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Build your own affordable SAN -- that works!

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CreativeCOW presents Build your own affordable SAN -- that works! -- SAN - Storage Area Networks Tutorial

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Want to let everyone in your shop use the same media at the same time? The Cows Bob Zelin shares the secrets for affordable shared storage that you can build yourself, and that WORKS. Start with big, fast storage from your favorite pro vendor, then follow along. Bob even shows you a few hazards to avoid along the way.

The way for two or more edit systems to work with the same media at the same time? For multiple users to access the same disk drives? The answer is a SAN, "Storage Area Network."

I'm not talking about a big bucket of storage where everyone can put their stuff and take turns using it. The point of a SAN is to let everyone on the network use THE SAME MEDIA AT THE SAME TIME.

Once you've put this network together, the drives mount on all the systems. Each one of the editors chooses the shared volume as their media drive. Now everyone can start editing, using the same footage at the same time, from multiple machines.

This is great, you say. Let's do it! Why would anybody NOT do this?

Until now, it's been hard. Simple networks are not fast enough. If you try to play back Edit System One's files from Edit System Two's disk drives, it will probably play back -- but when Edit Two now tries to play the same media at the same time, both systems will hang up.

It's also been expensive. Architectures like fibre channel are fast and reliable, but are out of the reach of most small teams. Products including Avid Unity and Apple Xsan are fantastic for their intended audience -which has never been two or three people.

Look, I install systems for a living, and the most common request I get these days is from these small teams, maybe even just one guy with a few systems.

SANs can actually be MORE important for small teams. They don't have a swarm of assistants, and don't have time to "take turns."

Note that I'm talking about the formats most people use for most production: XDCAM, DVCPRO HD, HDV, Apple Pro Res, Avid DnxHD, HDV, uncompressed SD. You can buy shared storage for 4K, but it ain't cheap, which is the point of this story.

I have recently discovered the answer to the burning question, "What is the least expensive shared storage system that I can put together that actually works?"

I would love to give you a simple single name of a company, but I cannot. It's more complex than that, but that's the beauty of this solution. You can use many products to make it work.


Here are the basic ingredients: an Ethernet switch for $2000, a multi-port ethernet card for under $700, management software for $550, plus $249 per client, an off-the-shelf computer, and storage.

More about the switch and the software in a minute, but that's it. The big expenses are a dedicated computer to manage the network and big disks.

The idea is exactly the same as building a central machine room. Patch bays and racks and cable are expensive, but they're still cheaper than buying one more Digibeta or HD VTR. Here, building a SAN is cheaper than buying big storage for each of your systems.

Now for the details.

The first step is to get an off-the-shelf computer. No, not a server, not an Octo-core, not the server version of your favorite OS -- just a regular boring computer, running the same OS as your editing system right now.

(I should mention that I've set up systems using Macs and FCP, but everything I'm talking about here works with Mac and PC, and often both together.)

Okay, now you need some disk drives. Here's the amazing part to understand: you probably already have exactly the drives you need, attached to your computer right now! You can start with a NON SAN system, with a drive array like the Maxx EVO, a Cal Digit HD Pro, a Sonnet RAID 5 box, a Dulce Systems DQ, etc.

Look at the pro storage ads all over the Cow. Pick your favorite. That's all there is to it. Use any drives you want, as long as they're big enough and fast enough for YOU.

See? Beautiful.


Now it's time to start adding the critical components to our "off the shelf" computer with a big disk drive on it.

Instead of using expensive components designed for fibre channel networks, we're going to use Ethernet. A single Ethernet cable doesn't have the bandwidth you need all by itself, so let's fix that.

There is a wonderful little company called Small Tree Communications. They make a 4 port PCI-Small Tree 4-port Ethernet card for SAN creationExpress Ethernet card that you install into the "server" computer -- a regular computer, but it MUST be a computer that you will NOT be editing on.

