Build your own affordable SAN -- that works!
COW Library : SAN - Storage Area Networks Tutorials : Bob Zelin : Build your own affordable SAN -- that works!
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.
THE NETWORK HARDWARE
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-Express 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.
Here it is for Windows Vista.
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.
THE NETWORK SOFTWARE
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 192.168.2.1 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.
YOU'RE KIDDING, RIGHT?
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.