In January we completed an extensive rebuild of our IT infrastructure. It was a project that was a long time coming. In this article we're going to briefly touch on how we upgraded our network and then our Post-Production Manager Julia is going to go over our editing workflow and new SAN/NAS environment.
This project started with months of planning. We knew we were going to complete the upgrade during a major renovation to our office. The renovation included replacing our existing studio with production offices, adding a new logging station and third edit suite as well as future graphics workstation. The renovation was the perfect opportunity to build our 10Gb network, mainly because there would be large holes in the walls and ceilings that would make it easier to run cables.
Even though we're a small office, we ran nearly 1000' of Cat5e and 750' of Cat6a cable. Our network includes (12) 10Gb/s Cat6a ports and (24) Cat5e 1Gb/s ports. It's amazing how many connection points you need. (One tip: Always run extra cables. In the event you have a bad cable or a cable gets cut it's nice to have a backup already run.)
We purchased 1000' spools of Cat5e and Cat6a. If you're unfamiliar with 6a, it's a heavier gauge data cable. It has the same eight wires that you'll find in Cat5e cable, but they're thicker and they're shielded. Cat6a also needs to be grounded. From a practical standpoint, it's not as flexible as Cat5e and it's a little tricker to run. When used in a 10GBASE-T format, Cat6a is cable of creating a 10Gb/s network if your runs are less than 100 meters (About 330'). (Blue cables in the photo are Cat6a, Orange is Cat5e)
A normal ethernet port is 1Gb/s, also referred to as gigabit ethernet. This is perfectly fine for surfing the internet, streaming video online, etc. In a shared post-production environment we need to share large amounts of data over a network very quickly. Video is a bandwidth hog. 10Gb/s internet, is in theory, ten times faster than 1Gb/s. There are some challenges to building this network and it is more expensive than Cat5e, but it is far less expensive than running fiber. The one major advantage fiber has over Cat6a is that fiber can be run longer distances.
In order to keep costs down we knew we wanted to use the 10Gb ports only for our shared editing environment. Our computers and phones still use standard Cat5e ports for internet. 10Gb switches aren't cheap. They cost thousands of dollars. Instead of buying a switch we purchased a SAN that had four 10Gb ports installed and room for expansion. (More on EVO below)
We installed 10Gb ports in all of our offices as well as the edit suites. In the photo of the ethernet ports the 10Gb ports are metal and the orange ports are Cat5e (1Gb) ports. All of the ports in our office go to a Cat6a patch panel and from there into either a gigabit switch or our SAN. (Cat5e cables work in a Cat6a patch panel, they just aren't capable of 10Gb speeds) With our network built we were ready to install our new SAN.
EVO is a SAN/NAS all-in-one box solution created by Studio Network Solutions. We are intimately familiar with SNS and have used their XTarget SAN solution for several years. After discussing our needs with SNS we configured a 16-Bay EVO with 32TB of storage. We only used half of the bays. In the future we have another 8 bays for expansion, another 32TB. Our EVO has (4) 1Gb ports and we had (4) 10GB ports installed. This allows us to have up to (8) machines directly attached to EVO, (4) on a 10Gb/s high speed connection and (4) on gigabit ethernet. Because each edit seat/work station can connect directly to EVO they don't share bandwidth. Each port is assigned a unique, fixed IP address. (Think of it as an express lane for each computer)
Gigabit ethernet is perfectly fast enough for logging footage, for producers to review media, etc. We reserved the (4) 10Gb ports for our three edit suites and one graphics workstation. Additional ports can be added if we need to expand in the future or we can add a 10Gb switch.
In order to get the 10Gb/s speeds into our Macs we needed to convert the Cat6a10GBASE-T connection to Thunderbolt. We selected Atto ThunderLink NT 2102 (10GBASE-T) devices. These boxes are about the size of a G-Tech external hard drive. (At NAB 2015 Atto unveiled an even smaller version.) The Cat6a cable plugs directly into the back of the Atto box. The box then plugs into our Macs via Thunderbolt.
With our previous Xtarget SAN over a gigabit connection we would normally get a speed test of about 110Mb/s Read/Write. This is with a standard Cat5e cable plugged into the computer's ethernet port) With EVO over Cat6a through the Atto box we are now getting speed tests about 650Mb/s Read/Write. (We utilized Blackmagic Design's disc speed test app to get these results.)
What is EVO
In simple terms EVO is a stand alone, rack mounted, shared storage device. It runs it's own operating system developed by SNS. The storage space can be broken up into SAN and NAS volumes. If you are using 1Gb or 10Gb ethernet to connect to EVO your SAN volumes use the iSCSI protocol. This basically means EVO will allow only one workstation at a time to read and write to a SAN volume. Multiple work stations can mount the SAN in read only. (This isn't a big issue, see our workflow below) NAS volumes can be mounted by multiple computers for both reading and writing data.
There are a few ways you can access the EVO storage from your workstation. We utilize SNS's SANmp and ShareBrowser software. ShareBrowser allows you to see all shared drives and volumes on your network, while SANmp only shows you SAN volumes. Once you mount volumes to your workstation, you access them like you would any mounted hard drive.
We have four edit suites, a logging computer and graphics workstation seat connected to EVO. Four of our edit suites are currently connecting via 10Gb ports the other connections are on 1Gb ports. Our logging station is also on a 1Gb port.
