Videography/TVB Europe - April 1997

Design Media Gets Fast Access at the CentricStor
By Sheldon Liebman

Collaboration exists at many levels. In the world of video production, it often refers to the process by which many people work together to on a project. As the worlds of computers and video become more closely intertwined, however, it can also refer to the process by which many companies come together to provide a solution to a production problem.

This is the case at Design Media, a 20-year-old media production group located in San Francisco, CA. At Design Media, they create broadcast and corporate video production, much of it concentrated in the areas of instruction and training. Over the past few years, they've made a fairly heavy investment in non-linear editing and graphics technology. In their facility, this centers around Apple Macintosh 9500 computers running Media 100 for editing and Adobe After Affects for special effects, plus a wide variety of other packages.

When Design Media started adding digital video systems to their 5500 square foot, two story facility, they didn't think about the need to network them together. As a result, the company has three suites that are located in different parts of the building. According to Robert Russo, Post Production Supervisor for the company, "The first editing room is in one corner of the office, the second is at the opposite corner and our graphics workstation is on the second floor." To share files between these systems, the company initially used the "sneakernet" method.

Momma Needs a New Pair of Shoes
Last year, Design Media decided it was critical that they find a way to network their systems together and to share information between them. At this point, it would have been great if they had already created a video about installing a fast network. Unfortunately, they weren't that lucky, so they looked for a reseller who was familiar with the issues and could help them get a fast network installed.

Their search led them to EIS, a San Francisco based Systems Integrator with a Digital Video Group specializing in non-linear video production. EIS had already spent some time looking at the issues of workgroup computing and efficient workflow, so Design Media brought them in to install a fast network.

When EIS first started looking at solutions for Design Media, the number of fast storage and networking products that could actually be installed was very limited. They had to spend a lot of time separating the promises of products and technologies from the reality. Because of this, they initially recommended and installed a solution based on shared access to an array of Fast SCSI disks.

Although the theoretical performance of the Fast SCSI solution should have been able to handle Design Media's requirements, there were some issues with the control software for the disks. As a result, the actual throughput of the system was too low for a video environment.

"For people who are already working in a SCSI environment," explains Tal Thompson, a consultant with EIS, "this Fast SCSI solution would be excellent. Unfortunately, the demands of streaming real-time video resulted in some arbitration problems and was very frustrating for Design Media." The biggest problem was that if any one machine was shut down or rebooted, the entire network crashed.

In an attempt to improve the performance of the network, Design Media's Russo spent lots of time with EIS and with the manufacturer of the software trying to work around these problems. Ultimately, they decided that there had to be a better solution out there and started a new search for alternatives.

SSA, That's a Pretty Fast Network
The timing of this search coincided with this year's MacWorld show in San Francisco. At the show, Thompson and Design Media's Norman Kurtin had an opportunity to look at all the latest and greatest technology for that platform. One of the things they found was a Pathlight Technology (Ithaca, NY) hotel suite showcasing SSA solutions for Macintosh.

Over the next few days, Thompson, Kurtin and Alex Lieb, Pathlight's Vice President, Sales and Marketing put the Media 100 systems in the Pathlight suite through a wide range of tests to determine whether SSA could provide the reliability and performance that Design Media needed.

When something goes wrong with a product you purchase, that's the first thing you look at when you're searching for the replacement. In this case, the major test was to turn off machines and see how that affected the network. "They crashed the Media 100s on purpose," comments Russo, "and the other systems worked fine."

Thompson was also impressed with what he saw of SSA. "(It) eliminates the server altogether and also the need to transfer files. All of the information that's written to the disks is just there for everyone to read. Plus, the arbitration issue goes away with this technology."

By the time MacWorld was over, Design Media and EIS had agreed that the Fast SCSI system needed to be replaced with a SSA network. Approximately one month later, Pathlight's ImageNET II was installed. The system, which was purchased as a three-seat bundle, includes network adapter cards, control software and fast storage. The adapter cards are Pathlight's StreamLine-PCI which occupy one PCI slot in each of the Mac 9500 machines.

