Videography - March 1997

525 Productions Moves Data Faster Than a Speeding Bullet
By Sheldon Liebman

There's a big difference between writing about exciting new technology and talking to the people who actually use it. As we've explored many new methods for creating fast networks, it sometimes seems that we're covering a lot of manufacturers but few installations. Thankfully, that isn't the case with this story. Here, we have a real user doing real work with real products.

At 525 Productions in Hollywood, their name makes it pretty obvious that they do video. What isn't obvious is how quickly they can do it. Since July of last year, 525 has been using a Fibre Channel network built around Prisa Networks NetFX network adapters.

One of the television shows that 525 Productions works on is Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. Since installing the Fibre Channel network, Superman isn't the only thing that's faster than a speeding bullet. According to Albert Soto, the Graphic Systems Engineer at 525, "the speed we are getting (moving data) between systems is about 70 MegaBytes per second using Fibre Channel." Before installing the fast network, the company utilized a switched Ethernet network moving at a little over 1 MegaByte per second. Needless to say, this is a significant improvement.

It's so significant that 525 has been able to absorb the increasing amount of film work coming into the facility. "The fast network allows us to accomplish both film and video work more efficiently," adds Soto.

Fast networking loses some of its effect if you connect it to slow machines, but this isn't the case at 525. Their network is connected to a set of four SGI Onyx workstations. Three of these stations are running Discreet Logic's Inferno software and the other system has a Discreet Logic Flame installed. Functionally, both Flame and Inferno provide high-end compositing and special effects, but the Inferno software supports both film and video resolutions as well as enhanced color depth. Originally, 525 had three Flames, but they upgraded them to the higher end Inferno systems at the same time the new network was installed. They also purchased another Flame at that point, which Soto suggests could be upgraded to an Inferno at some point in the near future.

For storage, 525 currently uses seven Discreet Logic Stone disk arrays. These are connected directly to the Onyx workstations using multiple channels of Fast and Wide SCSI. Ultimately, Soto hopes that 525 can use Fibre Channel to connect other disk arrays to the system. They have evaluated a Fibre Channel array from Ciprico and are interested in the benefits it can provide for network storage.

Why Fibre Channel?
When 525 decided to get a fast network, they looked long and hard at the choices that were available. In addition to the Fibre Channel solution offered by Prisa, they also evaluated Fast Ethernet, ATM and HIPPI architectures. Ultimately, says Soto, "we decided Fibre Channel offered the best combination of speed and cost." The speed came not only from the Fibre Channel connections, but also from the Prisa product. "They have the only full-speed HIO adapters made for SGI systems," adds Soto. He also liked the flexibility to use Fibre Channel both to connect between machines and to connect directly to storage devices.

Another consideration that shifted the decision toward Fibre Channel was the ability to have connections that stretch up to 2 Kilometers between devices. Neither the ATM nor HIPPI solutions 525 evaluated could provide that type of distance without repeaters or extenders of some type. Today, all of 525's SGI machines are in a single building, but they actually have two buildings that are separated by a parking lot. "We've already installed Fibre under the parking lot," explains Soto, so extending the network between the two buildings will not be an issue.

Although they use the fast network to move data between their SGIs, 525 still uses their Ethernet backbone to move data between their Macs and PCs, as well as from the SGIs to these other computers. Eventually, Soto would like to see that network replaced by Fibre Channel too. "We're talking to someone about doing that," he says. "The vision we have is to have all the desktops, Mac, PC and SGI, share a pool of information via Fibre Channel."

Fast Enough for TV Work
It's entirely understandable that Soto wants to see the whole facility on Fibre Channel. After all, it's had a significant effect on 525's ability to get projects completed. Before Fibre Channel, moving image files around the facility was a slow and painful process. Even if the files were only 2 MegaBytes each, transferring a second of video between systems took over a minute. When you're dealing with music videos and television shows, those times can really add up. With Fibre Channel, a 30-second piece consisting of the same 2 MegaByte frames can be transferred in approximately 30 seconds.

"Everyone feels more comfortable now that we can move data around so much more quickly," says Soto. "If we have technical difficulties on a system and we need to move to another one, it's not a daunting task." In fact, that's exactly what happened during one recent weekend. According to Soto, "We had a video fault on one system and had to move all the final cuts to another system to meet the deadline." Without the Fibre Channel network, he adds, "it would have been a delivery disaster."

The faster network also enables multiple people at 525 to collaborate on a project. "There are times when we have enhanced effects shots between two systems," says Soto. In those cases, "two systems shared information that existed only on one." They've also been able to mix elements. "We've worked on video versions of film projects to speed up the process and transmitted both data and setups over the Fibre Channel network," explains Soto.

Although their Fibre Channel installation is new, it's been very stable and has dramatically improved access to 525's network. They're also pleased with how responsive Prisa has been to their requests. "We made suggestions to Prisa and they accommodated our needs," claims Soto. As 525 Productions continues to expand into the future, those needs will continue to grow. And Soto expects that Fibre Channel will continue to meet them.

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