FX Studio Cuts, Wraps and Stores with BlueArc

Case study: The FX studio behind movies like "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" and "Batman Begins" found an answer to their storage problems with BlueArc's Titan 2200.

With relentless deadlines and behemoth data files, few environments push the technology envelope like motion picture studios.

Thats certainly the case for London-based special-effects studio Double Negative, whose artists have thrilled and chilled with shots used in movies including "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" and "Batman Begins." Double Negative set up shop in 1998 with 30 employees; the company has recently grown to 200 employees, working in two different sites.

The organizations old storage systems were making it difficult for artists to deliver the best possible product, so Steve Lynn, Double Negatives Linux system administrator, turned to BlueArcs Titan 2200 storage solution to meet the organizations performance and scalability needs.

/zimages/6/28571.gifClick here to read a review of BlueArcs Titan 2000.

Double Negative purchased an 8TB BlueArc Titan 2200 in January to help complete the special effects for the movie "United 93," based on the events of Sept. 11, 2001. "United 93" is set for release this summer.

As is the case with many other IT shops, Double Negatives storage infrastructure has evolved from standard NFS (Network File System) file servers with direct-attached SCSI storage to enterprise-class storage appliances as its performance needs have grown.

"With our older NFS servers with direct-attached storage, when too many people attempted to use them, they fell over and crashed, creating render errors," Lynn said.

In Double Negatives line of business, downtime and aborted rendering jobs have a direct correlation to the quality of the work special-effects artists produce. And because every project Double Negative works on has a distinct and inflexible time limit, the goal of the companys IT staff is to ensure that artists can do as many rendering runs as possible within a set schedule. "Reducing render errors enables our artists to run more test renders within the given schedule and can result in a better final result," said Lynn.

Double Negative attempted to stem the rising storage tide by upgrading from homegrown NFS servers to Network Appliance storage systems. Double Negative initially implemented a Network Appliance FAS900 series cluster, which served the company well in projects such as "Batman Begins," which was released in 2005.

The Network Appliance cluster eliminated the reliability problems and outages that had been affecting Double Negatives artists, but it left IT staff with a different problem to deal with. As the companys performance needs increased, its IT staff found it was running into more scalability problems, according to Lynn.

Lynn and his staff looked at a variety of solutions, but none was able to meet their requirements. "We were looking at Isilon and, to some extent, NetApp," Lynn said. "We already had NetApp systems, but they were not scalable, and we could not get enough performance out of them. The Isilon solution was interesting, but [in terms of] price/performance, the BlueArc Titan 2200 we implemented was much more attractive."

/zimages/6/28571.gifNBC relied on the Isilon IQ 3000 storage cluster to support its extensive coverage of the 2006 Winter Olympics. Click here to read more.

Double Negative started out with a BlueArc Titan 2200 with 8TB of storage, priced at about $100,000, according to Lynn. Double Negative IT staffers have recently added an additional 8TB of storage space, which cost $60,000.

The initial implementation of the Titan 2200 took only about a half-hour, but Lynn and his staff spent two days writing scripts to get performance information from the Titan 2200 and to get the servers in their render farm mapped to the Titan 2200s NFS share.

Double Negatives Titan 2200 is configured for NFS and does not use many of BlueArcs advanced capabilities. Double Negative does use the products snapshot feature, and Lynn said he plans to implement BlueArcs snap restore functionality in the future, providing the ability to instantaneously recover from mistakes such as accidental deletions.

But the main reason for the purchase was for performance and scalability. Lynn and his staff ran benchmark tests on the Titan 2200 system before launching it into full production. Running a script that generated large image file read and write requests similar to ones that the company renders, Lynn saw that the Titan 2200 could easily handle 300MB per second throughput when running loads generated by 120 computers.

In the current production environment, Lynn has been happy with throughput jumping up to almost 500MB per second, with plenty of headroom to spare.

Double Negatives overall Titan 2200 utilization ranges from 10 to 20 percent, said Lynn. The company will also be able to add a second Titan 2200 node using BlueArcs clustering capabilities, but it wont be growing out of its BlueArc implementation any time soon.

"We are looking forward to seeing better performance scaling in the future," said Lynn. "We just ordered the extra storage space, but with the additional RAID controllers, we should be able to double the throughput. With Titan, we have the ability to increase performance as we do that."

Senior Analyst Henry Baltazar can be reached at henry_baltazar@ziffdavis.com.

/zimages/6/28571.gifCheck out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, reviews and analysis on enterprise and small business storage hardware and software.