to a minute.
Grid computing will be a serious timesaver for editors and VFX artists when the next version of After Effects ships – except for lonely freelancers with a single workstation, in which case it’ll be as useful as a gift-wrapped cow at a vegetarian’s birthday bash. Unless, of course, Adobe extends it to use the Internet, whereby all After Effects users will be able to utilize the new feature.

The rise of the machines

And that’s where – at third glance – stuff gets a little unsettling. We all know what happens when you start networking things together to perform complex tasks. A few, powerful computers start off working with video OK, then more join the grid and – before you know it – they’re gaining self-awareness, questioning the existence of humankind, and prototyping an army of ultimate killing robots that look like Arnold Schwarzenegger.
If Adobe dubs the grid computing plug-in as Skynet, then we’re really up the creek.

So, the reality of grid computing will probably be a little different from that, but it will also be a lot different from test runs in Adobe’s labs. Most creative studios I know aren’t entirely decked out with the latest hardware that would be needed to make the impressive speed gains.

Instead, studios are more hierarchical in nature, with the managing director having the most powerful computer for running spreadsheets and playing Pac Man, the artists having a decent batch of machines for actually doing the work, and the rest of the company limping along with cast-offs going back to the original Mac Classic or Commodore Vic 20. Speed gains from a company-wide grid system are going to result in a mean game of Pac Man and slightly quicker rendering times.

I’m not sure that I’m ready for my computer to be taken over at a whim just because someone needs to render some work or chase some ghosts. It’ll result in network wars, where designers launch pre-emptive network rendering in a bid to keep others from slowing their machine down to a crawl. Or, someone will provide a hack that will let an After Effects user take over every machine connected to the Internet simply to add 3D titling to a home movie of a school play.

Actually, this grid computing stuff is more creative than I first thought. Best bet is to keep it away from networking with any nuke facilities for the time being, though.