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Small Tree Improves upon Ethernet SAN* foundation

As I reported a few weeks ago, Small Tree replaced our original ethernet SAN we've been running since December 2008 with a new system including an all new 48TB Granite Stor RAID II. I also reported that we discovered some things about the Macs that Steve and Chris wanted to go back and test even further.

During the original install, the new Edge Core Switch turned out to have an issue which caused one of the 10Gig ports to fail. But we all expected that the system would work well for us while a solution was found to that issue. Unfortunately, though we tested the system for a full day with all the systems running and doing some editing, after the first full week, we knew we had to improve the performance of the system in a hurry. There just seemed to be a fine tolerance to what could be happening at any given time to ensure that all the systems worked properly, particularly the ability to master shows without the edit to tape aborting for dropped frames. It really came to a head one afternoon when we were trying to get two network shows out at the same time and of course, dropped frames turned everything into a race against the clock to make overnight shipping. We made it, but it was way too close for comfort.

We remained in almost daily contact with Steve, Chris and the rest of the Small Tree engineering team and they repeatedly would log into our various computer systems, make some tweaks, take some notes and keep working at it. Then last week Steve, Chris and Corky Seeber made a return visit to our facility, but this time they brought a brand new Small Tree 10gig switch along with a quad port 10 Gb card (installed in the server to take the best advantage of the new Small Tree 10 GB switch), and 4 Single port Ethernet cards. Small Tree had noticed during testing in their offices that they were able to get better performance from the Small Tree 1 GbE cards than the internal Ethernet ports of the Apple systems when using the Small Tree 10 Gb Switch.

Basically what Small Tree has been able to do in the past is make high speed, off-the-shelf network switches work for high speed video editing. But from what I understand we've hit the breaking point where if ethernet shared storage is going to continue to evolve and move forward, we need switches designed more for that task than for regular network traffic. Enter the new Small Tree 24 Port 10Gigabit Ethernet switch.

This thing was built with complete 10GigE infrastructure within to ensure that the maximum data throughput is achieved at all times. Designed from the ground up by Small Tree, this unit is something that should be able to withstand the constant beating that a shop like ours throws at it. So that was step one, install the new switch to give the entire system a speed boost right off the bat.

The next step was to go through each individual computer in our facility and individually tune them further. The first time they were here they did the first round, but since discovered some more "secret sauce" to make things work more smoothly. They go into the Terminal of each machine and make some internal tweaks to the setup of each system. There's no "one setting fits all" as I found out. Each systems has to be configured based on all the particulars of how the machine is set up including the software it runs and the third party hardware installed. In the end, I believe Small Tree only installed one of the new 10GigE cards into the machines because quite frankly, the others didn't need them once they were tuned correctly.

In short order we had the SAN up and running and every edit suite playing down video timelines along with all of our iMacs. So that's 5 Mac Pro workstations and 7 iMacs all playing 720p or 1080i ProRes video. The Mac Pros were were all playing FCP 7 timelines in a loop and the iMacs were all playing 20 to 30 minute clips in a loop. The iMacs don't have editing software on them, they're used by Producers to review footage as necessary.

Once again, the system in Edit 1 was the most vexing because it's one of the fastest systems in the entire facility and the one we use to cut the feature documentaries, yet it would drop frames playing the same timeline that the slowest system in the shop could play with no problems. Normally you would say "Add more Ram!" "Add a faster GigE Card!" and those might fix the problem temporarily. But there was something fundamental with the way this machine was configured that needed to be addressed. This was a super fast 8 core machine being outperformed by a much slower four core machine. I would guess the pair of them spent about 6 hours just on that one Mac Pro but they finally hit on a combination of settings that made a major change in the behavior of the machine. We did not touch the RAM, we did not change the Ethernet Card (A Small Tree Peg1 card that's been in there all along), Steve and Chris simply kept going into the Terminal and making adjustments to the way the Mac Pro operates. I honestly don't know all the particulars but by the end of the day, the Edit 1 system was behaving better than it has in a long time.

