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Oscar-winning studio tames file data with Oracle, Igneous

Making movies is a file-intensive business, and Hollywood studios must give their artists the right storage technologies to store, manage and protect business-critical data.

As a media production company, Tippett Studio faces file data storage challenges from rapid data proliferation. Each of the studio's jobs involves working with a vast number of files that must be retained for business reasons, and new technologies in the field produce increasingly larger files.

Over the past few years, the Berkeley, Calif.-based studio has revamped its primary and secondary storage. Tippett is now a heavy Oracle shop -- but not for the database software for which Oracle is best known. Tippett Studio uses Oracle ZFS NAS for its primary file data, and the Oracle Cloud for archiving. It has also moved off tape backups to disk backup provided by startup Igneous Systems.

Tippett Studio was started in 1984 by Phil Tippett, an Academy Award winner who worked on the visual effects for the original Star Wars trilogy. The studio has worked on five movies nominated for Oscars for special effects, including 1993 Oscar winner Jurassic Park. The studio's artists handle rendering for visual effects and animation for movies, TV shows and commercials.

Tippett Studio COO Sanjay Das said the studio has more than a petabyte of active file data and far more than that archived on Oracle Cloud. While Tippett has what Das calls "data wranglers" who manage storage and backups, it has little dedicated IT expertise.

"We're a media production house, and not necessarily a technology company," he said. "We don't have dedicated systems or infrastructure teams. We rely heavily on our partners, like Oracle and Igneous."

Keeping pace with file data storage needs

Converting artist-generated data into digital images requires, as Das put it, "a bunch of machines working hard seven days a week."

Sanjay Das, COO, Tippett StudioSanjay Das

Like most media and entertainment companies, the studio deals heavily with file data, and its storage needs are growing rapidly from a proliferation of files and new technology. That is especially true now that the industry is moving from 2K video to 4K images, and Tippett is even experimenting with 8K images. The higher the resolution, the larger the files the studio needs to retain.

The studio is also experimenting with higher frame rates, moving from the traditional 24 frames per second up to 60 frames per second in some cases.

"We're incorporating more complex and detail-oriented visual effects, and virtual reality and augmented reality is also putting a lot of demand on our storage and compute," said Das, who joined Tippett Studio in 2007 after five years at Dreamworks.

Tippett is a long-time NAS shop, using Hitachi Data Systems NAS before switching to Oracle ZFS-based storage in early 2017. Das said the studio has around 1.4 petabytes (PB) of active production data, up from around 20 TB five years ago. The studio retains all of its completed projects because they may be used or licensed again.

We can't get rid of the data; it keeps growing and multiplying.
Sanjay DasCOO, Tippett Studio

"We can't get rid of the data; it keeps growing and multiplying," Das said. "Over the last five years, our storage footprint has increased by close to five times. We used to get by with 20 TB of production data, and we're now at 4 PB of active production data. Of course, there's a business need to back it up, and we started to feel pain from our backing infrastructure."

Much of that pain came from using tape backups. The studio used Commvault software with Spectra Logic tape. But it needs to frequently retrieve backed up files, and tape could not keep up. Managing 300 tapes a month became a cumbersome process.

"You have to play catchup with tape," Das said. "You have to worry about backward compatibility with LTO drives. There is a huge overhead and huge risk. It's error-prone."

The studio backs up files every 24 hours and keeps files active for 30 days before archiving them.

Why Tippett chose Oracle ZFS

Tippett made its first big storage switch on the primary side, when it went from Hitachi NAS to Oracle ZFS Storage Appliance in early 2017. Tippett Studio's first NAS system came from BlueArc, which Hitachi Data Systems (now Hitachi Vantara) acquired in 2011. Das said he was not pleased with the BlueArc platform -- renamed Hitachi NAS -- after the acquisition. The studio moved to the Oracle ZFS NAS appliance on the recommendation of other film production houses.

Das said Oracle ZFS scales better, enabling the studio to keep up with rapid growth both in capacity and the number of files under management.

"We are bottlenecked mostly by I/O, based on the number of files we have," he said.

He said Tippett employs around 90 artists and has around 150 people accessing its content, mostly in Berkeley but also in Canada, China and India. The number of artists varies according to how many projects the studio is working on -- usually from five to seven projects at a time.

"We have a feast-or-famine model," Das said. "We expand and contract based on the projects we get."

For backups, the studio switched to a disk system in mid-2018. It bought Igneous DataProtect software packaged on Super Micro hardware. Igneous describes its technology as unstructured data management as-a-service. Das said the Igneous software and appliance does everything he needs, and is simple to manage.

"It doesn't have a lot of bells and whistles that I need to customize," he said. "It just does what it needs to do from a business perspective. It takes away the drawbacks of tape."

He added that a big advantage of Igneous is "you don't need specialized software like Commvault. Igneous has that built in. Commvault is expensive software and has a different pricing model for pushing data out to the cloud."

Besides putting its active data on Oracle ZFS, Tippett moved its archived data to the Oracle Cloud, which Das said it chose over more popular public clouds because of price. Das said Tippett has about 800 TB of object-based nearline storage and around 7 PB of archived data in Oracle Cloud. Nearline storage can be retrieved in less than four hours, while archived storage takes a day to pull back from the cloud.

"It was about one-fourth the cost of AWS," Das said of Oracle Cloud. "We were manually pushing data into the cloud at first. After we migrated to ZFS, the process became more automated and now we're a lot more automated with Igneous. It goes from ZFS to Igneous, and from Igneous to the Oracle cloud."

He said he expects the process to be more automated eventually.

"Out of the box, Igneous supported AWS and Azure but not Oracle Cloud," Das said. "We engaged them to do that. It's not completely finished, but we have a temporary solution. Now we have customized script we have written to take data out of Igneous and push it into Oracle Cloud. We want to push a button right from the Igneous portal."

An Igneous spokesperson said the startup is working on full integration with the Oracle Cloud, similar to the way it integrates with larger public clouds.


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