Now starring at UCLA film school: SAN

Lights, camera, but data loss leads to no action for some UCLA film students.

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UCLA's department of film, television and digital media produces some of the film industry's brightest stars. When students present their end-of-year film projects, it's not just professors who are grading them. Representatives of some of Hollywood's major film studios sit in on the presentations to scout for future employees.

Having a reliable and robust system for storing and working on digital film projects rates pretty high for these students -- a project lost is roughly a year's work down the tubes. And until recently, losing projects wasn't an unheard-of turn of events. "Before we updated our system, we'd typically lose one or two projects a year," says Wade Coonfer, manager of digital post-production at UCLA. "Either the students would drop their drives or disconnect them so that damage or corruption occurred."

At the heart of this problem was UCLA's storage system -- the department was using locally connected storage drives to manage the data that 20 to 30 student users were producing at the workstations in the school's digital post-production lab each year. Complicating the issue, UCLA wanted to expand the lab by adding more workstations and thus greater storage capacity -- so that a greater number of students could access the facility. But students needed dependability, so they could rest easy knowing that their projects would remain secure on the system throughout a school quarter or year.

"Our locally connected storage system was a bad fit," Coonfer says. "We were finding that there was a risk of the media not maintaining its integrity on the drives, mainly due to usage issues."

It's also hard to scale up when you're using direct-attached storage, explains Coonfer. Lacking a way to grow their system and guarantee the integrity of the storage, UCLA started looking into alternate storage solutions.

Coonfer knew that the school had to stay away from a proprietary system, which wouldn't have given the film department much freedom in terms of how it set up the lab. "There were some systems available that required you to use their workstation hardware, and then they had central storage available as well," Coonfer says. "But since we're a research university, we wanted to be sure to get a system that would allow us to grow different parts of the system and not always have identical workstations and storage options."

Coonfer went through the rigorous RFP process that's required by law, since UCLA is a public university. He had to find a system that had proven reliability over an extended period of time, so that the department could justify the expense of the new technology. "Cost did play a part in our choice, but mostly it was the confidence that we'd be able to achieve a steady throughput with the media," Coonfer says.

UCLA decided to partner with Vixel Corp. to construct a Fibre Channel storage area network (SAN) with 3.4 terabytes of storage capacity. The new system allowed the 36 student workstations to simultaneously access the network and perform digital post-production work.

Since implementing the SAN, the lab has not lost a single student project. It has also grown to serve a much larger percentage of the school's students. Before the new system, about 20% of graduate film students were making use of the lab each year. For the first year after implementation, Coonfer says, the goal was to have 60 students using the lab (which would have included almost all of the grad students working in the post-production arena). Within the first two months, the lab had 120 students, which included some undergraduates as well.

"We haven't had any trouble in growing our system at either end," Coonfer says, "the workstation end or the storage end."

One of the most important benefits of the new system has been students' exposure to cutting-edge industry tools. "As the success of digital film productions grows, the industry will demand workers with these skills," Coonfer says. "And we're able to give more and more of them the skills they need."

After installing the new SAN and increasing the number of workstations in the lab, Coonfer had representatives from Universal Studios, Sony and other top film studios dropping by to see how the school had set up its lab.

"The film industry has been one of the early adopters of Fibre Channel hardware because of their increasing, constant thirst for bandwidth," says Claude Lorenson, director of product marketing for Vixel, which is based in Bothell, Wash. "The film industry is the one vertical that makes decisions based on performance, rather than ease of use or management capabilities."

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For more on UCLA's film school visit its Web site.

Find out more on Vixel here.

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This was first published in February 2003

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