By Adam Stern
Twenty years is an eternity in any technology-dependent industry. Over the course of two-plus decades of visual effects facility ownership, changing standards, demands, capability upgrades and staff expansion have seen my company, Vancouver-based Artifex Studios, usher in several distinct eras of storage, each with its own challenges. As we’ve migrated to bigger and better systems, one lesson we’ve learned has proven critical to all aspects of our workflow.
In the early days, Artifex used off-the-shelf hard drives and primitive RAIDs for our storage needs, which brought with it slow transfer speeds and far too much downtime when loading gigabytes of data on and off the system. We barely had any centralized storage, and depended on what was essentially a shared network of workstations — which our then-small VFX house could get away with. Even considering where we were then, which was sub-terabyte, this was a messy problem that needed solving.
We took our first steps into multi-TB NAS using off-the-shelf solutions from companies like Buffalo. This helped our looming storage space crunch but brought new issues, including frequent breakdowns that cost us vital time and lost iterations — even with plenty of space. I recall a particular feature film project we had to deliver right before Christmas. It almost killed us. Our NAS crashed and wouldn’t allow us to pull final shots, while throwing endless error messages our way. I found myself frantically hot-wiring spare drives to enable us to deliver to our client. We made it, but barely.
At that point it was clear a change was needed. We started using a solution that Annex Pro — a Vancouver-based VAR we’d been working with for years — helped put into place. That company was bought and then went away completely.
Our senior FX TD, Stanislav Enilenis, who was also handling IT for us back then, worked with Annex to install the new system. According to Stan, “the switch allowed bandwidth for expansion. However, when we would be in high-production mode, bandwidth became an issue. While the system was an overall improvement from our first multi-terabyte NAS, we had issues. The company was bought out, so getting drives became problematic, parts became harder to source and there were system failures. When we hit top capacity with the-then 20-plus staff all grinding, the system would slow to a crawl and our artists spent more time waiting than working.”
As we transitioned from SD to HD, and then to 4K, our delivery requirements increased along with our rendering demands, causing severe bottlenecks in the established setup. We needed a better solution but options were limited. We were potentially looking at a six-figure investment, in a system not geared to M&E.
In 2014, Artifex was working on the TV series Continuum, which had fairly massive 3D requirements on an incredibly tight turnaround. It was time to make a change. After a number of discussions with Annex, we made the decision to move to an offering from a new company called Qumulo, which provided above-and-beyond service, training and setup. When we expanded into our new facility, Qumulo helped properly move the tech. Our new 48TB pipeline flowed freely and offered features we didn’t previously have, and Qumulo were constantly adding new and requested updates.
Laila Arshid, our current IS manager, has found this to be particularly valuable. “In Qumulo’s dashboard I can see realtime analytics of everything in the system. If we have a slowdown, I can track it to specific workstations and address any issues. We can shut that workstation or render-node down or reroute files so the system stays fast.”
The main lesson we’ve learned throughout every storage system change or upgrade is this: It isn’t just about having a lot of space. That’s an easy trap to fall into, especially today when we’re seeing skyrocketing demands from 4K+ workflows. You can have unlimited storage, but If you can’t utilize it efficiently and at speed, your storage space becomes irrelevant.
In our industry, the number of iterations we can produce has a dramatic impact on the quality of work we’re able to provide, especially with today’s accelerated schedules. One less pass can mean work with less polish, which isn’t acceptable.
Looking forward, we’re researching extended storage on the cloud: an ever-expanding storage pool with the advantages of fast local infrastructure. We currently use GCP for burst rendering with Zync, along with nearline storage, which has been fantastic — but the next step will be integrating these services with our daily production processes. That brings a number of new challenges, including how to combine local and cloud-based rendering and storage in ways that are seamless to our team.
Constantly expanding storage requirements, along with maintaining the best possible speed and efficiency to allow for artist iterations, are the principal drivers for every infrastructure decision at our company — and should be a prime consideration for everyone in our industry.
Adam Stern is the founder of Vancouver, British Columbia’s Artifex. He says the studio’s main goal is to heighten the VFX experience, both artistically and technically, and collaborate globally with filmmakers to tell great stories.