Disney Feature Animation adopts clusters, tiered storage for heavy-duty processing

February 3, 2007

3 Min Read
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There's nothing quite as fun, charming, or family-friendly as an animated feature film. But when Walt Disney Feature Animation needed to turn around the animated processing of the upcoming film Meet the Robinsons, there was no room for cute.

"We were working on a movie with significant creative changes and we needed to meet a release date," says Jon Geibel, manager of systems at Disney. Late last summer, he and Disney VP of technology Jack Brooks had just four to five weeks to revamp the system they were using, which couldn't quite meet their performance requirements.

Their system included primarily NetApp SAN gear and clustered storage from Panasas. Trouble was, there was only one tier of storage. This made it tough to run the enormous amount of processing the project and its changes required.

"Digitally animated films have texture files with incredibly high access requirements," Geibel says. All characters and surrounding scenery require specific shading, lighting, textures, and rules of motion. Throughout a scene, each frame must be digitally set up to "call" these specifications. That means intense I/O. "It's not uncommon for a movie to have 25 million individual files," Brooks says.

The Disney team decided to split the animation data into difference types and place each type on its own storage tier. The idea was to set up three tiers of incrementally lower performance and cost.Key to the new plan was a parallel file system from Ibrix, a solution earlier adopted by Pixar, an animation studio bought by Disney last year. (See Pixar.) The idea was to cluster file server caching in order to avoid relying on a single server, which could quickly become a bottleneck.

In an apparent effort to repeat the Pixar success, the team replaced Panasas with Ibrix software working on 14 Dell servers fronting two EMC Clariion CX380s linked by a Cisco-switched 2-Gbit/s Fibre Channel SAN. That became tier 1.

The second tier includes a NetApp FAS6070 equipped with Fibre Channel disks, and the third tier is a FAS6030 with SATA shelves.

The transition didn't take long. After a few days of tuning, performance went up significantly. Tiering, plus the use of clustering by the Ibrix Fusion parallel file system, streamlined the rendering process.

According to Brooks, the proof of success is in the amount of CPU usage the team now gets out of their 2,000-processor render farm (the servers that are tasked with producing the digitized movie). Previously, the servers were running 75 percent of their CPU capacity -- meaning that the a lot of time was being wasted on I/O, as calls for texture files battered the systems. Now, CPU utilization is up to about 90 percent.The team won't say what they paid for the new setup. But they will say they finished the job on time. Production of Meet the Robinsons wrapped last week, in time to hit theaters in March.

Mary Jander, Site Editor, Byte and Switch

  • EMC Corp. (NYSE: EMC)

  • Ibrix Inc.

  • Network Appliance Inc. (Nasdaq: NTAP)

  • Panasas Inc.

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