So when we started this whole process of moving from the older SAN configuration to the new SAN configuration we could lay off a half hour show to tape, but we would have to carefully manage what all the clients on the SAN were doing. Even then, we could get those aborts due to dropped frames.

Now, we can literally lay off two shows simultaneously and not pay any attention to what any of the other clients are doing. We've never been able to do that. In fact we did it 4 times in a row as a test. Two Mac Pros laying off 30 minute 720p HD shows being converted to 1080i via the AJA Kona 3, Three other Mac Pros playing 5 to 30 minute timelines in a loop or editing / scrubbing video (I was jumping from edit suite to edit suite to take over) and the 7 iMacs all playing long video clips in a loop. In fact I even laid off 3 shows simultaneously in one test. We've never been able to do any of this in the past. Oh we could edit in all the suites at the same time no problem, but mastering two shows at the same time to tape, that's never happened, but we always knew that and planned for it.

Then on Monday the editors came in and without any prompting, one of them said, "Everything is snappier today." All three of my editors noticed immediate improved performance from the system. More realtime playback, dropped frames non-existant and absolutely no concern for mastering off shows anymore, even two at a time. After a full week of hammering on the system, I'm glad to say that the system is proving itself on a day to day basis.

And it's not just that we have some faster products now with the new 48TB RAID and the 10GigE switch from Small Tree. It's the technical experience by Steve, Chris and all the engineers at Small Tree to completely understand the inner workings of all the machines that are connected to the system. Not accepting that we can "just throw more RAM or another card" at the problem and try to make it go away. It's getting to the heart of the problem, understanding it and then taking the correct course of action to solve it. Sometimes that means adding more hardware / RAM and other times it simply means tweaking the inner workings of the system.

It's very exciting to see what started out really as a cheaper alternative to a fibre channel SAN now evolving into a much more robust and fast system. Oh and don't think this is a Mac based solution, this concept can run on Windows as well, these guys have expertise in both platforms and of course Linux too. That's VERY important to me right now as we ponder the future course of our company and the NLE solution(s) we go with. We have to be prepared for the possibility that a Windows workstations (or two, or three) could start appearing in our shop. Thankfully, the guys at Small Tree will be ready to take our SAN in whatever direction we need to go.

Ok, about that * in the title - Technically what we are using is a NAS, not a SAN. But when Bob Zelin and I first started talking about it publicly we both referred to this configuration as a SAN because that's what we call shared storage in video production. Steve Modica got tired of correcting us and just went along with our (incorrect) terminology. So if you're fussy about the correct terminology, what we are using to edit video is a NAS. Happy now? Good!

Posted by: walter biscardi on Jul 17, 2011 at 7:01:32 pmComments (1) Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premiere Pro

Atlanta's Post Production User Group, Atlanta Cutters is formed

Hi All!

Very proud to kick off the new Post Production User Group for Atlanta and of course all of the surrounding areas. Too many times these User Groups are application centric and that seems to leave too many folks out. After all in today’s world, an Editor is not just an Editor. Heck a Graphic Artist, a Sound Designer, a Web Designer is just that any longer. Because the tools have gotten so much more accessible all of us are multi-tasking to do whatever it takes to get the job done for the client. So now it’s a rarity to find any Post Production artist who just wears one hat.

In that spirit, we present Atlanta Cutters. Sure we’re gonna spend a lot of time talking about the tools we all use, but moreso, we want to discuss the craft of what we do and how we all interact. So of course you’re going to see a lot of product demonstrations because that’s one way you get to see what’s new and out there. But we will cover a huge range of topics from acquisition to post to storage to archive to sound to graphics to animation and more. But you’re also going to hear from folks on the hows and whys of what they do to hopefully both inspire and motivate all of us to do what we do better. We hope the group will inspire more collaboration by introducing new tools, workflows and even artists to each other.

Most of all, we hope this group is something you look forward to once a month as a fun place to go. Twitter, Facebook and web forums are great for all of us to connect and help each other, but let’s put the voice and face together with the avatar.

So to one and all in the Post Production Community, we say welcome to Atlanta Cutters!

