Visual effects studio sticks with DAS

Although the trend is toward networked storage configurations such as SAN and NAS, Stargate Digital is sticking with direct-attached storage.

By Michele Hope

Fans of popular TV shows like E.R. or Crossing Jordan or mini-series like Spartacus might be surprised to learn how the episodes look when they first arrive at Pasadena, CA-based Stargate Digital, a production studio that has worked on a number of films and shows. In place of scenes on E.R. occurring outside the hospital's Chicago location or at a nearby train station platform, the visual effects studio receives the scenes of the shows' actors shot against green screens. Their job? To replace each scene with sometimes up to hundreds of layers of 2D and 3D renderings to make the actors appear against a realistic, outdoor Chicago backdrop.

Joseph Meier, Stargate's director of IT, says that the smoke-and-mirrors resulting from the efforts of the company's 3D and 2D artists and compositors can take up a huge volume of processing power and storage capacity. Meier and his IT staff manage more than 22TB of storage content for Stargate, and he sees his staff's role as twofold: to ensure efficient workflows with minimal interruptions, and to implement affordable systems that they can basically plug in and let run without intervention.

To manage digital data such as the TV mini-series Spartacus, Stargate Digital studios simplified its IT infrastructure to a single Windows-based platform and opted for discrete disk storage directly attached to its server network.
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Although 22TB of storage may suggest the need for networked storage such as SAN or NAS, Meier opted to go with a few discrete pools of storage directly attached to key servers on the network. "A SAN would not make financial sense for us. We figured out clever ways to keep the traffic down and give everybody access to the information on the drives, which has improved workflow as well as disaster recovery."

The company's storage consists of several disk arrays directly attached to each of seven servers on the company's Gigabit Ethernet network. The storage resources currently include four Nexsan Technologies InfiniSAN ATABoy2 disk arrays and some Infortrend RAID arrays that Stargate purchased through Zzyzx Peripherals.

To keep track of all the shots moving through Stargate's system, Meier and his team implemented a custom SQL Server-based tracking system. "The shots themselves live in a traditional Windows-based file folder, since they need to be accessible by everybody so they all know where the base footage is," Meier explains. Contents of the folders might include such elements as ancillary digital stills or other files containing high-resolution, high-definition footage shot as background by Stargate's photographers or company founder Sam Nicholson.

Some of the major challenges faced by the IT team involve keeping network traffic flowing at a reasonable pace. "Optimizing the network is a huge job that has required a lot of understanding of where the bottlenecks are," says Meier. "When you're moving as much data as we are, you need to keep the response times on the network to an absolute minimum so people don't have to wait for, say, 10 seconds when they click on the icon for the network drive."

During the company's peak production period, Meier ranks reliability high on his IT priority list. "We need absolute reliability. Once we're in a production season here, I don't have time to rip something out and search for a replacement," he says. "In a business like this, you want stuff to be like a toaster or a refrigerator. You just turn it on and it runs."

Regarding storage, Meier reports that the four ATABoy2 disk arrays, which are in nearly continuous operation, fit his stringent reliability requirements. "Out of all the disk arrays we've used, we've had the fewest number of problems with those units," he says. The disk arrays are based on the ATA disk interface.

Also on the storage front, Meier applauds the reliability and performance of automated tape libraries from Qualstar, which Stargate uses for routine backups in conjunction with Veritas' Backup Exec software. The Qualstar libraries are based on Sony's Super AIT (SAIT) tape format. Stargate Digital routinely achieves sustained backup rates of 1.8TB per minute. "With the Sony tape drives, we are reaching the theoretical maximum throughput of almost 30MBps," says Meier. SAIT tape cartridges hold 500GB of uncompressed data per cartridge.

Meier is confident with Stargate's current mix of IT systems, storage, and custom software and tracking systems (at more than 22TB and growing) that keeps the information flowing smoothly. In fact, he sees the ability to move information efficiently as an instrumental part of Stargate's success. "In the last three to four years, the amount of work here has increased exponentially, and one of the reasons we've been successful is that we realized early on that workflow is key."

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