July 2003|Remember The Blob, the '50s sci-fi classic that vividly portrays an ever-growing, all-consuming monster in all its menacing, unthinking power? If so, you probably recall its dramatic denouement, in which a teenage Steve McQueen—in his first starring role—leads his girlfriend and other teens in overcoming the insatiable beast with blasts of freezing CO2 from a fire extinguisher.
Just imagine. Wouldn't it be nice if there were a convenient version of CO2 to still our ever-growing digital content storage monster, which also threatens to consume every bit, byte, and fiber of bandwidth in its path? The frightening speed at which digital content grows in size—particularly in studios with vast archives of uncompressed digital video—paired with the unending demands of content creators for instant access, has been a major challenge to hardware and operating system vendors. Fortunately, IBM, Isilon, and other vendors have released new and improved file systems designed with digital content in mind in a vigorous attempt to tame this monster.
Meet Mr. File System
Most of us don't see a file system very often—especially if our business is creating content, not filing it or maintaining a network on which it's filed. But it's there and it's vital to our work, natural as it may seem to ignore it. A file system lies in the bowels of the network, accepting and dispensing data back and forth to our workstations on a daily basis. It is the way the network operating system organizes hard disk storage to hold files in directories.
We never really take note of its organizational intricacies because they're largely transparent; what we do see is whether this organizing is slow or unreliable. Workstations now can house quarter-terabyte local drives (which are large enough to store most of the digital content to which a given producer might need regular access). Thus, the temptation grows to store things locally if the network resources become too much of a hassle.
The problem with this is that it creates islands of data at each workstation. In collaborative production environments, this approach presents significant impediments to the logical workflow of the studio.
Crossing the FS Threshold
With these management issues endemic to collaborative content creation in mind, consider the challenges faced by George Johnsen, head of animation at Threshold Digital Research Labs, the production arm of Threshold Entertainment. Best known for his work as co-producer of Babylon 5—and for introducing CGI to prime-time TV on the hit sci-fi series—Johnsen is currently directing the production of an upcoming animated film called Foodfight! A crucial part of his work on Foodfight! is coordinating multi-continent content creation, and ensuring the smooth collaboration of animators in the U.S. and Korea working on gigabytes of CGI each day.
"What I'd really like to create here is a Hollywood without walls," Johnsen says. "I'd like to use the best talent wherever it is found, rather than just people who will live and work in Santa Monica." That said, and as lovely an idea as "Hollywood without walls" might be, it's no small feat to achieve, particularly with storage-intensive material like CGI or uncompressed digital video generated on a tight production schedule. It simply isn't possible to create content on time and on budget using standalone tools and sneaker-netting data between workstations.
In response to this challenge, Johnsen has implemented IBM's Digital Content Creation (DCC) system at Threshold. In addition to its effective content tools, DCC also supports IBM's video-enabled General Parallel File System (GPFS) on the storage side. GPFS is IBM's answer for storing video content on a storage area network (SAN). Thanks in part to this technology. Johnsen's feature budget is about 35 to 40 percent less than what major studios spend on similar movies such as Shrek and Toy Story.
"We are not a huge company," Johnsen says, "and to have an IBM sit down with us is pretty cool. We've built the studio around IBM's Linux-based Intellistations with LightWave software. We are using a version of the DB2 database with a Web interface to access 7TB of storage." Johnsen believes the type of collaboration Foodfight! demands would have worked much less effectively—if at all—without implementing the IBM solutions, and says a willingness to step outside the content creation field into territory commonly considered IT gearhead-land was essential to make the technology work in Threshold's favor. "People in our industry have worked in ivory towers too long. Studios need to embrace technology and innovate. Look what happened in the record industry. In 1987-88, the PortaStudio personal multitrack system became available from TEAC for a cheap $1400. The music recording industry died that day."
GPFS is one of several new file systems designed for video content. Isilon Systems of Seattle, Washington has also developed its own tailor-made solution called OneFS, designed to solve some of the same storage and asset problems. Both GPFS and OneFS address the needs of multiple users trying to access large amounts of data. It is this multiple-user, network approach that has such potential for revolutionizing the workflow of the digital studio, and enabling efficient access to and re-use and re-purposing of valuable archived content.