Walter, Kris, Clay and Dan

First meeting: July 27th, 6-10pm, Turner Studios

Posted by: walter biscardi on Jul 11, 2011 at 4:35:47 pm Adobe Premiere Pro, Avid

Transitioning: An Update on our search to replace FCP

We’re one week into our search to transition our facility away from Apple and Final Cut Pro so I wanted to bring everyone up to date on where we stand so far. This was a very busy week as you can imagine with both production work in the shop and many MANY requests for myself to speak to national media outlets, podcasts and personal visits to our facility. So the testing will really ramp up this coming week.

Adobe Premiere Pro CS 5.5

This has been installed both on my home machine (27″ iMac) and our testing Mac Pro at the office which also includes the AJA Kona 3G board. Early testing shows that the workflow is remarkably similar to Final Cut Pro and in fact Adobe even includes preset keyboard remapping for Final Cut Pro 7.0 and Avid Media Composer. The new AJA 9.0.1 Plug-Ins for CS 5.5 are working very nicely and Premiere is talking to our SAN. So it’s essentially plug-and play to get going with the system.

Is it perfect? No and the Adobe reps I’ve been talking to have been very upfront about the good, the bad and ….. well nothing’s ugly so far so that’s a good thing. The most difficult part of the workflow is that Adobe might actually give us TOO many choices and settings.

For example, there is no direct equivalent to “Easy Setup” in Premiere so you do have to through several menus and settings to get your Project set up correctly. However, those Project Settings remain with the Project. So to create an “Easy Setup” you simply create multiple Project Templates with all the settings as you’d like them for various projects. So I create a “720p / 59.94 AJA Project” which has all the settings for a 720p / 59.94 project using the AJA Kona board for Capture and Playback. When I have to do a project using those parameters, I simply Duplicate the project and my entire system is set to work. That’s an elegant workaround and with the multiple workstations in our shop, I can create all the Template projects on one machine and share them with everyone else. By the way this was a great tip given by the book “An Editor’s Guide to Adobe Premiere Pro,” which you can find on various websites and even iTunes for download.

The most refreshing part of testing CS 5.5 is the openness and willingness of the Adobe team to admit that they still have things to be improved and they are listening to what editors have to say. I have heard stories of their development team literally watching the editors work through screen sharing to learn the “why” and “how” editors work in their daily sessions. That’s pretty neat.

Oh one last thing, Adobe Premiere Pro is cross platform so I have purchased one copy of Windows 7 Professional for installation in a new clean drive on our Test Mac Pro system. I want to see how this works out because this will open us up to working with freelancers and shops in town that might be Windows based, thus giving us an even larger pool of shops to work with. Much more testing to be done, but early testing has been great.

Avid Media Composer

Honestly don’t have a lot to report just yet as it is being installed on our testing Mac Pro at the facility. What we have done is to install a clean hard drive inside the machine, which we actually partitioned so we can install a clean copy of Snow Leopard on one side and the Windows 7 on the other side.

I wanted to ensure that we don’t create any issues by having Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premiere Pro CS 5.5 and Avid MC all installed on the same drive. Most folks I talked to said they always installed FCP and Avid on separate boot drives, so I followed that advice. This way if we have any issues or crashes I don’t have to wonder if anything is being caused by the other apps. So this will be installed by itself on the drive to ensure we are only testing that software, that workflow.

Of immediate concern to me is that there is no support just yet for the AJA Kona Board. Avid did hint at NAB that support is coming and a recent exchange on Twitter states that Avid is listening. So hopefully we will hear something official in the near future. Secondarily, I’m not sure how / if it will work with our Ethernet SAN. That will be even more crucial than the Kona testing. I’ve been told that Avid doesn’t like third party storage that much, so this will be a good test. The guys from Small Tree Communications happen to be coming to our shop next week so if we do have any issues, they are going to be right there to investigate.

I’m excited to be testing this out actually because this brings me full circle back to the very first NLE I learned back in 1993 / 1994 when Avid was introduced to CNN. And from my conversations with Avid at NAB 2011 and subsequent communication since, Avid is truly listening and responding to years of complaints about being a very closed and hard to work with company. As with Adobe, I’ve heard more from Avid reps since April than I ever heard from Apple in 11 years. More to report soon.

