Clustered NAS from BlueArc supplants Isilon at film effects firm

BlueArc Mercury 100 clustered NAS replaces Isilon at Cinesite as visual effects company boosts storage capacity threefold to cope with random access demands.

Clustered NAS from BlueArc has supplanted Isilon NAS at London-based visual effects house Cinesite. The customer win is a bonus for BlueArc because Cinesite's parent company is Kodak, which Isilon counts among its key customers.

Cinesite employs more than 350 visual effects artists, working on up to eight movies at any one time. Cinesite recently completed work on the Warner Bros. blockbuster Clash of the Titans, with its BlueArc Mercury 100 clustered NAS system feeding approximately 200 TB of data to 2,500 processing cores.

The company has to access thousands of files that vary in size from a few kilobytes to hundreds of gigabytes, often in random patterns that place huge demands on throughput and I/O performance.

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Last year, Cinesite identified a need to triple its existing storage capacity due to changes in film effects production techniques.

"We needed 100 TB more than we had," said Peter Robertshaw, technical services manager at Cinesite. "There had been a lot of changes in the way we were making shows, with a big increase in techniques that simulated smoke, water, fire, etc., and that brought a big increase in the amount of storage needed."

At the same time, Robertshaw realised random access performance was hampered by the firm's existing Isilon clustered NAS systems and they did not want to add to that.

"We had been solely Isilon users for about two and a half years, and we had 36 usable TB installed," he explained. "We decided we needed a leap in capacity, and we didn't necessarily want to do that by putting in more Isilon without looking at what else was out there."

Robertshaw's complaint with the existing Isilon setup -- which consisted of all-SATA drives on IQ 4600 and IQ 6000 units -- was that if you added more modules with faster processors and more bandwidth, the cluster only operates at the performance of the slowest units.

"BlueArc performance is linear in a clustered configuration. Isilon claims to be able to cluster old systems with new systems, but the effect is to restrict performance to that of the slowest system," he said.

Following a detailed NAS clustering evaluation process, Cinesite installed four BlueArc Mercury 100 clustered NAS heads with 200 TB of capacity and a 50/50 split between SAS and SATA drives.

Tiered storage is implemented by policy and manually using a legacy hierarchical storage management (HSM) tool from Grau Data. Tier 1 uses SAS for movie image files, while tier 2 on SATA is for raw scans that are fed into the effects production process. Nearline archiving is provided by Cinesite's existing 36 TB of Isilon clustered NAS storage.

Head-to-head clustered NAS evaluation

Robertshaw's team shortlisted three candidate vendors and put hardware from each firm through extensive testing. The three candidate systems were two BlueArc Mercury units with 12 shelves of SAS and one of SATA; an Isilon IQ 12000X with all SATA drives; and a pair of NetApp FAS3170 heads with SAS and SATA enclosures.

Vendors were given the opportunity to submit hardware for testing according to requirements set out by Cinesite, Robertshaw said. "We gave vendors an idea of what we wanted to do and allowed them to bring the best configuration they thought would fit. We set up synthetic testing where we tested for reads, writes and read/writes with a scaling number of clients up to 300 workstations."

Robertshaw's team used IOzone and homegrown tools to benchmark for different numbers of clients and types of operations on each storage subsystem.

"In random access, BlueArc won hands-down. Isilon did not show well at all, which was not surprising with all SATA drives. I think they didn't understand our workflow properly. In sequential operations, all three were much closer," he said.

Robertshaw said the biggest challenges were the short window in which his team had to do tests, as well as making sure they gained results that were representative.

He said the benefits of the BlueArc implementation have been that it is "bigger and faster, and now we have tiered storage. Previously, we only had online or tape."

The next challenge for Cinesite will be when it starts working on stereoscopic movie content. This development could see storage requirements double or treble, and will put increased requirements on processing power.

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