Film studio hits deadline with NAS upgrade

Director of technology for a Montreal-based 3D effects company spoke with SearchStorage.com about his company's choice of NAS upgrade.

Meteor Studios had good news and bad news facing the production of its latest movie. The good news: they were in talks with 20th Century Fox to work on a new feature film, Fantastic Four. The bad news: their Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI) Origin server made the heavy 3D graphics files processed by Meteor's visual effects artists difficult to manipulate, render and save.

Adding to the pressure was the fact that Fantastic Four was to be the studio's largest effects project to date, with 240 "shots" -- a measurement unit used in the movie industry to denote a segment of frames between camera cuts -- twice as large as the heaviest previous project the studio had produced.

According to Meteor Studios director of technology Jami Levesque, the company was also finishing a lengthy bid on a new NAS system. After much deliberating, the studio decided to purchase BlueArc Corp.'s Titan SiliconServer just before beginning work on the comic book adventure film.

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The visual effects for Fantastic Four were finished on deadline, and at an overall savings of time and management costs for Meteor Studios. "We wouldn't have made our deadline if it weren't for the Titan," Levesque said. "It would have taken us another month's worth of production time if we had been using our old box."

The studio, when in what Levesque dubbed a "production crunch", operates 120 work stations running Linux or Windows. About 90 of these machines are used by 3D graphics artists to enhance a movie's "shots" frame by frame on a demanding software application called Maya. Another 200 machines comprise a separate calculations-processing center called a "renderfarm", which processes the changes made to the images from 3D layers to a finished 2D picture.

On the back end are 7 terabytes (TB ) of high-density video files, all stored on Engenio Technologies Inc. 5884 storage. Another 5 TB of nonproduction data are stored on SATA disks, also from Engenio but resold by BlueArc. This is all connected over Ethernet.

The old SGI box just couldn't handle it. The performance was about half what the studio needed. Worse, "you can imagine, with 100 people working, how much time it would waste in the day just trying to open stuff. Each Maya file would take us 15 minutes or more to open," Levesque said. He estimated that two hours of every day were spent managing the SGI server.

After deciding to upgrade their server, Levesque and his staff compiled a painstaking chart of criteria for their new box, weighting six of the factors as most important. Peace of mind and hardware reliability came first, followed by minimum performance requirements: 300 megabytes per second throughput and between 40,000 and 44,000 I/O per second. Meteor also wanted to reuse its backend storage and required a new Windows/UNIX connection and something that would be easy to integrate with their existing infrastructure. And on a three year schedule, something that would provide the best ROI for upgrades.

Meteor considered the next generation SGI Origin, Isilon Systems Inc.'s storage system, and a file clustering system from TerraScale Technologies Inc. along with BlueArc's Titan.

With the Isilon system, Meteor would have had to throw out its old storage. And the others, Levesque said, couldn't match BlueArc in the "peace of mind" category. "It's not an OS [operating system]. It's built more like a network switch. It never stops. It just runs, and we don't have to worry about it," he said.

The Titan was also "a solution that can upgrade with us and grow with our needs," according to Levesque, because of its modular upgrade capabilities, which make it less expensive overall to upgrade. He declined to divulge specifics, but did say that the Titan's upgrade costs were calculated to be about 25% less over three years than its nearest competitor.

Technical hitches

Drawbacks to the system included a Unix coding issue that BlueArc took measures to fix. And in future generations, Levesque said he hopes to see better data movement capabilities between the different tiers of disks within Titan. "What we ask in the future is to have a count system on files so that when you reach a certain number of hits, it'll move up to a faster disk," he said.

For now, though, Levesque said that Meteor is satisfied with the purchase overall. Management of the device takes up only 15 minutes per week. The Maya files that were so difficult to open in the past now appear in 30 seconds.

"The huge difference," he said, "is that even when we're in crunch time, it doesn't feel like crunch time anymore."

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