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Navigating the Land Mine of Centralized Media Storage

COW Library : SAN - Storage Area Networks : Dennis Kutchera : Navigating the Land Mine of Centralized Media Storage
CreativeCOW presents Navigating the Land Mine of Centralized Media Storage -- SAN - Storage Area Networks Editorial


Halifax Nova Scotia Canada
CreativeCOW.net. All rights reserved.


As NAB is rapidly approaching, I am going to save you a lot of footsteps if you are looking for workgroup storage solutions for post production. Last year, we were faced with the beginning of full 4K post-production with seven TV series, all shot and finished in UHD. Our OWC Thunderbay raids (these are absolutely amazing for local storage) and a 1 GbE network plus sneaker-net were not going to cut it.

This is my own experience, shopping for our specific needs and workflows. Your requirements may be quite different from ours, so our final selection in no way diminishes the value of other products on the market.

Storage and media asset management are probably the biggest category you will find on the floor in the South Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Centre. Two of us focused a lot of time on this category and were overwhelmed by what confronted us.

Brain Damage


One of many racks of Avid Isis 7000 storage at a network broadcasting facility.


After a few days on the trade show floor, your brain will go numb, as one vendor will tell you why their system architecture is the best and then you go to the next booth and hear why the last vendor’s storage scheme that you just finished looking at is a compromise compared to theirs. What one says is an asset, the next will tell you is a liability. They all offer something unique and some seem to solve every post workflow bottleneck you could imagine.There are lots of nice media asset management, archive and workflow solutions attached to some of these storage systems, but once you establish them as part of your workflow, you are in that vendor’s proprietary eco-system. If your needs change and they don’t, then what?

If you are a TV network or a large facility, maybe what I have to say doesn’t apply to you. But for the small entrepreneurial production companies that have to be budget conscious, our experience might be helpful.

While vendors offer features like automated transcoding, proxy generation, and automated archiving, I believe that with centralized storage, there are three things that you need above all, four if you are an Avid shop:

  1. Space. Never underestimate your need for more. Don’t let your budget sucker you into a 40 TB non-scaleable shared system because you think you will be able to manage it. When the crunch comes, you will not have the time or manpower to be shuttling media to nearline or offline storage. Get as much space as you can now and make sure that as your needs grow, you can add more space for a reasonable cost. When we consulted production, we were told that all their raw camera files would hit 30 tb maximum for numerous series in the pipeline. We are now at 3 times that and still shooting. We started our networked storage with 128 Tb of raw storage and six months later are now double that, having just installed another 64 Tb today.

 

  1. Speed. Don’t kid yourself that you can use your existing 1 Gbe network unless you are working in HD with no plans for 4K and have only a few workstations. You need either a 10 GbE or a fibre network for UHD. Ten gigabit ethernet is very affordable and can handle quite a few streams of UHD in either DNxHR or Prores. We are running three online rooms, as well as ingest/archive and conform stations. Media moves very quickly, even large UHD files. We can either download to local drives or play directly from the SAN (Storage Area Network)

  1. Reliability. Downtime will kill you financially and emotionally and could cost you your reputation. You want a bulletproof system that is easy to manage with excellent support, both from the company that makes the hardware and software, as well as from your reseller. Go with a reseller who understands the video business and has a core client base similar to your business. And buy all your bits from them too. Don’t run to an online store for your peripherals, because the online store isn’t going to be there to help you when things go south. The small premium you might pay for your extras are more than made up for in the value added by being able to call a familiar voice for advice. In spite of production and distribution now moving away from traditional video and audio connectivity to an all IT infrastructure, I think you are shooting yourself in the foot to go with an IT only reseller.

 

  1. Bin or volume locking. If you are an Avid shop, you want bin locking that emulates the Avid Isis method of sharing projects. If you are not familiar with this, Avid has project sharing built into Media Composer that allows multiple users to work with the same project and media simultaneously. Avid uniquely stores a project as a folder containing separate bin and project files rather than one big fat project file. When you open a bin, it is locked to read only for other users. Other users can save as a new bin or copy clips out of your bin to one of their bins, but not change the contents until you close it, releasing it to other users. Their work is saved to the same project. This separation of project and bins makes it possible for more than one person to be working on the same project at the same time.

The Avid Advantage

Avid Bin Locking and Unlocking. Note the green and red padlocks controlling permission.


