Small studio requires huge storage

Cry Havoc uses disk arrays based on the latest generation of the venerable SCSI disk drive interface for high capacity and high performance.

By Michele Hope

Going from garage-style start-up to producing TV documentaries for stations like Fine Living and The Discovery Channel can involve a few growing pains along the way. In the case of Venice, CA-based Cry Havoc Productions, some of these pains revolved around getting its storage capacities and performance to keep up with an accelerating business that currently includes juggling multiple documentaries in post-production at the same time.

A few years ago, Dylan Weiss, Cry Havoc's chief executive officer and president—along with successful TV show producer (and father) Milt, and long-time film school friend, Gary Copeland—launched Cry Havoc after a series of kitchen table discussions about the types of projects they wanted to create.

Fade into the present… Today, Weiss spends much of his time directing and editing documentaries such as Driving Design, a one-hour documentary about how cars of the future will be designed that aired this spring on The Discovery Channel. Weiss' three-person team is also juggling production and post-production work on documentaries that cover classic car restoration and the history of Ducati motorcycles.

In a world where 30 to 35 tapes of raw film footage for one documentary can consume as much as 800TB of disk space, Weiss says it pays to choose your disk storage systems wisely. And when it comes to learning about the types of disk storage that can best support rapidly growing production requirements, Weiss had plenty of challenges along the way.

Deadlines and disk problems

Back in his college days, Weiss used an Apple Macintosh system for film editing and production. To support his storage requirements, he used disk drives based on the FireWire interface, which features a high-speed serial bus capable of moving large quantities of data from computer to disk. Unfortunately, problems with the drives tended to crop up right around crucial film delivery deadlines. "I was right in the middle of doing a thesis project when one of the drives suddenly had an overheating problem," Weiss recalls. "The drive manufacturer sent me a replacement drive, but then another drive was slowing down. When I asked the manufacturer for help, it was like pulling teeth."

Weiss also noticed that as the FireWire drive capacity filled up, performance suffered. "I couldn't fill it up past 15GB or it would slow down considerably," he says.

Cry Havoc relies on new-generation Ultra320 SCSI-based disk arrays for its storage needs while producing TV documentaries such as Driving Design for The Discovery Channel.
Click here to enlarge image

To meet its growing data requirements and the needs of its Apple Macintosh Digital Video (DV) editing software—Final Cut—Cry Havoc tried out a number of different storage systems.

The studio eventually chose 1.2TB Media- Vault disk arrays from Huge Systems, an Agoura Hills, CA, vendor that specializes in storage systems for video applications. "It seemed to be the only disk system that could give us the speed we need," says Weiss. He also liked the fact that the arrays take up a very small footprint. Once they installed the first MediaVault array about a year ago, the Cry Havoc team began to notice improvements in workflow, such as the fact that they didn't need to wait anymore for images to render on-screen.

After Cry Havoc set up the array at RAID 0 (which is optimized for high-speed performance and can be used for transmission of high-definition [HD] film footage), Weiss had plenty of speed to run multiple editing streams of standard-definition (SD).footage. "I can now have two pieces of video running at the same time, with effects on both of them such as performing color correction, resizing, etc.," says Weiss. "One thing that sped up my workflow in the editing stream—where I'm pushing deadlines and doing real-time effects on multiple pieces of video—is that I no longer have to wait for things to render. I simply hit 'Play' and see the effects run in real time."

Since the Cry Havoc team shoots and edits in SD footage, as opposed to HD, they only need to process each 2K frame at between 28MBps and 32MBps, as opposed to the 120MBps to 180MBps required for HD footage. Since they now have both an HD-capable video capture card (from the Pinnacle CineWave family) and an HD-capable disk array, the team has found it can use the extra speed capabilities in the array to streamline the editing process. "In terms of standard-definition editing, it now allows me to edit faster. It decreases the amount of time we have to be editing, increases the time we have to make the client happy, and allows us to budget more effectively," says Weiss.

Beyond its fast access speeds, Weiss was also pleased with the reliability of the Huge Systems disk array. "By the time a project wraps, that 1.2TB system has everything that went into the show on it. It's of paramount importance that the disk system doesn't crash or data gets corrupted, because you have a lot of original material on there that doesn't exist on video tape." Weiss, who typically puts about 800GB of raw film footage on a 1.2TB array, notes that it's not uncommon for the array to stay full for four months or more until a documentary is completed.

In just over a year, Cry Havoc has grown from one Huge Systems disk array to four arrays. The studio now has two 1.2TB MediaVault U-320R Max (single-channel) disk arrays and two 1.2TB MediaVault U-320S Dual Max (dual-channel) arrays.

The U-320 systems are based on the latest generation of the SCSI interface—Ultra320 SCSI, which is theoretically capable of transmission speeds of up to 320MBps per channel. Huge Systems claims that the storage subsystems are optimized for non-linear and high-bandwidth applications such as HDTV, uncompressed broadcast video storage, content creation, and other high-performance applications. The arrays can be scaled up to 2.5TB per system and include dual SCSI channels.

At Cry Havoc, each pair of disk arrays is daisy-chained together and used for storing footage from separate documentaries the studio is producing, with one array used for primary storage and the second in the pair for redundant storage. The studio backs up all changes nightly to the second storage array in each pair. Weiss notes that routine backups—which used to take all night with his previous disk systems—can now be completed via the SCSI connection on his Huge Systems arrays in just a few hours.

With the current four-array setup, Weiss says the studio now has plenty of room to grow. Although Cry Havoc isn't producing anything close to 4K files for the next Mission Impossible, Weiss says that "we still need lots of speed, and very high capacity and reliability, at a low price point."

Who ya gonna call?

In addition to the high performance they've gained from the disk arrays, Weiss applauds the support he received from Huge Systems, beginning with a quirky incompatibility problem between the SCSI version on the array and a recent Mac operating system upgrade. Freezing access to the storage, this problem reared its head about 10 days prior to Cry Havoc's final cut delivery deadline of its first documentary for the Fine Living network.

A call to Huge Systems resulted in an immediate drive replacement via FedEx and a support representative coming out to the studio to resolve the problem. In just under two days, the studio was back in business. "We had been so disappointed at so many levels with other disk system vendors that it was shocking to find a company that offered this type of support," Weiss says.

Despite rapidly evolving technologies in the storage market, Weiss thinks that the studio's current storage configuration will be good for at least the next year. "Every year at NAB [the National Association of Broadcasters show], there are new drive formats, new standards, and faster data rates. It's hard to say the computer system we bought, an Apple G5, is going to be viable for us next year. There will be something bigger and faster, and we'll probably need it, but two things won't change in our edit suite: the production monitor and the disk systems."

Michele Hope is a freelance writer and owner of TheStorageWriter.com. She can be reached at mhope@thestoragewriter.com.

This article was originally published on September 01, 2004