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Combining a SAN with a Render Farm

Terry Cullen, CEO of 1 Beyond explains how and why it's done By Charlie White

(8/8/05) Massachusetts-based 1 Beyond is a workstation builder and high-end digital hardware provider for the graphics and video editing industries. The companys CEO, Terry Cullen, has a forward-looking philosophy that does justice to the companys name. At this years SIGGRAPH convention, Cullen demonstrated his concept of teaming up Mac and PC workstations with very fast storage and a render farm. With the tremendous throughput required to edit uncompressed high definition files, his companys Harmony SAN (storage area network) teamed up with the Red Line render farm may be just the prescription for moving, rendering, and outputting those huge files.

The transition from standard definition to high definition requires working with files that are many times larger. Many content creators who work in a group would like to continue using the traditional setup of workstations and a render farm, where the fine-tuning to graphics files or video is done on the workstations, and then all the processing happens at a separate location, at a render farm (a group of computers specifically charged with rendering those files). Theres been a problem with that workflow, though, when uncompressed high definition (HD) files are substituted for those standard definition (SD) files. All of a sudden the system gets bogged down, even when working at gigabit speeds.

Terry Cullen had a way to solve that problem. ?Why not take our Harmony SAN and our render farm and combine the two technologies together?, he asked. Traditionally, a workstation user sends a file to a render farm, where that file must then be distributed to each of the render engines. Cullens concept is to combine a storage area network running at extremely high speed?where all users can see it as one huge drive on their local computer?with a render farm thats directly attached to that storage area network. Cullen continued, ?Now, with a storage area network, everybody sees that storage area network as its own private local drive. So, your workstation?this has to be a high speed SAN?is working in the SAN instead of its own local drive. So all these files are in that SAN. 

Once the files are ready for processing, theyre sent to the render farm. Cullen said, ?The render farm looks at it, wants to get access to those files, but it says, ?Hey, these files are already on my local drive so I dont have to move anything. So at the render farm, each render engine sees the storage area network as a local disk, and each workstation sees it as a local disk, so it totally eliminates all the file movement. Its a unique solution. The strength of this technique is that these large files dont need to be moved anywhere, and can be processed all in one place. That saves time.

The only way this concept will work is if all of its components are operating at extraordinarily high speeds. The system drive on many computers is typically is not fast enough to work with high definition files. This system operates at such high speeds that its capable of working with uncompressed HD footage over a storage area network. ?You can have your graphics department, your editors, and your render engines all working within that SAN, Cullen said.

Another significant benefit of this concept is version control. ?One of the big problems with the production facility is keeping everybody using the same version of everything, said Cullen. ?When you have a new version of a graphic, you have to go around all the workstations and be sure they have that new graphic. With the SAN, you put one copy of that new graphic in the SAN and everybody thinks its another local disk. So, instantly, you have version control. Another advantage would be a situation where a graphics department creates a new logo, and when the editing department needs it, its immediately available.

Cullen touted the scalability of the 1 Beyond system, claiming it can accommodate a large number of workstations editing high definition video. Said Cullen, ?What you need at the workstation for uncompressed HD is a minimum of just under 200MB per second. But when you run high definition video at 200MB per second, you get a very choppy response. It will play smoothly, but editing is more than just playing video?its scrubbing and searching, too. So when you take something thats barely able to run uncompressed HD and you start searching, you start to get a jerky motion.  

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Related Keywords:1 Beyond, workstation builder, digital hardware provider, graphics, video editing, CEO, Terry Cullen, SIGGRAPH, Mac, PC workstations, very fast storage, render farm, throughput, uncompressed high definition, Harmony SAN, storage area network, Red Line render farm, rendering, outputting, huge files


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