Autodesk Smoke 2012

Autodesk was kind enough to send us an evaluation copy of Smoke 2012 which is something I’ve always known about, really like the interface, but have never had the opportunity to put my hands on. It’s not installed anywhere yet as this will be the last software we’ll be testing. It’s a very new software to me to I want to spend time with Avid and Adobe first, then we’ll test Smoke. Not sure it will be the primary editor for us, but it could very well fit into a finishing role for some shows and series.

It does accept interchanges with both Adobe and Avid so I’m most interested in how well handles the myriad of codecs we get and does it like mixed timelines / mixed formats? We’ll find out soon, but I’m really REALLY excited to give this a test drive!

So that’s the basic update for the moment. On a personal note, I have to be very honest and say that the FCP X roll-out has actually made me re-think some of my overall support of Apple in general.

At a recent event (I think it was the WWDC) Apple reps said they’ve heard from many consumers that they would love to tablets to be their primary and sometimes sole computer device. Well how can that be if Apple has decreed that Flash will not be supported by the iOS devices? Sure it’s a “legacy” format and can cause “performance issues” with the tablets, but since Apple says it’s so, they don’t appear on the iOS devices and we simply accept that. With the iPhone, sure I don’t care because that’s primarily a phone, but if the iPad is supposed to be a “primary computer device,” I don’t think so.

I have visited hundreds of sites that incorporate Flash one way or another and it’s incredibly annoying when you can’t use the site, so I have to pull out one of our computers just to use that site. I hate Flash as much as Apple does, but that doesn’t mean I won’t visit a site that uses it. Try planning a cruise on your iPad, for example, and you’ll find that most major sites like use Flash to display their cabin layouts when you go to select a cabin. Sure the world will probably be going HTML 5 soon but how many years away are we from that? In the meantime it would be nice for the iOS devices to support Flash if I as the consumer who bought the product would like to use a Flash enabled site.

With Final Cut Pro X, Apple did the same thing with third party capture cards and tape formats. Because Tape and Capture Cards don’t fit with the “modern workflow” model Apple dropped all support for them natively inside the application. Without that support for tape formats, I cannot make a living in our workflow.

The same apparently applies to “legacy projects” too. As in “You will not be able to open old projects because we say so.” Apparently Final Cut Pro X is only for “Modern Projects” and cannot be sullied by “Old Projects.”

So I gotta say, while I was really looking forward to whenever the iPad 3 comes out, I’m starting to get very annoyed with “You Can’t Do That Because We Say So” and the “You Will Do It Our Way” attitudes from Apple.

That’s not really “Thinking Different,” that’s “Telling You How To Think.”

With Final Cut Pro X, that was Apple “Telling You How To Edit Video.”

Does any of this remind of you of a certain 1984 commercial from an upstart company? Only now that upstart is directing the minions…….

I’m gonna take a close look at that new Galaxy Tab from Samsung and other tablet options out there that don’t close off part of the internet experience just “because they can.” Also going to take a really close look at Windows 7 when it’s installed on that machine because I have some hard-core Mac fans who are telling me “it’s good.”

The debacle of FCP X has caused me to “lift the blinders” that kept me focused solely on Apple and Apple development. There’s a whole new world out there and I am now open to accept the possibilities no matter where that opportunity comes from.

Posted by: walter biscardi on Jul 3, 2011 at 12:43:01 pm Adobe Premiere, Apple

Professional Video Editor, Producer, Creative Director, Director since 1990.

Credits include multiple Emmys, Tellys, Aurora and CableAce Awards.

Creative Director for Georgia-Pacific and GP Studios, Atlanta. Former Owner / Operator of Biscardi Creative Media. The show you knew us best for was "Good Eats" on the Food Network. I developed the HD Post workflow and we also created all the animations for the series.

Favorite pastime is cooking with pizza on the grill one of my specialties. Each Christmas Eve we serve the Feast of the Seven Fishes, a traditional Italian seafood meal with approx. 30 items on the menu.

If I wasn't in video production I would either own a restaurant or a movie theater.



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