Without bin locking within an editing project, the only other way to avoid data save conflicts is to use volume locking, where the entire volume is out of bounds to other users until you release it, If you use other editing products that store projects as one big file, volume locking is your only choice, unless there is a third party solution that emulates Avid project sharing. I was doing volume as far back as 1997 with software that just locked a hard disk volume to read only. Computers were connected to this simple SAN by a technology called Serial Storage Architecture. The same software was also used with Fibre Channel. It just worked, but had it’s limits.

Avid’s true project sharing ability, which started with their Unity storage and continues with Isis really packs a punch. Numerous other companies have been able to emulate this with Avid Media Composer in their own workspace and project sharing software.

It is not unusual to have a single Avid project opened on multiple workstations, all doing a separate function to advance the production much faster than working on one workstation at a time. Combine Avid’s project sharing with background rendering, transcoding and consolidation, and you are getting work done instead of waiting for a progress bar to finish. Avid has always been good at this. Even taking a hard disk from one end of the country to the other and opening it on another Avid workstation just works, with all the media linking when you open the project because Avid maintains an active database and is not dependent on the OS to the same extent other editing software might be.

NAS or SAN? I’m a Mac and I’m a PC

SAN stands for Storage Area Network. The other common protocol for networked storage is NAS, or network attached storage. Each has it’s plusses and minuses, but for editing, the advantage of SAN is that to your computer, SAN volumes appear as a locally attached external drive and your software will treat it as such, while the older NAS protocol appears as a file server to your computer. A raw unmanaged SAN volumes work exactly like a Mac disk to Macs and like a Windows disk to Windows.

Final Cut Pro tends to prefer SAN, but this really only matters if you are depending on the base operating system to access and manage media. Any vendor selling shared or central storage systems takes care of the housekeeping for you whether they subscribe to the NAS or SAN camp. But with SAN, you could run with no additional software if you don’t have a lot of users and can agree on who uses what volume. But I think that with any more than two users this would be data suicide. However, it can be done.

Systems We Looked At

At NAB 2015, we visited at a lot of different vendors and listened to their pitches. All the systems are good and each have advantages and disadvantages over their competition, depending on your specific needs. Here’s what got my attention the most and my take on each of them.

  • Avid Isis (http://www.avid.com/en/products) - Avid has a long history in collaborative storage, starting with simple fibre channel systems with volume locking in the 1990s, followed by Unity and finally Avid Isis. Avid’s top end Isis 7500 is the Cadillac of storage that can run all the media storage needs of an entire TV network, scalable up to 3 Pb. At the other end of the spectrum, the Isis 1000 offers an easy entry into centralized storage for smaller shops working in HD. There are tons of options for media and project management. The ISIS 1000 maxes out at 40 Tb, so we looked at the base Isis 5500 storage. It was out of our price range for the space we needed and at the entry level, just barely fast enough. Isis scores high for uptime by using a hot spare to immediately start rebuilding if a drive fails. Management is slightly complex, but straight forward. CBC in Canada runs their entire operation on the ISIS 7000 series with Interplay. In huge operations, Avid rules.
  • Dynamic Drive Pool (http://www.dynamicdrivepool.com) - DDP uses unique technology and its own proprietary file system that gives it some interesting pluses such as bandwidth multiplication by pairing ethernet ports as well as bandwidth limiting. There was a lot to like here for a techno-geek, but I found the management interface unnecessarily complex and confusing compared to other systems. This is because they let you tweak, tune and micromanage users and workspaces. I know people who are very happy with their DDP. I think it has some great tech for a large post facility that has to manage bandwidth and access among a lot of users.
  • Editshare (http://www.editshare.com) -- I was impressed with the workflow tools included that covered you from ingest to archive, but it’s all proprietary. You need Editshare’s LTO system to read their LTO tapes and the license only covers a set number of LTO tapes. Exceed that and you pay the piper again. While I was impressed with the end to end workflow, it was out of our league for initial and ongoing costs. I am not impressed with a limited license proprietary archiving solutions.
  • Facilis Terrablock (http://facilis.com) - This is a great system. The guys that created this were part of the Avid Unity development team back in the day and since went on to make their own mark in storage. Terrablock systems are pretty straightforward to manage and have the unique ability to maintain the same throughput whether their disks are empty or full, which is accomplished by intentionally writing in what can over-simply be described as a fragmented tracks, rather than starting at the fastest portion of the disk and filling the slowest sectors last. I am not sure how important this is anymore with the speed of current SAS drives. But I was impressed with Facilis and I know people in Avid shops who are pretty happy with it. This is truly a product for working with picture and sound, however, the cost per gigabyte was too high for us.
  • OWC Jupiter Callisto (http://eshop.macsales.com/shop/storage/Enterprise/jupiter/callisto) - I love everything OWC makes, all good quality and good value. We’ve used lots of their local raid storage over the years. The Callisto seems to be the right hardware, with built-in 10 GbE, but it lacks management software. I am not sure how you manage volumes, never mind projects. But we had a great talk with them about our workflow and needs. I have great hope that they will develop the Callisto further, to fit more post environments in the future. They did say that people were using it successfully with Adobe Premiere, but I can’t say exactly what that means--one or two people or an entire reality show?
  • Promax Platform (http://promax.com) - We sat and waited for a demo at NAB that never happened, but was interested enough to later have an online demo. With Platform, you have some limited ability repurpose some of your current storage and they offer comprehensive media asset management tools and workflow efficiency tools, but at the time, did not have Avid bin locking. I was not interested in new workarounds and it wasn’t clear whether the MAM tools would work with Avid media. Avid bin locking was later introduced, but too late for us. With bin locking finally available, Promax could have been on my shortlist.
  • Tiger Technology Tigerbox (http://www.tiger-technology.com) - I’ll be honest, I was put off by the name. To my ears, it sounds like something from a clandestine Chinese knockoff factory. I couldn’t have been more wrong and Tiger was ultimately what we chose. Tiger Technology sales and marketing is in Montreal, but their development is all done at their headquarters in Sofia, Bulgaria. What you may not know is that Bulgaria is the Silicon Valley of Eastern Europe, dating back to the Cold War era and taking off in the post-communist free enterprise 1990s. If you work in network TV, you probably heard of Playbox, also with all R&D in Sofia, Bulgaria. 1. Tiger Technologies has a nice set of offerings that as, their slogan states, “Its so advanced, its simple”. You can buy Tigerbox, a compact all-in-one storage appliance, or the Tiger Serve storage controller with massive scalability. But there are even more options with Tiger that few other vendors offer.