This 4 port Ethernet card is how we are going to connect to the SAN that we're building, using the software that comes with our next purchase, a "Managed Gigabit Ethernet switch." Companies like Netgear, Asante, Small Tree, Cisco, and others all make wonderful managed Gigabit Ethernet switches.

MANAGED is the key word here. The management software that comes with the switch will create one big fat Ethernet port that's 4 times faster than a single port, via "link aggregation."

Aggregation means that instead of 1GB/sec. (known as GigE), we will get the 4 GB/sec. we need for this kind of network - which is also why we need the 4-port Ethernet card. Most computers have no more than two ports, and one is already typically in use to connect to the internet or the office network.

Okay, so now we have our regular, non-editing "server" computer hooked up to our big storage, and also hooked up to our managed Ethernet switch.

Now it's time to plug in the rest of the network: you simply get regular cheapo Ethernet cable (CAT 5e), and plug your edit system into the Ethernet switch. You're almost done.

You should be on a dedicated network to do this. All this means is that you have the internet on one of your computer's Ethernet ports, and your SAN system on the other Ethernet port.

All the computers on the SAN network must now be manually assigned STATIC IP addresses, not the default DHCP auto select addresses. You'll also need to enable "Jumbo Packets" (big packets of data over Ethernet) in your OS Network settings to allow maximum throughput.

Here it is for Mac.

Enable Jumbo Packets for building a SAN 0 Mac

Here it is for Windows Vista.

Enable Jumbo Frames - Win

Remember - with all my mumbo-jumbo talk in the last few paragraphs, you've plugged an Ethernet cable between your edit system and your Ethernet switch, and changed a couple of menu settings. That's it.


Now, it's time to run the software that will make all of this work. You get a copy of Tiger Technology MetaLAN Server, and run it on your "server" computer.

(Tiger also makes software called MetaSAN, but that's for fibre networks, not the Ethernet that we're using here.)

In the Utilities tab, there is a "configurator" selection that makes it easy to set up the server, and select the disk drive that will be the shared storage volume. Once this is done, you run Tiger Technology MetaLAN Client software on the "clients" -- each Final Cut Pro, Avid or Adobe workstation, also using the Configurator easy setup wizard.

Once you are configured, you are DONE!


So, can you do this yourself? I don't know. Can you?

Most people (including me) will get an AJA box, read the .pdf manual, plug it in, make a couple of mistakes, and 2 hours later, it's working. This is not that type of system. Someone has to manually set up a network with the second Ethernet port on each computer. No auto-install. No set-up wizard.

But it's also not ridiculously hard. Here's the short version: use your OS's Network tools to choose your second Ethernet port. Choose configure MANUALLY, instead of DHCP, and type in a unique IP address like on each station.

There - not so hard, right?

Or is it?

The first time I tried to get started, I couldn't open even the very first control panel. What? How can I set the thing up if I can't get to the set-up tools?

I won't even tell you how long it took me to figure out that the computer I was trying to use as a server had the same IP address as the wireless router in the office. I turned off the router, and everything was fine.

Another time, a customer of mine had stuttering and freezing when they tried to play media off the SAN. I couldn't find anything wrong in the SAN control panel, so I went to where every AJA customer should always begin: the AJA control panel.

After talking with AJA tech support, we realized that the blackburst generator wasn't hooked up. We always assume everything is connected, including the power cable, but sometimes it's just not. So we turned on genlock in the AJA control panel and went back to work.

Still stuttering and freezing. We opened the control panel again, and saw that the settings weren't sticking! Why? Because the editors were never given the permissions to change settings like this!

IP addresses, genlock, and a clueless boss. These problems weren't CAUSED by the SAN, but are small examples of the kind of troubleshooting you have to be prepared for if you really want to do this by yourself.


Some of you reading this are saying, "I just want to plug a couple of Macs into a box and share some media! Why is this so complicated?" Because this is the state of shared storage today.

