Tippett’s SAN speeds data flow

Berkeley, CA-based Tippett Studio has a 20-year history of creating effects for feature films and commercials, including the recently released films Constantine and Son of the Mask.

Over the past few years, Tippett repeatedly needed to acquire more storage to accommodate both the growing complexity of scenes it produces and the larger sizes of rendered files. One example is the storage consumed for just one visually rich shot Tippett developed for the film Matrix Revolutions.

According to Dan McNamara, Tippett’s director of operations, the studio had to develop a shot panning around a field filled with machine creatures. Tippett artists carefully rendered a number of elements, including a lot of deep shadows and shaded areas, to bring more depth to the scene. That scene alone required terabytes of storage capacity.

Backing up such large data sets to the company’s DLT tape library was creating bottlenecks on the network. According to McNamara, backups started to consume as much as 25% of network bandwidth and began to impede the production of other tasks in the workflow.

Tippett realized that it had to change its underlying storage architecture, which had consisted of a 5TB TP9400 storage array from SGI and a 1.2TB EMC Clariion array.

“One requirement was to be able to easily integrate our existing storage systems into the new system,” explains McNamara. “We also wanted to tie it into our backup system so that our tape library could back up the main file systems off the network. With our requirements, a SAN architecture was a necessity.”

Tippett Studio uses SGI InfiniteStorage systems and CXFS shared file system for a variety of visual effects projects for TV commercials and films, including work on Son of the Mask.
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Tippett evaluated a number of vendors’ products before finally deciding on SGI’s InfiniteStorage solution and CXFS shared file system. Tippett’s SAN architecture initially included a 10TB SGI TP9500 disk array that connects to the studio’s other storage devices and servers via two 16-port Fibre Channel SAN switches from Brocade.

Since then, Tippett added 2TB of storage and upgraded several of its SGI Origin 350 servers from four to eight processors. The studio is also in the process of adding another TP9500 array with an extra 10TB.

Tippett’s experience with the SAN has been positive, especially in the ease with which the IT team can now move data sets around in the SAN without impacting users at work-stations. Using SGI’s FailSafe Cluster HA software, administrators can now migrate data from file system to file system, or from primary to secondary/backup storage systems, without impacting users.

Backups now run off the Fibre Channel SAN and do not impact the Ethernet network. Tippett uses an Origin 300 server with Legato NetWorker backup software to back up its files to a 600-slot Sony AIT tape library.

How has the new storage architecture helped improve workflows? “Before, we had to be very frugal about the number of elements we kept around. Because we had a limited amount of disk available, we had to very quickly pull material offline,” says McNamara.

“The added storage now allows the artists to be more creative in terms of the elements they have to choose from to create the final composite. There’s more opportunity to mix and match elements across different rendered outputs.”

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

This article was originally published on March 01, 2005