 

The Truth Is Out There

Here’s a little secret they don’t want you to know—you don’t need to buy into proprietary, made specifically for post-production hardware for fast, reliable and shareable storage. Every system we looked at was based on a Windows server, fast and safe raided disks, and a network interface. Some might use another server for additional functions or add other options, but the truth is that they are all based on a fast network and a server with storage. We were faced with the reality that we just couldn’t afford an Avid Isis, an Editshare or a Facilis Terrablock system with enough storage for the task before us with seven UHD series, so we had to look at something more generic to at least make our raw camera footage available to all the online rooms.

Big Iron Storage Unbundled

In spite of Tiger Technology being better priced than everything else we looked at, we still could not afford the space we needed for multiple 4K TV series. So we decided to look at a simple 10 GbE network connected to an off-the-shelf server with loads of fast commodity storage where we could link to the camera files stored there and transcode or move to local drives, much like Final Cut Server used to do. This would work, but then we discovered that for not a whole lot more money, we could add project management software that would allow us to organize into project based workspaces and work directly off the SAN as well as guard and maintain data integrity. It was proposed that we use Tiger Store SAN software without their branded hardware. What? You mean they will sell you just the software and support? Wow! Even in the basic configuration, Project Store Free manages Media Composer projects with Avid bin locking. But I was unconvinced. I mean after all, if everyone else was selling big iron priced boxes, how can a software solution with commodity server hardware be as good?


Tiger Project Store Pro


Well, it turns out that it can be even better! First of all, any Windows server has to be robust enough to run 7/24/365 without missing a byte. Storage attached to a server has to be capable of serving up files to multiple users at the same time. So the hardware should work, in theory. Our Tiger reseller worked hard to break down my skepticism. They absolutely guaranteed it would meet or exceed our expectations. I asked for referrals and was thrilled to discover that people I knew were using exactly this proposed configuration at other production companies. I knew I could trust them to give me a candid and honest testimony.

I was finally convinced and excited that we could meet our company’s budget concerns and our need for massive storage for multiple UHD TV series as well as ramp up efficiency by getting rid of time crippling bottlenecks when moving media and projects through conform, color correction and online.

Our Tiger reseller outfitted us with a Supermicro server and a 16 drive bay Accusys Exasan raid populated with off-the-shelf enterprise class 8 tb HGST SAS drives. No proprietary firmware to worry about. We can source replacement drives anywhere. The rest of the hardware consisted of a 10 GbE switch, cabling and 10 GbE network cards or Thunderbolt adapters, according to the type of workstation attached.

