Penny wise and bandwidth foolish
A company's SAN experience
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Northern Oklahoma College tried to save money on its SAN, but it found itself with an inadequate solution, forcing the school to start over.
By Rick Cook
When Northern Oklahoma College set up its state-of-the-art media lab three years ago, it tried to save money on the storage area network (SAN). It ended up buying a peck of trouble. "It was a nightmare," says Piyush Patel, director of multimedia and digital communications at Northern Oklahoma College. "With everyone on the system it would take over 30 minutes to shoot over a 100M byte file."
This was a serious problem because the 23 students in the Tonkawa, Okla.-based college's multimedia program generate a lot of 100M byte (and larger) files. The program is a boot camp for multimedia -- an intense, 16-week course with students in class six days a week, eight hours a day. Starting from scratch, the students produce a complete short feature by the end of the course. "Because the students are in class six days a week, we didn't want them to share a workstation. Each student is given a workstation and 24-hour access," he says.
The goal is to produce graduates who can compete with the graduates of four-year colleges for jobs in multimedia production, character animation and related fields. The students' files are all stored in about a terabyte of SAN storage and accessed over the SAN. Since modern multimedia production often involves collaboration, it is not unusual to have all the students accessing and making changes to the same file simultaneously.
Hubs are cheaper than switches, Patel notes, so originally the SAN was set up with four hubs, each supporting four users, to handle switching on the network. However the hubs didn't have the bandwidth to handle 23 students accessing huge files simultaneously. "By the time we split 23 clients off the drives in hubs, we had zero bandwidth," Patel says. "It was faster to go through the Ethernet."
The solution was to go to switches. Now the lab runs on two Bothell, Wash.-based Vixel Corp. 7200 switches, each with 16 ports. Each Intergraph TDZ 2000 GX1 (Xeon-based) workstation has a dedicated port on a switch and 100M bytes of bandwidth. As a result, Patel says, it takes just about a second to move a 100M byte file over the network. The system was originally set up using Windows NT, but the college has since switched to Windows 2000.
Conceptually, the process of streaming video editing isn't that much different from the old Movieola. Just as a film editor selected sequences of frames from different cameras and different takes and spliced them together to produce an edited scene, a video editor takes pieces from several different video files and combines them into an edited scene in another file. However, both the technology and the demands it makes on the systems are completely different from a Movieola. First, a video editor is typically working with a minimum of three video streams -- two inputs and an output. Often there are more, especially when sound is being edited in. With "a workstation running uncompressed standard definition video with audio, we're seeing 35M bit/sec," says Brad Stark, product marketing manager for Vixel. "As you move to high definition TV (HDTV), the bandwidth requirements get into the 200M bit/sec range."
In some ways the educational environment is even more demanding than the real world. Although major film studios may have networks with hundreds of seats, most video editing today is done in workgroups of five or six people per SAN. In a college it makes more sense to have as many seats as there are class members. The Northern Oklahoma College lab is the world's largest Media 100 iFinish streaming media production systems laboratory in the world.
"It's a really cherry setup," Patel says of the lab's new configuration. Since installing the switches the SAN's performance has been excellent, he says.
For additional information about Vixel, visit its Web site.
For additional information on the North Oklahoma College multimedia lab, visit the lab's Web site.
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