Keeping It Simple
Issue: Volume: 27 Issue: 9 (September 2004)

Keeping It Simple

When it comes to managing the many terabytes of visual effects content produced by Stargate Digital for TV productions such as Spartacus and ER, the studio's director of IT Joseph Meier says that his staff's job is twofold: It must ensure efficient work flows with minimal interruptions and implement affordable systems that it can basically plug in and let run without intervention.

Given Stargate Digital's data explosion over the past few years—now at more than 22tb and growing—Meier's first step toward fulfilling his role was to simplify the company's IT infrastructure. "In the past, we had a lot of Macs and SGI systems as well as Windows-based platforms. Moving information across the platforms was more trouble than it was worth," says Meier. The team's solution was to reduce the number of operating systems in use to just one—Microsoft Windows. "Having a single platform makes information flow and work flow more efficient," he says.

Meier also decided to keep it simple with respect to storage. Although 22tb of storage may suggest the need for networked storage—such as a storage area network (SAN) or network-attached storage (NAS)—Meier opted instead to go with a few discrete pools of disk 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 work flow as well as disaster recovery."

The company's storage consists of 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 several Infortrend RAID arrays that Stargate purchased through Zzyzx Peripherals.
To manage digital data for productions such as the TV miniseries Spartacus (above), Stargate Digital simplified its IT infrastructure to a single Windows-based platform and opted for discrete disk storage directly attached to its server network.

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 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."

Stargate's peak activity period tends to follow the television industry's intense production schedule. "From late March to early June, during the pilot season, it's horrendous around here. People are working around the clock. If we didn't have such an efficient pipeline to move the data, we could never do it," says Meier.

During this cycle, avoiding downtime is job one. "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," Meier says. "In a business like this, you want your equipment to be like a toaster or a refrigerator. You just turn it on and it runs."

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

Meier also relies on the performance of automated tape libraries from Qualstar, which Stargate uses for routine backups in conjunction with Veritas's BackupExec software. The libraries are stored on Sony's Super AIT (SAIT) format tapes, each of which holds 500gb of uncompressed data. With the Sony tape drives, Stargate Digital routinely achieves sustained backup rates of 1.8tb/min. "We are reaching the theoretical maximum throughput of almost 30mb/sec," says Meier.

As Stargate's workload continues to grow, Meier is confident that the studio's current mix of IT systems, storage, custom software, and tracking systems will keep the digital content flowing smoothly. In fact, he sees the ability to move data efficiently as an instrumental part of Stargate's success. "In the past 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 work flow is key."