post Perspective: Storage for Visual Effects
Storage for Visual Effects
December 10, 2019
In this interview with post Perspective‘s Karen Moltenbrey, Jellyfish Pictures’ CTO Jeremy Smith explains how with pixstor & ngenea the award-winning TPN-approved VFX house can deal with obscene amounts of data across multiple sites and in the public cloud.
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When it comes to big projects with big storage needs, Jellyfish Pictures is no fish out of water. The studio works on myriad projects, from Hollywood blockbusters like Star Wars to high-end TV series like Watchmen to episodic animation like Floogals and Dennis & Gnasher: Unleashed! Recently, it has embarked on an animated feature for DreamWorks and has a dedicated art department that works on visual development for substantial VFX projects and children’s animated TV content.
To handle all this work, Jellyfish has five studios across the UK: four in London and one in Sheffield, in the north of England. What’s more, in early December, Jellyfish expanded further with a brand-new virtual studio in London seating over 150 artists — increasing its capacity to over 300 people. In line with this expansion, Jellyfish is removing all on-site infrastructure from its existing locales and moving everything to a co-location. This means that all five present locations will be wholly virtual as well, making Jellyfish the largest VFX and animation studio in the world operating this way, contends CTO Jeremy Smith.
“We are dealing with shows that have very large datasets, which, therefore, require high-performance computing. It goes without saying, then, that we need some pretty heavy-duty storage,” says Smith.
Not only must the storage solution be able to handle Jellyfish’s data needs, it must also fit into its operational model. “Even though we work across multiple sites, we don’t want our artists to feel that. We need a storage system that can bring together all locations into one centralized hub,” Smith explains. “As a studio, we do not rely on one storage hardware vendor; therefore, we need to work with a company that is hardware-agnostic in addition to being able to operate in the cloud.”
Also, Jellyfish is a TPN-assessed studio and thus has to work with vendors that are TPN compliant — another serious, and vital, consideration when choosing its storage solution. TPN is an initiative between the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the Content Delivery and Security Association (CDSA) that provides a set of requirements and best practices around preventing leaks, breaches and hacks of pre-released, high-valued media content.
With all those factors in mind, Jellyfish uses pixstor from pixitmedia for its storage solution. pixstor is a software-defined storage solution that allows the studio to use various hardware storage from other vendors under the hood. With pixstor, data moves seamlessly through many tiers of storage — from fast flash and disk tiers to cost-effective, high-capacity object storage to the cloud. In addition, the studio uses NetApp storage within a different part of the same workflow on Dell R740 hardware and alternates between SSD and spinning disks, depending on the purpose of the data and the file size.
“We’ve future-proofed our studio with the Mellanox SN2100 switch for the heavy lifting, and for connecting our virtual workstations to the storage, we are using several servers from the Dell N3000 series,” says Smith.
As a wholly virtual studio, Jellyfish has no storage housed locally; it all sits in a co-location, which is accessed through remote workstations powered by Teradici’s PCoIP technology.
According to Smith, becoming a completely virtual studio is a new development for Jellyfish. Nevertheless, the facility has been working with pixitmedia since 2014 and launched its first virtual studio in 2017, “so the building blocks have been in place for a while,” he says.
Prior to moving all the infrastructure off-site, Jellyfish ran its storage system out of its Brixton and Soho studios locally. Its own private cloud from Brixton powered Jellyfish’s Soho and Sheffield studios. Both pixstor storage solutions in Brixton and Soho were linked with the solution’s PixCache. The switches and servers were still from Dell and Mellanox but were an older generation.
“Way back when, before we adopted this virtual world we are living in, we still worked with on-premises and inflexible storage solutions. It limited us in terms of the work we could take on and where we could operate,” says Smith. “With this new solution, we can scale up to meet our requirements.”
Now, however, using Mellanox SN2100, which has 100GbE, Jellyfish can deal with obscene amounts of data, Smith contends. “The way the industry is moving with 4K and 8K, even 16K being thrown around, we need to be ready,” he says.
Before the co-location, the different sites were connected through pixcache; now the co-location and public cloud are linked via ngenea, which pre-caches files locally to the render node before the render starts. Furthermore, the studio is able to unlock true multi-tenancy with a single storage namespace, rapidly deploying logical TPN-accredited data separation and isolation and scaling up services as needed. “Probably two of the most important facets for us in running a successful studio: security and flexibility,” says Smith.
Artists access the storage via their Teradici Zero Clients, which, through the Dell switches, connect users to the standard Samba SMB network. Users who are working on realtime clients or in high resolution are connected to the pixit storage through the Mellanox switch, where pixstor Native Client is used.
“Storage is a fundamental part of any VFX and animation studio’s workflow. Implementing the correct solution is critical to the seamless running of a project, as well as the security and flexibility of the business,” Smith concludes. “Any good storage system is invisible to the user. Only the people who build it will ever know the precision it takes to get it up and running — and that is the sign you’ve got the perfect solution.”