Computer-Graphics Firm Turns To Storage Automation To Meet Growing Workload

Rainmaker upgraded its BlueArc primary storage system and is using automated management software to save time in administering storage resources and improve ease of use.

May 20, 2009

5 Min Read
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Rainmaker Entertainment, a Vancouver, British Columbia-based leader in computer-graphics animation, generates more than $300 million in video sales and employs more than 350 employees who do everything from 3-D modeling and lighting to feature films, animation and IT. Rainmaker is internationally recognized for its work on brands like "Spider-Man" and "Popeye", but it also produces original video properties like "ReBoot", "Escape from Planet Earth" and "The Nutty Professor".

In the company's core work of video rendering, three-dimensional models are introduced that include various video modeling instructions in areas such as lighting, texture, viewpoint and shading. With the help of computer programs, these models are rendered into video images. The process is resource-intensive. It requires the ability to receive and store images continuously into production, and to save them weekly into archived storage.

To handle its production workload, Rainmaker was using a BlueArc Titan I (1100 series) system for its primary storage. On the archiving side of its operations, the company was using an Isilon IQ3000 for secondary archive storage, which was performed weekly. "We didn't really have significant performance issues before in production on the single-head Titan I solution, but we knew that we were pushing it to the max with the workload," says Dave Algar, Rainmaker's principal data administrator.

In its business forecasting models, Rainmaker was projecting a three-fold increase in its video modeling and rendering activity. To Rainmaker IT's department, this left little doubt that the present production environment and secondary archiving were going to be challenged to meet the needs. Rainmaker's IT team identified several key objectives as it considered its storage upgrade alternatives:

-- Providing well-performing IT storage resources for company production where resources could be consolidated and/or added as needed -- without resulting in downtime for the business.

-- Finding a way for IT to maintain new production storage infrastructure investment with minimal training and reduced administration time.

-- Establishing an effective storage management strategy for archiving data on secondary storage.

-- Positioning the company for a scalable future with its storage infrastructure.

"We have an active production schedule, and the biggest things we wanted from our systems were faster performance and more storage for the 300-400 people working on shows in-house," says Ron Stinson, director of information technology and operations at Rainmaker. "We looked at several different solutions and approaches from a number of vendors, but in the end we made the decision to stay with our original vendors, and to upgrade our primary storage from a BlueArc Titan 1 to a BlueArc Titan 3 (3000 series) platform."

The upgrade to a Titan 3 moved Rainmaker from a single-head to a double-head hard drive storage system that had built-in software intelligence, which allowed Rainmaker to add or consolidate storage resources online, with no impact on business users. Just as importantly, the platform allowed the company to scale out to an eight-node cluster. "The clustered Titan 3 solution eliminated many speed and provisioning concerns, and it gave us the kind of scalable storage that we felt would be able to meet our production needs well into the future," says Algar. Rainmaker works with large files of data, and Titan 3 allowed each object-based file system to scale to 256 terabytes of data. "We have about 100 terabytes of data that we work with in production now," Stinson says, "so we are well positioned to meet our foreseeable capacity needs."

Rainmaker was able to address a second concern with the new gear, using automated management software to save time in administering the storage resources and to improve ease of use. The new clustered storage system is capable of working with business rules for different levels of storage tiers, and can automate data storage based upon those rules. Rainmaker presently has 40 percent of its data on Fibre Channel and another 60 percent on SATA drives. It has considered solid state disk drives (SDDs), but says it is still waiting for SSD costs to go down.

Regardless of what Rainmaker selects for its storage media, it is confident that the system it uses has the requisite automation to make storage optimization and failover easy tasks. "Manageability and ease of use are critical factors for us in our storage infrastructure decisions," says Stinson. "Immediately, we could see that the time it was going to take to perform system administration on this platform was going to drop significantly."

But Rainmaker wasn't quite finished yet. There was still the challenge of improving the data archiving side of the IT operation, where full monthly backups were consuming so much time that they were threatening to bleed into production time. "We were really having problems getting the full monthly backups done," says Stinson. "With the new system software, we are able to divide our total 100 terabyte data load into four weekly backup units of about 24 terabytes each. We keep a schedule, and track where we left off in our backups. This now gives us an incremental weekly backup schedule to work with. At the end of each month, we have a full data backup."

The entire platform migration took Rainmaker between six and eight weeks, with nearly all of that time being spent in planning and proof of concept for the new platform methodology.

"One critical success factor for all of this was doing the upfront planning, and also keeping communications open with the people on our business side," Stinson says. "We got their buy-in, and also let them know during the project whenever we would need downtime to do the work on the IT end. We had to try out different equipment configurations first on a single head to see what worked and what didn't. Once we found what we were looking for, we were able to add the second head over a weekend without incurring any production downtime."

Stinson also had this recommendation for companies planning a similar project: "Review the different technologies, but also find out what you can about the different business partners and suppliers. Up here in Canada, we have encountered situations where storage vendors don't necessarily have the stock parts that you need, or the support isn't what it should be -- and that has cost us downtime.

InformationWeek Analytics has published an independent analysis of the challenges around enterprise storage. Download the report here (registration required).

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