The virtual connection: TV station discovers solution to storage needs

Complex storage networks comprised of multivendor technologies are commonplace in today’s IT landscape, but adding storage onto a mixed network can often wind up straining a company’s bottom line.

Ken Devine, CTO of WNET Channel 13 in New York, was all too familiar with this scenario. The nonprofit station, which produces such PBS shows as Nature and Great Performances, operates three separate storage domains that support three different operating systems running on two networks. The station’s Unix-based fund-raising system and Windows NT-based office-and-accounting system each back-up to their own storage domains using the same network; WNET’s video production arm, which uses a blend of NT and Macintosh technology, has its own dedicated network and storage domain.

“The demands and issues in video [storage] are separate from the office [storage] demands. The physical storage [requirements] of video are so high, and the demands are so great, that it never occurred to me to combine the networks,” Devine explains. “We have 25 edit rooms and someone is working on a project in each one with a baseline of 100GB per room, so you begin to see the scale of [our storage needs]. And that’s just the editing,” Devine says.

When given a heads up that the TV station would be adding a digital video channel to stream five multicast video signals to WNET’s audience in addition to the current broadcast lineup, Devine knew how much added storage capacity would be needed to make all this work. The project had the potential to send his budget skyrocketing.

Devine looked at a variety of hardware-based storage area network (SAN) solutions without finding one that met his needs.

“We’ve been working in the SAN space for five years with a variety of different vendors, and none of [the solutions] worked…for a variety of reasons. There was really no standard development. There were a variety of vendors, but no one had everything under one hood,” Devine says.

As it turns out, the solution for WNET lay not in any particular vendor’s storage box, but in a storage virtualization software solution from DataCore Software Corp., in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Simply put, storage virtualization is the ability to arrange multiple physical storage devices, such as disk or tape arrays, into a single “virtual” entity that appears as one disk to the network operator. This virtual storage disk is easier to manage and allows for rapid storage growth and reconfiguration.

The benefits of managing an open-storage platform were driving factors in Devine’s decision to go with the DataCore software.

“The thing that got me was it was the only solution I found that virtualized open systems,” Devine explains. “Now I can separate the storage from my servers and I can have a great big Pentium-class system doing the storage [serving] without having to use a US$100,000 proprietary box – just a standard system.”

Using DataCore’s SANsymphony software and its multivendor-friendly approach to pooling storage assets, Devine could move forward with scaling out WNET’s storage network using less expensive, generic disk drives while protecting the investment the station had in its existing name-brand storage equipment.

“SANsymphony allows us to scale out using commodity disks,” Devine says. “There are certain companies that insist on making their storage proprietary. I want it to run on an open platform.”

With SANsymphony virtualizing WNET’s storage, Devine says he can take a storage disk enclosure with eight 9GB drives that cost the station about US$12,000 a year ago, and replace them with eight 72GB commodity disk drives for about US$8,800.

“Our vendors like to hold on to storage sales as part of their server sales. [But] my mantra is that disk storage is going to be an abundant commodity. So the concept of keeping [the price of] a disk-based storage product artificially high when you need as much as I do doesn’t work,” Devine says.

Devine first virtualized WNET’s fund-raising and office network because of its relative simplicity compared to the storage-heavy video production network, which still uses tape as its storage format.

The virtualization of WNET’s video network is now proceeding without a hitch, and Devine is already adding commodity disk storage to the video network in preparation for the digital video channel, which will go live later this year.

Devine says that without SANsymphony, the new digital channel would have required the station to purchase nearly 50 tape machines at US$50,000 a pop to support the data requirements of such a broadcast.

And as producers at WNET and its contributing stations shoot more programs directly to disk instead of tape, Devine says it makes sense to move the majority of the TV station’s storage to disk. DataCore’s technology helps make the transition more affordable.

Devine says that all the storage he is currently adding is disk-based. Disk storage won’t be cheap either, but with his sights set on the long term, Devine says he knew it was the best solution for the station.

“Tape is a very secure format, but as we get more comfortable with virtualization, we will eliminate tape,” he says. “[An hour-long] program takes up an average of 10GB of storage, and while that’s all been done in the past using tape, the ability to manage that video, play it out, archive it, all that stuff, is better dealt with on disk than tape, which is more cumbersome.”

SANsymphony’s capability of shifting storage resources through a drag-and-drop interface is also a boon to WNET’s video production facilities. Editors needing more storage for a particular project can have that extra storage easily allocated to their edit room, sparing WNET employees the strain of having to move heavy, cumbersome reels of tape.

“What we were trying to get to, and I see it coming, is standardize on one type of commodity drive that you stock and use and that is interoperable across all platforms,” Devine says.

“That’s what this solution is: one type of drive to go forward with, without having to throw away everything you own. In fact, it really allows us a much longer life span on everything we own.”