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Serving the Digital Studio
Posted Oct 1, 2002 Print Version   Page 1of 2 next »

When we think of today's digital studio pros, we don't think network engineers. We envision audio and video artists and editors and other creative types engaged in a common digital content creation task. But there's no collaboration without connection—network connection, that is. Where do today's studio pros find the servers that serve their high-throughput network needs, and how can they build them with a minimum of networking knowledge?

October 2002|The "digital studio" of yesteryear was a marvel of production. Anyone who has watched a documentary on designing aircraft, creating animation, or constructing a skyscraper in the 1930s and '40s would have seen a studio as a vast sea of desks. Hundreds of designers were at work using Stone Age tools creating, editing, and producing final versions of their output. The entire process was a brute-force effort in manual labor of prodigious proportions. It was miraculous that so much came from such simple methods.

Today's digital studio is even more miraculous—bringing creators and consumers within hours or minutes of each other rather than days, months, or even years from concept to content. Thanks to network technology, today's content creators are better able to deliver their visions, at lower cost, and with far fewer people.

Key to this efficiency and effectiveness is the inclusion of network servers into the workflow. Servers and the digital studio are sort of axiomatic. You can't do much now in audio or video production without a server, and that trend isn't likely to change, with continuing growth in the number and types of servers that most networks will have in the near to middle term.

To Connect and Serve

It isn't a question of whether you have a server in the system—you already do. Even single-person shops also have "servers" in the form of Windows 2000 or XP. The process of "logging in" as a specific user on a Windows XP PC is in effect "logging in" to a server with this single workstation effectively an "integrated" network server.

The value of servers becomes clear with a bit of discussion. Servers by definition provide two kinds of services to the digital studio:

1. They can control and provide access to content.

2. They can generate new content.

While either service could be done on any PC, the network server "democratizes" the service so all can enjoy its benefits. This was an incredible leap for users in 1985 when network servers first became a buzzword. It still gives incredible value to designers today.

Novell NetWare and Windows NT are most widely known as "file servers"—providing access to content. This access could be as digital information over the network (local, intra-company, or beyond). It could also be as hardcopy "access" or on-screen display.

Database servers, message servers, and encoding servers go a step further as they create new content (and likely provide access to that new content as well.) These can be MPEG streams, MP3 audio, or HTML output.

The good news is that the industry does recognize a difference between the typical office automation system and that of the digital studio. IDC, one of the largest of the analyst groups for the IT industry, identifies the tools of the studio as "The Rich Media Asset Management Market." This market focuses on the technologies involved in creating, acquiring, managing, filing, securing, and delivering digital assets. Digital content includes audio, video, text, and all kinds of non-static imagery, regardless of the medium.

(Curiously, IDC does not consider still images as part of "rich media" although many studios spend considerable time on such images for box or cover art, presentation slides, or billboards and displays.)

The critical issues facing the administrator today in the digital studio are:

• "How do I handle growth?"

• "How do I increase the number of services to our users?"

• "How do I decrease costs, improve reliability, and increase performance—all at the same time?"

The choices and constraints are far from obvious and become explosively complex as the network expands. Special purpose or dedicated servers do provide the quickest way to handle growth, increase services, and improve reliability by assigning specific tasks to such boxes. Unfortunately, defining these tasks creates an additional set of issues.

Envisioning the Video Server

The type of special-purpose server that figures most prominently in the digital studio is the video server. The term "video server" should clearly be found in any digital studio's lexicon, but industry pundits can't quite decide what exactly a video server is. To serve the digital studio effectively, the video server should provide one or more of the following five features:

1. Real-time MPEG-2 encoding of content.

2. Real-time MPEG-1 encoding for surveillance and monitoring.

3. Content management services for an attached RAID or optical library of digital content for local access.

4. Production support for storing and retrieving work-in-progress content for local access.

5. Streaming video to the Internet.

Each of these tasks requires different hardware, operating system optimizations, third-party software, and management tools to cope effectively with growth and easy access to the new service. In effect, these are different systems all under the same moniker of "video server."

Some vendor offerings do answer these complexities. IBM's impressive Digital Content Creation Initiative—including their Media Production Suite for Video Producers and Custom Digital Content Management system—while supporting these services, appear to be tailored for an Enterprise or Fortune 100 or large studio deployment. Fortunately, though, for the small- or medium-size studio, vendors are addressing these complexities with lower-cost NAS, SAN, and new management protocols to try to approach this in a more "plug-and-play" fashion.

In fact, one of the hurdles is in realizing that, for network services, "more is less." More hardware and more devices on the network can be much less hassle. In the past, the high cost of the network's primary server (due to the need for a higher-performing system) meant that administrators wanted to get the most out of one piece of hardware. With the types of systems available today, this approach misses the mark by a mile.

Today's 1gHz systems cost well under $500 (without monitor), so there's little reason to try and force a server to take on more tasks. One of the reasons that Windows NT gained a reputation for unreliability was its users' tendency to overburden NT servers. If an NT server only had to be an Exchange server, then it could be optimized for that task and expected to perform with a minimum of reboots. Unfortunately, if that NT server also had to provide end-user file access, print services, directory services, and the like, then it stood a pretty good chance of succumbing to schizophrenia.

Also keep in mind when assigning server tasks that video servers aren't the only type of server in demand at a digital studio. An office automation server—the more typical Windows Exchange or Microsoft Office file server—provides a medium-duty service with less demand on throughput.

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