We set up (4) volumes on our EVO. &Media Pool A and B, Project Media and FCPX Libraries. Media Pools are both SAN volumes. Our logging computer connects to these media pools to log and organize all raw media. Once raw media is on EVO our edit suites only need to mount them in a "read" only format so projects can reference the source files. Our Project Media folder is a NAS volume and all edit suites mount this drive as a "read/write" drive. This is where we keep client folders with branding and graphics, music files, proofs, etc. We have a naming system we use for each client folder to keep things organized. The final volume on EVO is FCPX Libraries. This is also a NAS and is where editors save their FCPX Libraries. Final Cut will not allow a library to be opened on more than one computer, so files are safe from being over written. However, if another editor wants to work on a specific library that another editor is using, they can copy and create a duplicate. Since we don't store the raw media inside of the library (we reference back to the Media Pools), the libraries are relatively small files and easy to copy.
We mount and unmount volumes via the ShareBrowser application. SAN volumes can also be mounted via SANmp.
Working With EVO
(This next section is a review written by our Post-Production manager Julia Cowell)
First, the things that I like: EVO is fast. You wouldn’t expect anything less from a 10Gb connection, but dealing with logging and importing and exporting is so much easier now. Transferring projects also goes incredibly fast, which is fantastic if I need to take work home or out into the field on a field drive.
We work in FCPX and we have a volume specifically set up for libraries. I’ve used it for some graphics heavy projects in Motion and Final Cut recently and haven’t had any trouble with lag on playback or rendering out. (No dropped frames!) One of our current projects is around 10 mins long and that’s been the real test. FCPX has a reputation for slowing way down once your project gets to around 10 mins and so far, I haven’t noticed any significant lag in my workflow. I’d be interested to see if it can maintain that speed on a project that’s 20-45 minutes, but as the majority of our clients are only looking for 3-5 min videos, it might be a while before I can test that out.
When Final Cut made the jump from 7 to X, there were a lot of Apple users who abandoned ship. We didn’t feel the need to leave Final Cut completely, but we also didn’t update any of our computers right away. FCPX didn’t have several key features we needed, such as broadcast monitoring support or multicam editing. We did keep an eye on it as it continued to update and once we were satisfied with it, we went ahead and updated. By the time 10.1 was released, it was a drastically different upgrade from the original release.
Admittedly, I wasn’t crazy about early versions of FCPX. But, features I was frustrated with were fixed with new updates, and with the addition of Libraries in 10.1, projects are a lot easier to work with. Here are a few of the reasons we prefer FCPX over other NLE's:
- It’s incredibly fast
- It can work with any frame rate and can mix video with different frame rates in the same project
- You can customize resolution
- It works with 4K, so while we don’t get a lot of requests for 4K footage, we are read for future projects
- It works with H.264, so there is no need for media transcoding. However, if you need to, you can tell FCPX to transcode in the background and continue working on your timeline
- There are a significant amount of 3rd party plugins available for FCPX. We use these pretty frequently, especially if our client doesn’t have the budget for designing custom graphics
- Background rendering. This is a big feature that was heavily hyped by Apple, but with good reason. Remember how long you had to wait for video to render before you could even play anything back?
- Project Libraries are a lot easier and more streamlined than working with the old capture scratch system. If you are as obsessive about organization as I am, it’s very easy to log footage using keywords and events. I use events like I used to use bins in FCP7, and if you’ve logged footage ahead of time, importing folders as keywords makes a world of difference for keeping footage organized in your project. Libraries are also easy to move. I’m thinking of when I have to archive a project here, but we take projects with us on field drives pretty frequently too. And if you consolidate your Library before you archive it, you’ve essentially eliminated the need to archive any RAW media folders. If I’m working on a project that’s pulling video from multiple sources (like a demo reel), this is a very useful way to make sure none of my media goes offline
- I, for one, am a fan of the magnetic timeline. It’s not for everyone and it does occasionally require some workarounds, but it significantly speeds up my workflow. I know this because it takes me twice as long to move footage around when I hop into a project on Premiere Pro CC.
Like any editing software, FCPX certainly isn’t perfect. It is designed to work on the latest Mac OS, which works for us since we only use Mac computers. It also lacks the roundtripping function that 7 had with Motion and Soundtrack Pro (the latter because Apple discontinued it completely), which is kind of a shame since keyframing effects isn’t great in X. Motion 5 is better for any serious effects or text graphics work you need to do, even if it does take an extra minute or two to export from Motion and import into X. This is only tedious if you want to add, say, a label or some kind of moving text onto a video clip you already have in your timeline. If you are doing anything really complex, like a completely graphics based video without any live action clips, you should be building it in Motion in the first place, so there’s no need to worry about FCPX anyway. And if it’s a really serious graphics project, we’ll hop into After Effects CC. Motion is good, but it doesn’t have a lot of the features that AE comes with.
When we have heavy sound mixing we use ProTools. To do this, we’ll export an XML From FCPX, and run it through X2Pro Audio Convert and to create an AAF file. Then it’s a simple matter of importing the AAF file from X2Pro into ProTools and then exporting the project as a single audio file when it’s finished. The resulting .aiff file can be imported back into FCPX and added to your project timeline. One of the great things about ProTools is that, even after going through X2Pro, the files still retain all their handles and fades from FCPX, so you’re already a step ahead in your mixing process.
FCPX does have a decent color grader. The latest FCPX update has changed it from an automatic setting in the inspector to an effect you have to manually add to each clip. This extra step is irritating, especially since I usually do at least a slight grade on most, if not all, of my clips in a sequence, but the grader works exactly the same as before. For any significant grading, we’re transitioning projects to DaVinci Resolve (another Blackmagic Design tool). If you want to check out Resolve they offer a Lite version and it’s free! It’s essentially the same software as the Pro version. The main difference between the pro and the lite version deals with stereoscopic 3D and noise reduction. The workflow with DaVinci Resolve is similar to ProTools, but Resolve reads XML files, so it’s simpler.
Since our original article, we have expanded our capacity within EVO to 64TB. It's been 2 years since our original deployment, and we have nothing but positive reviews of the product, it's performance and SNS.