Just remember that low cost SAN systems are low cost because you're on your own. No one is going to sit on the phone with you for hours, helping you configure a dedicated network, set up the switch and card for link aggregation, getting your drives to work, pinging your network, just because you spent a few thousand dollars on drives or a few hundred on software.

In case you're wondering, no, I won't spend hours with you on the phone for free to help you figure all this out, and there are too many variables to count on the Cow to help you with every aspect of this. Unless you are willing to suffer through this by yourself, a qualified dealer or a qualified computer guy that knows networking is ESSENTIAL.

And of course you can spend more to buy a preconfigured SAN.


There's no doubt that shared storage is where the industry is going. But so far, I've only set up a handful of these systems, and I've got questions too. Here are some things I've learned so far.

Price. Performance. Pick one. You can buy video storage arrays from companies advertising on these very pages with speeds of 200 MB/sec. and up. To share that much bandwidth, go with fibre. Real world throughputs for 4GigE networks like ours are limited to 70 MB/sec. per client -- plenty for formats like DVCPRO HD, XDCAM HD, and Pro Res or DNxHD, but nowhere near the neighborhood of uncompressed HD.

Final Cut Server? It should work fine. The "server" in a SAN is a computer, and it serves data. The "server" for Final Cut is media and project management software. Running FCSvr on top of your SAN will simply allow all of your shared media to be managed at the same time.

Or it should anyway. I haven't tried it.

Cross-platform? Really? If you want to run the SAN server software on an old PC with a PCIe slot, and connect your shiny new Mac Pros, it should work fine. I haven't tried this either.

Can I connect a laptop to this SAN? Yes! I did this for the first time yesterday and was amazed. The horsepower is coming from the SAN computer and its drives. The MacBook Pro was just displaying the information. I still can't believe it works, but it does.

Can I connect an iMac to this SAN? Yes! I used to think that products like the iMac were useless pieces of junk, that were designed for "kids at home" to play with on the internet, and do their school projects.

But after being forced to use one on a SAN that I built for Nickelodeon for the "My Family Has GUTS!" TV show, I was amazed at its power, and its ability to play back ProRes422HQ HD information at 1080i.

The current iMAC is a very powerful machine with a 24-inch screen. It is only lacking slots for expansion for professional systems. But if it is being used as a simple workstation connected to a SAN, it works great.

Remind me: why am I going through all this? Because this isn't a "big bucket" network where everyone has to take turns. If that's all you need, you don't need to do anything fancy. Just buy a big bucket of storage, and put it in your machine room.

Nope, a SAN lets everyone on the network use the same media, at the same time. This is ideal for small teams with short turnaround times.

The 4GigE networks I'm talking about have limits, but they answer the question, "What's the cheapest thing I can get that actually works?" I'm absolutely certain I've found the answer. For now. So far, this is working out very well.

Besides, sharing is nice. Everyone should share.


@Build your own affordable SAN -- that works!
by Bob Zelin
Hi Dan -
the article that I wrote was obsolete 6 months after writing it. There are new wonderful ways to do this, with modern equipment. I will contact you.

Bob Zelin

Bob Zelin
Rescue 1, Inc.
@Bob Zelin
by Thiru Arasu
Hi Bob,
Great article. Can this DIY SAN setup work with FCPX 10.4 onwards ?
@Thiru Arasu
by Bob Zelin
no -
this article is completely obsolete. macOS Server 10.13 no longer works the way this article describes. IF you want an inexpensive shared storage system, you purchase a QNAP. Many of their models work great.

Bob Zelin

Bob Zelin
Rescue 1, Inc.
Re: Build your own affordable SAN -- that works!
by Dan Appel
Hello Bob. Now that many of us have moved on from FCP -- thanks for nothing FCPX -- and Premiere CC-based editing with Red 4k/6k footage had become a frequent norm, do you think you'll update this (quite lovely) DIY SAN tutorial any time soon?

(Personally, we're finding that we need to plug our CalDigit T3 Thunderbolt drives directly into each Mac as the Ethernet server just can't handle the 6k footage.)

