Animation studio goes all SATA

Running out of space for its large digital files, visual effects studio DKP opted for the high capacity and low price of a SATA-only environment.

DKP Effects Inc., a Toronto-based animation and visual effects studio that produces digital images for television commercials and movies, recently gained more capacity and saved money by switching from Fibre Channel to an all-SATA environment.

To handle the company's large data sets, DKP implemented two Titan Silicon Storage Servers from BlueArc Corp. last October and is now storing 30 TB of data on a total of 112 SATA drives. Terry Dale, DKP's vice president of production who oversees the storage environment, said that SATA provides the massive capacity they need and that despite SATA's reputation for slowness, it has throughput fast enough for DKP.

"We have yet to saturate the throughput rate needed for production," Dale said. "In testing, we pushed 380 MBps. Currently in production, we are sustaining approximately 160 MBps."

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Randy Kerns, senior partner at the Evaluator Group, Greenwood Village, Colo., said that SATA makes economic sense for a company like DKP. "SATA works well for large digital files because you're doing long sequential transfers where bandwidth is more important than throughput," Kerns said.

But is it reliable?

Prior to implementing BlueArc, DKP was using a hodgepodge of DAS, home-built servers and a small FC network with FC arrays from Sun Microsystems Inc. attached to Linux and IBM servers. Their problems were rapidly decreasing usable space and poor migration of data between servers and DKP's rendering farms, where 3D animation data is turned into actual images.

"After the data was rendered, it would get spit back to storage, but the arrays would be too busy, and we would lose the data," Dale said.

SATA has over three times the capacity per drive as FC drives, at one quarter the price, but SATA's reliability falls short when compared with Fibre Channel.

"SATA works well for large block transfers, but reliability is always a concern. So companies have to be careful not to bang on their SATA drives too much," said Arun Taneja, founder and senior analyst at the Taneja Group, Hopkinton, Mass.

Dale said he admits he has taken a chance by going all SATA, but so far he has seen strong reliability. "I would be worried if SATA drives were dying, but in six months we've only lost one," Dale said.

Sticking with SATA

With the new BlueArc/SATA setup, all 3D animation data sits on one of the Titan storage servers and is sent to the rendering farm where it is turned into an image and then stored back on the Titan. Composite artists then pull the images from the Titan and they become finalized digital images. The images are then stored on the second Titan.

"SATA has allowed us to get more data to rendering, which has improved overall production," Dale said.

DKP would not name names, but the company did put BlueArc head-to-head with a few other NAS players. In the end, it found that BlueArc was best designed to handle huge data sets and also did snapshots and partitioning, according to Dale.

When EMC came up as an option, DKP ruled them out because "EMC is designed to store and retrieve many small data sets, and that's not us," Dale said.

In addition to BlueArc and EMC, other NAS vendors include Exanet Inc., Network Appliance Inc., ONStor Inc., Polyserve Inc., Panasas Inc. and Silicon Graphics, Inc. (SGI).

Dale added that he hasn't ruled out adding Fibre Channel drives if needed, but until DKP exceeds SATA's throughput, he's sticking with it.

"Based on the capacity we need and my budget, all SATA was the way to go, and I have no regrets," Dale said.

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