Although Design Media liked the MicroNet SCSI drives that they had with their original solution, these couldn't be used with the SSA network. Instead, the installation uses a Siemens Nixdorf (Munich, Germany) CentricStor F-Series disk array. These products started shipping to the video/teleproduction industry late last year after being introduced at the IBC show in September, 1996. Siemens and Pathlight are working closely together to provide a wide range of high-speed SSA storage solutions.

Design Media opted for the 19" rack mountable SSA Disk Drawer model with twelve 9 GB disk drives for a total of 108 GB of storage that is shared by the three suites in the facility. Using Pathlight's ImageRAID software, which was developed in cooperation with Conley Corporation (Cambridge, MA), the disks were separated into two RAID arrays of six drives each. The RAID arrays are further segmented into multiple volumes that can be accessed from any of the machines. This process is accomplished through the use of Pathlight's ImageNET II Volume Sharing software, which was developed with Mercury Computer Systems (Chelmsford, MA). "We're very comfortable with using Siemens drives," says Russo. "They are good machines."

They're also flexible thanks to SSA and the ImageNET II software. By changing who has read and write access to which volumes, you can effectively tie different amounts of storage to each workstation. "If someone does Offline in Edit 2 and then needs to get into rendering and special effects in Edit 1," explains Russo, "we just transfer the drives from one machine to the other and access the information. Other times, both machines need the same source," so they can be reconfigured to read the same volumes and write to different ones.

You can also reallocate the storage for each system based on the jobs that come in. "I was doing a short little trailer," says Russo, "and I took one Gig off Edit 1 and put it onto Edit 2. You can allocate any configuration of files that you want." For example, if someone has a long-form project that needs 70-80 GB of storage, the system can be configured to let any of the machines write to that large amount of space. If another job only needs 20 GB, the storage can be reallocated easily.

Ready for Today and Tomorrow
In order to be certain that the installation went easily as well, Pathlight sent Andy Antal, Manager of Customer and Technical Support, to supervise the process. According to Antal, "We did it all in one day except for some extra lengths of cable." In the end, the cables they used were all 20 meters long, which is longer than they actually needed to connect the machines and the disk array. The extra length allows some flexibility if Design Media decides to change equipment in the future.

For example, they may decide to move the disks. One interesting aspect of the installation is that in a SSA network, the drives themselves don't need to "belong" to any one machine. The 108 GB of storage that's installed is not hardwired to a single machine. Instead, it just sits on the network as "serverless storage." This means that the physical location of the Siemens CentricStor was not predefined by the locations of the three suites at Design Media. For now, "the Siemens Drawer is in the room next to Edit 1," says Russo.

They may also decide to add more equipment. SSA supports up to 128 devices on a network and the Design Media installation currently only has 15 (12 disks and 3 workstations). Of course, adding more machines means more network activity, but this is one area where SSA really shines.

According to Juergen Heidegger, Director OEM Marketing and Sales for Siemens Nixdorf Information Systems, "SSA's ability to have multiple conversations on a loop ("Spatial Reuse") provides superior implementations for (the video industry)." The architecture also provides "Inherent reliability and availability (no single point of failure) due to SSA's full duplex, bi-directional links and dual ports," he adds.

Of course, once you exceed the total available bandwidth of the network, adding equipment can impact performance. This is not likely to happen at Design Media in the near future based on the bandwidth they are currently using. Although determining the exact speed of a network is an inexact science, there are a few things that are known about Design Media's installation.

The SSA network itself is SSA-80, which is capable of sustained transfers of 80 MB/second. At its maximum throughput, the Siemens Nixdorf disk array can also provide that much performance. The real limiting factor at this point is the PCI bus of the Macs. "The Macs support around 30 MB/sec per machine," says Antal. Since it is unlikely that all the machines would be requesting that much data at the same time, Design Media should be able to add more machines without seeing any performance loss.

Best of All, It Works!
Expanding is nice, and Design Media's Russo admits that they are already thinking about adding more machines. But it's more important to him that the system works today. "We had to throw (the SSA network) in and install (it) in two days," says Russo. "We spent a good 10 hours unloading and transferring (material from the Fast SCSI system) and we had to do some file management." At the end of that time, though, Design Media had a working system. And it's still working, thanks to the collaboration between Pathlight Technology, Conley Corporation, Mercury Computer Systems, Siemens Nixdorf and EIS.

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