Workshop FX among first to try 'bleeding edge' IBM tech

Big Blue's SONAS storage array gets local implementation

Workshop FX, a subsidiary of Weta, the Wellington 3D computer animation and visual effects company, is among the first in the world to implement an IBM SONAS scalable network storage array.

The new storage system offers a single high-bandwidth gateway between the server and the “render-wall” – the array of blade processors which assemble a scene from its graphic and real-world component parts. This will make it easier to pull together the elements of the scene, says Workshop FX IT manager John McMullen.

With the IBM p-series storage-area network (SAN) the company had before, the different elements – the texture of a surface and the angle of lighting on the scene, for example – would be stored on separate volumes and something could be missed in putting the scene together.

The increased power of the SONAS storage and its technique of striping data across all disks in a storage pool make it easier for two or more teams of graphic artists to work on different projects simultaneously. With the SAN, “hotspots” could be created, where part of the storage suffered excess demand and could not respond quickly enough, giving rise to “performance issues”, McMullen says.

The deal with IBM was reached last year after a worldwide tender. McMullen says the shortlist of suppliers was “two or three”, but declines to name the other candidates. “We want to stay on good terms with everyone,” he says.

IBM’s incumbency with the p-series hardware did not give it a specific advantage, but Workshop FX did have good contacts with the company and confidence in its support, says McMullen and this lent some weight to its offer. Support staff responded promptly to queries and challenges of implementation. “At the end of the day,” McMullen says, “the right technology fit for an organisation is only as good as the global experience and support behind it.”

This is especially true with something like SONAS, which he acknowledges is “bleeding edge technology.” Workshop FX personnel could not even visit any reference sites with long experience of the hardware, he says.

Local IBM business partner Spectrum Consulting managed the implementation, in collaboration with IBM’s international SONAS specialists.

The greatest challenge in the implementation was not in SONAS itself, but in reorganising Workshop FX’s pipeline between storage and processors, McMullen says.

Workshop FX looks forward to getting “twice the render power” out of the new storage and, as the SONAS name implies, increased scalability. “IBM tells us it has been tested up to 14.4 petabytes [14,400 terabytes],” McMullen says. That leaves considerable headroom above the demand created by the company’s current scale of work, but McMullen declines to say what that is, or to estimate how long it will be before Workshop FX has to go back to the market for an even faster and larger system. “That depends on our workload,” he says.

The increase in demand for graphics has been generated partly by the rise of high-definition television, says McMullen.

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