So Advanced, Its Simple

We decided on Tiger Project Store Pro, which adds more advanced, but still unbelievably simple to use project management features over the base version, like template creation and user/team management, as well as Proxy generation and metadata searches.


Caption Project Store Pro Admin Dashboard


Not only does Tiger support the already established Avid bin locking method of project sharing for Media Composer, but they also include workflow tools that will allow you to share Adobe Premiere or Final Cut Pro projects and media. Because Tiger is a true SAN system and not based on NAS technology, it will easily work with Final Cut Pro X.

(Video link)

Introduction to the Tiger Series from Tiger Technology on Vimeo.

No Space Commitment Required


Simple settings.


What I really love about Tiger Store is that I don’t have to commit to a specific size for each manaaged workspace virtual volume or the unmanaged SAN volumes. All virtual disks see the entire available storage and just dynamically shrink and grow as needed. You can set virtual volume workspace size limits if you want to, but we prefer to not add this restriction. This was a huge advantage for us over some of the other systems we looked at, where you must specify the number of terabytes required for each workspace volume.

With at least one of the other systems, you cannot not shrink the volume if the space wasn’t being used and another project’s workspace was running out of room. You could only copy the contents to a new workspace and then delete the old one through an overly complex GUI. We were trying to eliminate workarounds, not create more. Tiger gave us the most straight forward management of all the storage systems we considered. In a larger enterprise than our production company, some of the more complex features in other storage schemes might be of use, but to us, they were not. We do not have an IT person on site and we do not want to have to make it a job to manage storage.

All we have to do is set up a workspace, assign a preferred drive letter for Windows users and decide who has access to it. Every workspace is a virtual drive that has access to all available storage, unless of course you want to restrict it because you are renting a production space by the gigabyte.

Fear of the Unknown Universe

Every vendor at NAB will confuse you with why NAS is better while another will push SAN or why dual 1 Gbe is fast enough for UHD while another says you need fibre. At the end of the day, it’s not the tech under the hood that counts, it’s whether or not you can reach your destination. So here is what you want to know: How many streams of whatever resolution you are using can the storage deliver continuously? I don’t care about the theoretical lab tests. I want stream counts. If they don’t have them in the specs, insist they give it to you.

You probably already know that as drives fill, they slow down and fragmentation can make your drives even slower. But today’s fast SAS disks need to be really full before you see a significant performance hit.


A typical virtual SAN volume


However, fragmentation will slow you down. It is easy to fragment the drives on a system serving up and writing large audio and video files from multiple edit bays. So when the system is idle, Tiger Store will defrag and optimize your drives to maintain peak performance. It is aware of video unique files like sequenced DPX and will optimize them. We recent got a red alert that our volumes were fragmented. The defrag wasn’t working. Tiger support logged in, restarted the service and away it went, defragmenting.

Overall, we are really happy with our unleashed Tiger Store SAN system. Support is great, but we rarely need it. When we do, they do a remote login and make the necessary changes. What more could we ask for? We are more productive than ever and getting work done.




Dennis Kutchera is an Online Editor, Colorist and Technology Magician in Halifax, Canada. He was a founding member of Creative COW and is a graduate of UHK.


Comments

Re: Navigating the Land Mine of Centralized Media Storage
by James Tucci
Dennis does an excellent job of discussing important storage characteristics and comparing SAN and NAS. It’s unfortunate that he did not find his way to Archion last year at NAB. A lot can happen in a year, but even then, Archion was delivering on these requirements, including transparent Avid project sharing and full FCPX support, at an affordable price. There would have been no sacrificing. “Under the hood”, Archion’s EditStor supports a tremendous number of continuous and simultaneous 4K streams and those numbers are published. I look forward to Storage Wars II.

James Tucci CTO Archion
http://www.archion.com
jtucci@archion.com.

James A. Tucci
Chief Technology Officer


Archion Technologies
700 S. Victory Blvd.
Burbank, CA 91502
office 818.840.0777 ext: 207
fax 818.840.0877

http://www.archion.com
Re: Navigating the Land Mine of Centralized Media Storage
by Seth Goldin
I'm not affiliated with OWC. I'm just a very satisfied OWC Callisto customer, and wanted to address what you claimed was its lack of volume management software.

