Online Video: Answers to Storage There Are

With online video booming, media giants such as Lucasfilm's Industrial Light and Magic are wrestling with storage requirements. Here's how companies like ILM are digitizing the likes of Yoda, Chewie and Darth Vader.

Everyone has a favorite wide-screen movie memory. Maybe it is Darth Vader breathing loudly through his words in "Star Wars"; Yoda offering sage advice to Luke Skywalker in "The Empire Strikes Back"; or Rhett Butler carrying Scarlett O'Hara up the stairs in "Gone with the Wind."

These images might be etched forever in our minds, but where do those film characters actually live now? And how are movie studios, television and cable networks, and video production companies handling the crushing influx of both raw and polished video that is filling up archives at an alarming rate?

The production and archiving of movie and television images is well into an industrial sea change. The characters that once lived in cans of film or videotape stored in dark vaults are now moving to safer and far more accessible lodging inside disk drives and digital tape archives.

That trend will only continue as video content-ranging from feature films to commercial surveillance video to homemade videos on YouTube-is increasingly distributed via the Internet.

Researcher IDC predicts that online video services will generate $1.7 billion in revenue in the United States by 2010, up from $230 million in 2005.

Companies ranging from YouTube, which inked a deal with NBC June 27; to Guba and Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, which partnered July 11; and ABC and Apple Computer have teamed on video distribution projects.

Add it up, and the demand for video storage is immense.

But before video can be distributed, it has to be digitized. That would be a lot easier, though, if it weren't for the work broadcasters and video producers must do to get disparate storage systems working together. As it is, storage hardware manufacturers all have different proprietary APIs (application programming interfaces for digital engineers), and most are not in a hurry to standardize.

Still, the need to get these technologies playing nicely together is great. As it is, Yoda and all those other characters are quickly becoming "ingested"-the industry term for converting rolls of film into high-resolution digital files-into new digital homes that require unprecedented amounts of digital storage space. Yoda himself-along with all the other "Star Wars" characters, Indiana Jones and others-is well-ensconced in the vast digital archive at Industrial Light & Magic, located at Lucasfilm's new headquarters at the San Francisco Presidio overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge.

When a film is in production at ILM, about 500 full- and part-time artists pour out up to a terabyte or more of raw video each week that will eventually be edited into a finished product. All the pieces must be saved somewhere-and made easily accessible for editors. There's no such thing as a "cutting room floor" anymore.

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"Everything we do here at ILM is stored away somewhere, from the smallest storyboard sketch to a final finished scene, complete with all the special effects," said Mike Thompson, ILM's IT storage manager. "We throw exactly nothing away, ever."

Eventually, all of ILM's content will be digitized. Thompson is keeping up with the rest of the United States, a nation of digital pack rats, mainly out of necessity.

Businesses of all sizes are being required to save everything-every e-mail, instant message, photograph, data sheet and spreadsheet-mostly because of recently enacted regulatory and auditing measures such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. On the nondocument side, videocams, digital cameras, MP3 players and camera phones are so popular and relatively inexpensive that consumers are building up enormous digital loads on their home computers.

The law enforcement and private-security sectors are becoming video storage hogs, with 24/7 security cameras piling up enormous amounts of mostly uneventful-yet important-digital footage that must be retained.

Add to all this the fact that high-definition video -- which requires 4 gigabytes of digital capacity per frame, compared to standard video's 2GB -- is steadily moving into the mix, taking up more space and bandwidth to access it, meaning even more storage will be necessary in the near future to handle the multiplicity of content.

Worldwide revenues of external disk storage system factories continue to spiral up each quarter, growing by 10.3 percent-or $4.2 billion-in the first quarter of this year compared with a year ago, according to IDC.

Next Page: Storage casting call.

Chris Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger is Editor-in-Chief of eWEEK and responsible for all the publication's coverage. In his 13 years and more than 4,000 articles at eWEEK, he has distinguished himself in reporting...