Thanks Bob!

Mac-based 6k Post-Production House in Hollywood, CA
Re: Build your own affordable SAN -- that works!
by Doug Daulton
Great article Bob. I understand this is a bit dated and you are directing questions to the SAN forum. I am going to post there as well, but thought I'd start here in case you were listening.

I have a question on a related topic, which I posted in the Compression Techniques forum. I referenced this article. Would you mind having a look there and commenting as needed.
Re: Build your own affordable SAN -- that works!
by Bob Zelin
I can't respond on this 2 year old stuff. You must post in the Creative Cow SAN forums for me to reply on this.

bob zelin

Re: Build your own affordable SAN -- that works!
by Adam Lichota

I have tested 2 quad-port Intel Pro/1000 MT PCI-X adapters in two Mac Pros G5 (Leopard 10.5.8), all 4 ports in each Mac bonded and connected port-to-port between Macs but got bandwith same like on 2 ports bonded (220-230 MB/s). It's ok? For testing used iperf
Thank's for help
Re: Build your own affordable SAN -- that works!
by Bob Zelin
if you would be kind enough to make your comments in the SAN Networks forum on Creative Cow, everyone could see your valuable comments and observations. The i5 and i7 do not work but the Core2Duo does work.

Re: Build your own affordable SAN -- that works!
by Charles Taylor
Hey there,
Thanks for the article (and sorry for commenting on something so old). I just thought I would say that the current i5/i7 iMacs do NOT support Jumbo Frames.


Director of Photography
answer to your question
by Bob Zelin
look at the SAN Networks forum, and you will see the answer on Creative Cow

Bob Zelin
No Software Option?
by Jeff Davis
Is there a way to do this without using metaLAN or Final Share Software?

I hated the days of paying per client as the use of our systems grows/shrinks a month to month basis, and software gets outdated.
ProRez 444
by Margus Voll
I assume that ProRez 444 is not a problem as data flow increases little bit fom 422 prorez? 2x MB sec to 33 MB sec ?
Build your own affordable SAN -- that works!
by Bob Zelin
There is no point for me to respond here. Go to the SAN Forum on Creative Cow, and I will answer your questions in great detail.

Bob Zelin
Build your own affordable SAN -- that works!
by Morgan Drmaj
Wow Bob, thanks for the amazing info on this.

I'm pretty tech and network savvy and am pretty sure that this is a solution that I can handle myself! I'm going to be calling Small Tree on Monday to talk with them about hardware.

One question for you -- with the MetaLan software are all of your RAID arrays combined into one storage volume or can I have separate volumes.

Specifically, if I have two HD Ones and want to put them on the same 'server', can I have them show up as two separate volumes. Or do I have to reformat them to show up as one big volume?

I really don't want to have to reformat my drives if I don't have to...


Build your own affordable SAN -- that works!
by Allan White
One more thing: I spec'd and built out our SAN system (XRAID, XServe, Fibre & GigE, MetaSAN, 6 clients), and if I were to do it all again, I would without a doubt hire an integrator to spec and config everything. The amount of learning, trial and error, and sheer time wasted learning all this stuff probably could have been better spent editing.

Of course, I didn't have a straight-up, easy-to-follow guide like Bob's at the time! Wish I had. But, learn from my mistake and at least talk to a system integrator. You'll be glad you did.
Why MetaLAN?
by Allan White
@Brendan Coots, R4: MetaLAN ( works not only for Windows, but also Linux and MacOS.

You'll get more detail in the SANetworks Forum, but using a file-level sharing "layer" like MetaLAN is essential for more than one editors working on the same footage. Otherwise (as I understand it), there's no "traffic cop" handling who's opening what, who has what permissions, etc.

MetaLAN is a really affordable way to expand via GigE, and something like $299/seat. Compare that to XSAN, which is fibre only and $1k/seat. We use at our facility and like it a lot.

