SAN pays off for Showtime


If you regularly watch Showtime on cable, you've may have seen their movies House of Mirth, Dickson Family Saga or have noticed ads for them. Showtime Networks Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Viacom Inc., of New York, owns the premium television networks Showtime, The Movie Channel, Flix, and operates the Sundance Channel.

Based at Showtime's New York City headquarters, the Red Group--an in-house advertising agency--operates with 75 professionals and a $15 million budget to produce printed collateral aimed at promoting Showtime's programming. The group consists of 15 designers and 12 production specialists. The monthly workload for these individuals includes about 180-250 jobs of designing producing anything that can be printed, from billboard posters to newspaper ads. Because all the prepress work is done in-house, the production specialists find themselves retouching files in the gigabyte range. And the pressure to produce high-quality prints forces designers to push the creative envelope and deal with megabyte layers of Adobe Photoshop files.

Keeping the network from gagging on gigabytes

Paul Nicholson (the director who oversees the Red Group's print operation in the computer graphics studio) says that when it comes to information technology, the agency must abide by corporate standards set by Viacom. When Nicholson joined Showtime, the agency had been struggling to move large files around a token ring network. To work on specific files, individuals had to copy them from the server via the network to their desktop Macintoshes. This file-copying process often resulted in failure to replace the copied file with its updated version or to delete the old version.

Nicholson says, "I begged the corporate IT department to let us switch to a 10BaseT network. At first this network felt like a lifesaver, but we quickly realized its limitations." He put a variety of steps in place to look at better ways to move and to keep track of the large files needed by each individual. One of the peer-to-peer file-sharing techniques included slugging every job at the bottom of every printout and logging whose machine the file was on. But the designers, in particular, often forgot to update their slugs or to delete files after they moved them.

Next, Nicholson asked the production specialists and designers handling large print files to keep day-by-day track of the time they spent looking for, copying, opening, and saving files. He says, "These individuals spent up to 60 percent of their time doing tasks not related to putting work on jobs. Every minute we wasted cost us money."

Based on the results of the study, Nicholson continued to explore ways to improve his staff's productivity. He nixed the idea of local RAID storage, which offers speed, but doesn't solve the problem of copying and tracking files over the network. Moving to a faster IP-based network, such as Megabit Ethernet or Gigabit Ethernet, required the approval of Viacom's IT department. Nicholson says, "Any shared IP-based network would see a lot of traffic flying all over the place with 20 individuals trying to open, save, copy, and print gigabyte files at the same time."

While he was researching storage technologies, Nicholson learned how he could carry out his dream of putting everything in one place. A file-sharing storage area network (SAN) would move Nicholson's staff off the 10BaseT network to its own network and provide them direct access to one storage pool without going through a server. Nicholson could easily put the SAN in place, control it, and grow it. Because the Showtime building was wired for fiber-optic cable, the SAN could take advantage of high transmission speeds offered by the Fibre Channel protocol running on the cables. At the same time, Nicholson didn't have to worry about the cost of installing these cables. The $150,000 price tag for the SAN included storage software, storage hardware, and switches.

SAN makes files move and gives studio back its groove

Despite the steep price for the SAN, Nicholson took only 10 minutes to convince his managers to spend the money. "Based on the study I had done, I guaranteed them that within a year we would see certain results from the SAN," he says.

In January 1999, Nicholson installed the 350MB Clariion 5400 Fibre Channel RAID storage system and Windows NT servers from Dell, and ran fiber-optic cables from those devices to a switch in the wiring closet on his floor. He also ran fiber-optic cables to the Mac workstations, and installed PCI cards in each workstation. Mercury Computer Systems' SANergy--which at that time ran only on Windows NT--became the crucial software that gave the SAN its file-sharing capabilities. Nicholson, a hands-on Mac maven, spent a week reviewing Windows NT, so he could install SANergy and tap into the switching and IP addresses based on a Windows NT environment.

SANergy handles all the file-management functions by formatting files on the disk in NT File System (NTFS), which both Windows PCs and Macs can read. Running on its own Windows NT server, SANergy takes requests in common Internet file system (CIFS) format from the Mac workstations and redirects them to the RAID storage system, without going through the server connected to the storage. The files travel in NTFS format from the RAID storage system to the Macs. SANergy also keeps track of access privileges. For example, if someone is working on a file, SANergy will lock the file so it can't be accessed and written over.

Nicholson says that SANergy has enabled him to set up one big storage pool for the staff. He says, "They can open, save, and print documents at the same time." He has divided the SAN storage into two volumes--a high-resolution image library and a current work library--separated into folders. To mount these volumes on their desktops, users go to the Chooser window and select the volume. The Mac sees the volumes as if they were on a local SCSI drive. He says, "To this end, the SAN is completely invisible to users." Because the SAN has access to the IP network, users can connect to the rest of the organization to use e-mail.

SANergy enables users to access the files they want without having to copy them from another user and remember to delete old versions. In fact, SANergy has allowed the staff to dramatically reduce mistakes on completed files.

Nicholson says some products similar to SANergy offer volume sharing, not file sharing. "With volume sharing, each person on the SAN needs their own volume or partition of the SAN. If you need to share work, you have to copy from one volume to the other. You still have to worry about file duplication. Not so with SANergy."

Overall, the SAN--which doesn't carry the heavy overhead of the IP network--has provided Nicholson with good transmission speed from the Fibre Channel. However, it isn't the 100Mbps speed industry sources tout. Nicholson says that the actual speed from Fibre Channel depends on the storage system's RAID level and redundancy, as well as the application. He says, "We're getting about 55Mbps raw speed with a RAID 3 fully redundant storage system. The Mac operating system and Adobe Photoshop have limited the speed to 25Mbps."

SAN payoff came sooner than Santa Claus

During the SAN's first year, Nicholson reduced his staff by 30 percent and saw the work double. He says, "The SAN's speed and file-sharing capabilities have allowed us to take on more work with a smaller staff. We now spend more time making sure the jobs are correct and perfecting the retouching. Overall, we've gotten incredible productivity statistics as a result of the SAN. Although it was expensive to put in, it paid for itself in six months."

Note: At the end of 1999, Tivoli Systems Inc. acquired SANergy from Mercury Computer Systems. SANergy now runs on three platforms--Windows NT, Mac, and Sun Solaris--and it still requires its own server. //

Elizabeth Ferrarini is a freelance writer from Boston, Massachusetts.


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