The Callisto uses ZFS on a slightly modified version of FreeNAS. ZFS is both a filesystem and a logical volume manager. ZFS can have somewhat of a steep learning curve compared to the other turnkey solutions, but there are good ZFS crash courses to get you up to speed. There's a very robust open source community for your questions, but more importantly, OWC Support is great. They're informative and responsive.

Once you understand how logical volume management works on ZFS, you will find that it will give you a great amount of control for both extremely simple and extremely complex workflows, whatever you need.
+1
Re: Navigating the Land Mine of Centralized Media Storage
by Bob Zelin
Hi Seth-
to my knowledge, OWC Callisto does NOT offer any AVID Media Composer support for project sharing.
This means that when even two editors are editing with AVID Media Composer, and they try to simply SAVE their project, both systems will start to "beach ball" and lock up until the AVID Media Database is updated, which takes quite a while. Of course, with other edit systems, like FCP 7, FCP X, Premiere, Resolve, Vegas, etc. OWC Callisto and others are all wonderful solutions.

For AVID Media Composer, there are only a handful of shared storage systems that work identically to
AVID ISIS. Facilis and Tiger Share are among the few that support this.

Bob Zelin

Bob Zelin
Rescue 1, Inc.
bobzelin@icloud.com
+1
Re: Navigating the Land Mine of Centralized Media Storage
by Seth Goldin
Bob,

Yes, that's my understanding as well. Might this be an attempt by Avid at vendor lock-in?

We're mostly in Premiere Pro, so although we don't have bins that can be checked in and out from the same project file on different workstations, we'll have folks duplicate their project files, and then import sequences via Adobe's Dynamic Link Server as needed. This is especially nice since it's now possible to do this without creating duplicate items in the Project Panel.

I've heard that Adobe Anywhere does provide the ability for collaborators to work out of the same project file on different workstations simultaneously, with proper bin locking, but the price is still fairly high, so it's probably only a solution for medium to large businesses.

Seth Goldin
+1
Re: Navigating the Land Mine of Centralized Media Storage
by James McKenna
Hi Seth,

In Adobe Anywhere version 3, they are supporting a standalone Collaboration Hub, which is the basis for the project management in Anywhere. This does not require the streaming server deployment which was most of the cost of traditional Anywhere environment. In fact we are showing Collaboration hub running natively on our TerraBlock server, and when used with our FastTracker provides shared storage, asset tracking and Premiere Pro project management in a single enclosure.

Jim McKenna
Facilis Technology
978-562-7022 x101
+1
Re: Navigating the Land Mine of Centralized Media Storage
by James McKenna
Thanks for the nice review Dennis. It was a pleasure assisting you with your research on shared storage, I'm glad you found a combination that works for you. Just to let the readers know, our cost/GB has decreased substantially with the introduction 8TB drives. If you've gotten pricing in the past, check again and you may be surprised!

Jim McKenna
Facilis Technology
978-562-7022 x101
+1
Re: Navigating the Land Mine of Centralized Media Storage
by Bob Zelin
great article. There is a vast range of products out there - everything from EMC and Isilon and NetApp, all the way to QNAP, and everything in between. You have chosen a wonderful solution, and Bernard Lamporelle is a great guy, and near you (kind of) in Canada.

The REAL question is "how much do you want to spend" and "who is going to help me if something goes wrong". There are countless people that think they will spend anywhere from $500 to half a million dollars, and then think "why can't I just plug this in, and it just works automatically". This of course drives me crazy. Your support on these products is critical, and on the low end, your support and setup is more than a low end shared storage product.

What REALLY drives me crazy is that you see (for years now) people think that you get a Thunderbolt shared storage solution, and it just plugs in and works, and you don't need support. Which of course is not true. You have to have knowledge to do this.

This applies to countless things here - you don't buy Media Composer or FCP-X and say "I spent all this money, how come I can't edit a show". You don't buy Cat DV or Axle or even the free Frame IO, and say "how come it just doesn't manage my assets for me".
And of course, same with robust storage solutions (even for a 2 user system). Either you learn how to do it or you get a company who will SUPPORT you.

So when you mention all the companies in your article, and people say "well, those are SO expensive, I am going to buy Brand X from the mail order company" - it still won't work, because they need someone to help them. And of course, Tiger Technology support, the product you purchased is terrific. But if you received the Tiger Share, and there was no one to help you at the beginning, while it was being set up, you would be SCREWED, and saying "I just spent all this money, now what do I do".

Bob Zelin

Bob Zelin
Rescue 1, Inc.
bobzelin@icloud.com
+9


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