Bob Z., thanks for sharing your exploration and insight, great article. I didn't build a cheap one, but would love the challenge someday (probably using x86 hardware running Linux).
Build your own affordable SAN -- that works!
by Sean ONeil
Fantastic article, but there's one very important thing you left out. If it's a small shop with 4 edit stations or less, you do NOT need nor want Link Aggregation.

For a 4 station setup, what you do is assign one port to each client and use subnet masking so that each port is on it's own virtual private network. You can use any cheap gigabit switch, or no switch at all (just plug it straight in). This will give the identical performance, without the headache or extra cost of doing Link Aggregation. Link aggregation balances all the links to all the clients, so it's useful if you have more clients than you do ports on the server. But if you have 4 or less stations and 4 ports, it's pointless.

Another thing. If you aggregate 4 ports, you don't exactly get a single 4gbps port as you suggested. Instead you get up to 4 sessions at 1gbps max each. In other words, say you use Link Aggregation on a Mac client and link 4 ports together. Then connect to a server that also has 4 linked ports. Your max bandwidth for a single video stream is still only 1gbps.

Just wanted to clear that up. When I first heard of Link Aggregation, I too thought it was the same a having a 4gb ethernet connection. Unfortunately it's not the case.
Build your own affordable SAN -- that works!
by Bob Zelin
Helge -
if you post your question in the SAN Networks forum, I will give you a detailed answer. The short answer is NO, you will not get better bandwidth with 2 ethernet cables to each client computer.

bob Zelin
Build your own affordable SAN -- that works!
by Helge L
First of all, thank you for a great article!
I'm in the process of deciding what type of shared storage to get and whether or not I will need to take the step up to FC, in which case my knowledge would not suffice and I would have to hire a company to do the set-up. My question is if one could use 2 ethernet cables from each MacPro in order to get double the bandwidth to the server?

Build your own affordable SAN -- that works!
by Allan W.
@ Brendan - the MetaLAN software is a crucial component. Without it you only have volume-level sharing, when as editors we (the group) need file-level sharing.

It's also available for Mac, Win, and Linux. We use MetaSAN (the fibre version) and MetaLAN (gigE) in a mixed environment here. The laptops all hook in via MetaLAN. You're getting most of the advantages of XSAN software for $300, and OS isn't a barrier.

Great review of MetaSAN - the basics are the same here - over at Ken
by Steve Wargo
Fantastic article Bob. We bought our X-Serve Raids several years ago and wish we had everything tied together. Your solution is great.

I just had someone e-mail an ad to me with a similar solution but the price was out there. Your solution makes sense the price is right.

Go Bob!

BTW, you were supposed to call me when you were in town in April. ???
Build your own affordable SAN -- that works!
by Margus Voll

Sounds no brainer if you have ever set up networks. It is really good that you pointed wifi AP example here as this is what usually happens you just have to sit back and figure it out and if it does not work still go back to basics. Really great description :)
Build your own affordable SAN -- that works!
by Alex D'Eath
Really enjoyed this article. I am assuming that your services in this area are available for a price?
Build your own affordable SAN -- that works!
by C M Irvin
I think $2000 for a switch is a little high - a good example of a budget GigE managed switch is something like the HP ProCurve 1800 24 port switch which is around $400. Web interface is easy for non-technical users to create LAGs and VLANs. Use the extra money you save on storage!
Build your own affordable SAN -- that works!
by Brendan Coots
EXCELLENT article, thanks for sharing! My studio has a very similar setup to the one you describe in this article. The primary difference is:

- No MetaLAN software (which appears to be Windows only)

- No 4-port ethernet card on the server. All machines (xserve and 8 Mac Pro clients) use the included 2-port ethernet cards, aggregated into single 2Gbe connections

- PROAVIO EditBox EB8ML 8-drive array in RAID 5 mode

Using this setup, we get 70-90MB/s connections on all machines, depending on which speed tests you trust more (Aja Performance Test vs. Blackmagic Disc Test).

