Technicolor taps Excelero NVMe storage for blockbuster films

Excelero's low-latency NVMe flash storage helps Technicolor project teams work on blockbuster films with greater efficiency through concurrent access to data.

Non-volatile memory express may not be a household phrase for anyone watching Hollywood's Marvel blockbusters. But the high-performance storage technology plays a key role in helping Technicolor work on feature films more efficiently.

Before Excelero NVMe flash storage entered the picture, Technicolor's creative teams often had to schedule access to the enormous media files that comprise a typical movie. If they needed to work simultaneously on the same data set, they had to duplicate it one or more times.

"You have a large chunk of storage in petabytes, and one artist goes through terabytes of data back and forth each day," said Amir Bemanian, Technicolor's director of engineering.

A director or studio executive also might ask to jump from one point of a movie to another at the drop of a hat. But real-time playbacks exert pressure on storage systems, especially with the exponentially larger data sets generated by cutting-edge film technology designed to improve the resolution and frame rates of motion pictures.

Spending money to boost storage performance and capacity had become an annual ritual for Bemanian. But when Technicolor's disk-based Fibre Channel SANs from Seagate Technology's Dot Hill Systems and Xyratex and Hitachi reached the end of their lives, Bemanian kept an eye out for promising new technology that could also address the challenge of concurrent data access.

NVMe storage performance boost

At a National Association of Broadcasters conference, Bemanian learned about Excelero's NVMesh software that can pool NVMe-based SSDs in commodity servers and move data over 100 Gigabit Ethernet networking gear. A Technicolor proof of concept in December 2017 instantly showed a "day and night difference" in performance, Bemanian said.

Technicolor's Amir BemanianAmir Bemanian

"Spinning disk gives you 100 MB a second. The SSD gives you about 500 MB a second. NVMe gives you about 4,000 MB a second," Bemanian said.

Technicolor had previously tried non-NVMe flash drives only to find the storage controller created a bottleneck, Bemanian said. All-flash arrays weren't a feasible option a few years ago for cost reasons, he added, and Technicolor wanted quick integration with its existing GPFS and Quantum StorNext parallel file systems, which may not have been possible with some all-flash arrays.

Excelero made sure Technicolor's IBM Spectrum Scale and StorNext file systems would run on the block-based NVMe flash storage appliances to eliminate any need for a forklift upgrade, Bemanian said. Excelero also tweaked the caching system to ensure the company's color-correction software could use the ultralow-latency PCIe 4.0-based server hardware that can serve up to four 100 Gigabit Ethernet ports, he said.

Within 30 days of its proof of concept, Technicolor went into production with a pair of Supermicro FatTwin two-node servers configured for high availability. The company bought a Mellanox switch and adapter cards to enable Excelero's patented Remote Direct Drive Access technology, which is designed to bypass the CPU.

Technicolor equipped each of the four Supermicro nodes with 10 NVMe-based SSDs plugged into the server's PCIe slots. The company started with 4 TB Intel P4500 drives, but upgraded to Intel's 8 TB P4510 SSDs this year to double the total raw capacity to 320 TB. The expansion required no changes to Technicolor's Excelero licenses on the 40 SSDs, Bemanian said.

NVMe storage complements disk systems

Excelero's NVMe-based storage serves as a complement to the disk-based Dell EMC Isilon, Dot Hill and Quantum systems that continue to represent the bulk of Technicolor's 20 PB of storage. The film project teams use Isilon mostly for visual effects, Quantum for episodic work and GPFS in nearline environments for backups and rendering, Bemanian said.

Technicolor's North America headquarters
Technicolor's North America headquarters in Los Angeles

Bemanian said Technicolor has about 300 creative workstations, with upward of 8 GPU each. Only the workstations that need concurrent data access for major films get the Mellanox ConnectX-5 network interface cards to connect to the NVMe-based SSD pool. But Bemanian said he's optimistic all drive purchases will be NVMe within two years. He didn't discuss costs other than to say that Technicolor's NVMe storage is more expensive than disk systems but cheaper than all-flash arrays.

The acid test for the NVMe-based storage's effectiveness came during one especially heavy delivery weekend. An email arrived in Bemanian's inbox with the subject line: "NVMe performance." Nine systems were running FilmLight's Baselight color management and grading software at the same time using a single Excelero NVMe-based storage volume.

"For a few seconds, I had a rush of anxiety not knowing what I would have to deal with," Bemanian recalled. But, as he soon learned, "The request was: 'Can you let us know how much bandwidth we're consuming? We're hitting the storage with every single client and not seeing any negative impact.'

"This would not have been possible," Bemanian said, "without the Excelero NVMe solution."

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