SAN delivers six-month payback for Showtime

By Elizabeth Ferrarini

Showtime Networks Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Viacom, owns the premium television networks Showtime, The Movie Channel, and Flix, and operates the Sundance Channel. These networks make up about nine channels of programming.

Based at Showtime's New York City headquarters, the Red Group-an in-house advertising agency-has a staff of 75 professionals and a $15-million budget. The group, which produces printed collateral promoting Showtime's programming, consists of 15 designers and about 12 production specialists. The monthly workload includes as many as 250 print jobs, ranging from newspaper ads to billboard posters.

Because all of the pre-press work is done in-house, the production specialists find themselves retouching file sizes in the gigabyte range. The pressure to produce high-quality prints forces designers to push the creative envelope and deal with huge PhotoShop files.

Gagging on gigabytes

Paul Nicholson, the director who oversees the Red Group's print operation in the computer graphics studio, says that when it comes to information technology, the agency has to abide by standards set by Viacom. When Nicholson joined Showtime, the agency had been struggling to move large files around a Token Ring shared network. To work on specific files, individuals had to copy them from the server via the network to desktop Macintoshes-a process that led to many problems.

To alleviate the problem, Showtime upgraded to a 10BaseT Ethernet network. "I begged the corporate IT department to let us switch to a 10BaseT network," says Nicholson, "and at first this network felt like a lifesaver, but we quickly realized its limitations."

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Nicholson put a variety of steps in place to look at better ways to move and keep track of the large files. One of the peer-to-peer file-sharing techniques included slugging every job at the bottom of every printout and logging whose machine the file was on. The designers, especially, often forgot to update slugs or delete files after they had moved them.

Next, Nicholson asked the production specialists and designers handling the large print files to keep track of when they first looked for files, when they copied files, how long it took them to open files in PhotoShop, and how long it took them to save a file. "We found that individuals spent up to 60% of their time doing tasks not related to productive work. And every minute we wasted cost us money," says Nicholson.

Based on the results of the study, Nicholson continued to explore ways to increase the productivity of his staff. He nixed the idea of local RAID storage, which would offer good performance, but wouldn't solve the problem of copying files over the network and keeping track of them. Moving to a faster IP-based network, such as Mbit or Gbit Ethernet, required the approval of Viacom's IT department. "And any shared IP-based network would see a lot of traffic flying all over the place with 20 individuals trying to open, save, copy, and print gigabyte files at the same time," says Nicholson.

SAN solution

While he was researching storage alternatives, Nicholson discovered storage area network (SAN) technology. A SAN with file-sharing software would allow Nicholson to move his staff off the 10BaseT network and onto their own network, providing direct access to one storage pool without going through servers. Nicholson would also be able to control and easily grow SAN capacity.

Because the Showtime building was already wired for fiber-optic cable, the SAN could take advantage of high-transmission speeds offered by Fibre Channel on the existing fiber cables. The company didn't have to worry about the cost of installing new cables. The $150,000 price tag for the SAN included storage hardware, software, and Fibre Channel switches.

Despite the steep price for the SAN, it took Nicholson only 10 minutes to convince his managers to spend the money. "Based on the study I had done, I guaranteed them that within a year we would see a payback from the SAN," he says. The payback period turned out to be much quicker: six months.

Nicholson first installed a 350MB Clarion 5400 Fibre Channel RAID system and Windows NT servers from Dell and ran fiber-optic cables from these devices to a switch in the wiring closet on his floor. He also ran fiber-optic cables to the Mac workstations, with PCI cards in each workstation.

Mercury Computer Systems' SANergy, which at the time ran only on Windows NT, became the crucial software that gave the SAN its file-sharing capabilities. (IBM/Tivoli subsequently acquired Mercury and the SANergy product line. The software now runs on NT, Macintosh, and Solaris platforms.) Nicholson, a Mac maven, spent a week reviewing Windows NT so he could install the software and tap into the switching and IP addresses in an NT environment.

SANergy handles all file management functions. The software formats files on the disk in NTFS, which both Windows PCs and Macs can read. Running on its own Windows NT server, SANergy takes requests in CIFS format from the Mac workstations and redirects them to the RAID storage system, without going through the server connected to the storage. The files travel in NTFS format from the RAID system to the Macs. The software also keeps track of access privileges. For example, if someone is working on a file, it locks the file so it can't be accessed and written over.

Nicholson says SANergy has enabled him to set up one big storage pool for the staff. "They can open, save, and print documents at the same time," he explains. Nicholson has divided the SAN storage into two volumes-a high-resolution image library and a current work library-separated into folders. To mount these volumes on their desktops, users go to the Chooser window and select the volume. The Mac sees the volumes as if they were on a local SCSI drive. "The SAN is completely invisible to users," says Nicholson. Because the SAN has access to the IP network, users can connect to the rest of the organization for applications such as e-mail.

SANergy also dramatically reduced mistakes on completed files. "Because of all the file copying we were doing before, the wrong files often got put on the disks going to the printer," says Nicholson. Other vendors' products provide similar volume sharing, but not file sharing, he adds. "With volume sharing, each person on the SAN needs their own volume or partition of the SAN. If you need to share work, you have to copy from one volume to the other. You still have to worry about file duplication."

Overall, the SAN, which doesn't carry the heavy overhead of the IP network, has provided Nicholson with good transmission speed over Fibre Channel. However, it's not the 100MBps that Fibre Channel vendors tout. Nicholson says the actual speed from Fibre Channel depends on the storage system's RAID level and redundancy, as well as the application. "We're getting about 55MBps raw speed with a fully redundant RAID-3 storage system. And the Mac operating system and PhotoShop can limit the speed to 25MBps."

During the SAN's first year of operation, Nicholson reduced his staff by 30%, yet productivity doubled. "The SAN's speed and the file sharing capabilities have allowed us to take on more work with a smaller staff," says Nicholson. "We now spend more time making sure the jobs are correct and perfecting the retouching. Overall, we've achieved incredible productivity statistics as a result of the SAN."

This case study was based on a presentation given at the Seybold 2000 conference.

Elizabeth Ferrarini is a freelance writer in Boston, and a regular contributor to InfoStor.

This article was originally published on June 01, 2000