I was wondering, is there a particular benefit to using the 4-port card vs. this setup? We do get rare situations where a workstation will suddenly slow to a crawl, usually when 5 or more people are working on the same project/footage. Would you guess this has more to do with the lack of a 4-port server card, or more to do with sharing assets with no SAN software in the mix?
Build your own affordable SAN -- that works!
by Pat Appleson
Hi Bob,
Now that's really cool. I've printed out your how to. I'd like to do 4K FC but I haven't had anyone walk thru the door with a cine alta or big panasonic. Your implementation will solve alot of problems.

Best Regards
Build your own affordable SAN -- that works!
by Barend Onneweer
Very informative article, and great prose! Thanks Bob!
Build your own affordable SAN -- that works!
by Tim Wilson
GREAT article, Bob, even by your own high standards. Thanks!

Now kids, despite Bob's generous offer, we humbly request that you direct as much of the conversation as possible to the Cow's SAN forum.. This is new ground for just about everybody, and the more people who can SEE the conversation, the better for all of us.

Bob's in that forum many times daily, as well as a dozen others in the Cow.

Again Bob, awesome stuff.

Creative Cow
Build your own affordable SAN -- that works!
by Bob Zelin
I would like to reply to some of the questions here, but the right place to really discuss this is the SAN Networks forum on Creative Cow.

The 4 port card is necessary, because you are trying to increase the bandwidth of Gigabit ethernet. When you link 4 one gigabit ethernet ports together, this is called link aggregation. This is done in conjunction with a managed Gigabit ethernet switch that supports link aggretation. Once you link aggregate 4 one gig ethernet ports together, you have enough bandwidth for MULTIPLE FCP SYSTEMS running HD footage to all work on the same footage at the exact same time, without dropped frame errors.

Can you use a $400 switch to do this ? If you can find a level 2 managed gigabit ethernet switch that supports IEEE 802.3ad link aggregation - sure you can. Companies like Asante and Netgear make these products, but I use the Small Tree Communications ES4524D, which has just dropped in price to about $1300.

I use a MAC Pro as the "server" because it is EASY, and something that anyone can understand that uses FCP. It requires no knowlege of server software - certainly no knowlege of Microsoft Server or OS-X Server. The important part of this is that this requires NO ADMINISTRATION from an expensive IT person. Anyone can do this, with an easy computer like a MAC Pro with the default software. There are "no tears", as I have several shows running this system, without any technical support - from anyone including me.

If you need more information, please email me privately at, or communicate on the SAN Networks forum on Creative Cow.

bob Zelin
Build your own affordable SAN -- that works!
by R411Y3

I have installed various systems like this and have seen all to often using 'off the shelf' PCs as servers end in tears. If you are buying from scratch and have less than 10 'clients' (machines to serve media too) I would recommend:

A half decent server, such as an IBM x3650 (or any 2U offering from dell or HP) has space for up to 6 drives (1 boot + 5x1TB media drives) and onboard hardware RAID for resilience (no data loss if a drive fails). If you keep the processor spec down it wont cost you the earth.

You can make your cost savings by loading it with two of the 4 port Gbe cards, coupled with the 2 onboard ports you can connect up to 10 machines directly to the server. Thus negating the need for the expensive managed switch and ensuring you have zero bottlenecks! 1:1 server port to client ratio. The added benefit is that you get resilient hardware with features like redundant PSUs. Also proper servers also offer features such as SAS expansion ports, should you want to add a external RAID array cheaply.

I am unsure what MetaLAN brought to the party, when essentially we are just building a NAS head.

The downside is that again you need to config the server to share, however this whole setup should take less than a day for a decent integrator to install.

Build your own affordable SAN -- that works!
by Ian Liuzzi-Fedun
Great article. For both the technically and non-technically inclined it brings everything together in an easy-to-understand article. Additionally, if for any reason you need help fielding calls or technical support issues I would be willing to assist
Build your own affordable SAN -- that works!
by Adrian Bazan
thats great what about the matrixstore

it can works?

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