What we learned from building an iSCSI SAN

An image of some servers and workstations.
Ryan Pratzel

Back in January we completed a total rebuild of our IT infrastructure.  At the same time we also rebuilt one of our edits suites and implemented new archiving procedures.  I thought I'd take a few minutes to go through what we did and what we learned from the experience of building an iSCSI SAN and moving to a distributed storage solution for our editing workflow. 

We've had multiple edit suites for years, but until now they have always used local storage with a NAS for sharing files.  Our new network now includes an iSCSI SAN, NAS, network server running all logins and permissions on the workstations, and an LTO archiving server.  In addition, we replaced our old Linksys wireless router with an Airport Extreme Base Station.  I'll explain the advantage to this move in just a bit.

Our Problem

Before looking at IT solutions we had to identify all of the issues with our old network.  First, we had multiple edit suites and multiple editors, but very little interactivity between the edit suites.  Second, we had no network control over our edit suites and other office computers.  Each computer required an individual login and editors often shared logins.  Third, have been a tapeless environment for years, but we had no viable long-term archive solution in place.  You can only fill so many hard drives and in the end they are not a good idea for long term storage.  We also needed to address an aging MacPro in Edit 1.

The Solution

We worked with our web developer and IT guru to draw out a new network.  This included computers, cables, switches, etc.  We determined the best solution for the aging MacPro was a brand new 27" iMac.  I'll get into the edit suite setup in a minute.  To control our new network we turned to a MacMini Server running Mountain Lion Server App.  While not as robust as other servers, the MacMini Server is a great small office server for managing user accounts, permissions and creating a VPN.  It can also manage mobile devices and laptops which we use in the field.  

Project Archiving

For archiving we turned to the 1Beyond Wrangler LTO-5 NetDrive.  It's a computer and LTO all in one.  It runs Windows 7 Professional and came preconfigured from 1Beyond.  While not an inexpensive solution, this box does its job and does it well.  The NetDrive shows up on our Mac network as a server and every edit suite can send files to the drive for archive.  We're still ironing out procedures for our archive environment, but we have already cleared more than 20TB from our raids.  

New Network

Since we were upgrading out network we also wanted to improve network security.  This included replacing our Linksys wireless router with the Airport Extreme Base Station. The Base Station allows you to create both a private and public WiFi network.  This allowed us to create a guest account for clients and an internal network for our team.  The best part, the guest account cannot get behind the firewall to access the rest of our network.  While there are other brands of routers that can do this, the MacMini Server and the Airport can work together to run the network and we thought this was a perfect fit.  The base station also gives you two bands of private WiFi.  One at 2.4GHz and one at 5GHz.


The last big piece of the puzzle was setting up our SAN.  A traditional SAN can easily run $25-50k, and that's for a relatively small amount of storage.  We built ours for about $2,500.  It wasn't magic, we just used some in-house equipment coupled with software from Studio Network Solutions.  We pulled the MacPro from Edit 1 and decided to make that our SAN server.  It's still a great computer and it should have no problem working as the server.  We purchased globalSAN Xtarget from SNS.  This $899 piece of software turns virtually any Mac into an iSCSI SAN.  We coupled Xtarget with SNS's iSCSI initiator ($89 per seat) and SANmp.  SANmp is the client manager for the SAN and is installed on each edit suite.  SANmp Admin is installed on the SAN.  This is the software that creates the SAN volumes and this is how editors log into the SAN from their workstations.

SNS allows you to demo all of this software for free, so if you're thinking of trying it out I highly recommend you do this.  It took us about a day to get everything setup and configured correctly.  So here's the best part about Xtarget.  Any storage connected to your SAN can be turned into a SAN volume.  This includes Firewire, eSATA, miniSAS, Thunderbolt, etc.  If you were to install Xtarget on a Thunderbolt Mac you could have Thunderbolt storage serving as a SAN volume.  

Previously, each of our edit suites had external Raid 5 arrays.  We use 12TB Rack Pro raids from Other World Computer.  Because these are miniSAS, they stayed with the MacPro.  We were able to turn them instantly into SAN volumes using SANmp.  Right now each edit suite has it's own SAN raid, but we're working on finalizing our SAN workflow.  Our goal is to add another 12-24TB by summer, giving us a SAN with a total of 48TB.

The system works over gigabit ethernet.  This meant we didn't need to replace any wiring.  We kept the SAN close to the edit suites and ran lines directly to each computer.  The SAN is also visible on our network and can be remotely controlled by an administrator.  Most of the video we edit is ProRes 422, DVCPRO HD, AVC-Intra and H.264 in both 1080 and 720.  So far we have not noticed any performance problems or dropped frame issues.  

The support team at SNS was very helpful and they worked with us to trouble shoot during the setup process.  Once we have had the system running for a good six months or so I'll post an update.  

Edit Suite 1

Our challenge in Edit 1 was replacing a MacPro with a powerful new solution.  I'm hesitant to invest in any MacPro right now and I had been toying with the idea of an iMac for a while.  As part of my research I found Walter Biscardi's blog post on the iMac very helpful.  We modeled parts of our edit suite from what his team learned about their iMac edit suite.

We purchased a new 27" iMac with a 3.4GHz i7 processor and 16GB of RAM.  The computer has the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 680MX card with 2GB of video RAM.  We also selected Apple's new Fusion drive which combines the power of an SSD with a traditional spinning drive.  It's awesome and applications load fast.  

Edit one now features a Blackmagic Design UltraStudio 3D box which we use for broadcast monitoring and to feed a 42" client LCD monitor.  The box connects to the iMac via Thunderbolt.  It also gives us the capability to hook up a deck, that is if we ever need it.  

For monitoring, Edit 1 uses a JVC DT-V24G1Z 10-Bit broadcast monitor.  This was the monitor installed in Edit 1 about a year or so ago, so we kept it around.  The monitor receives HD-SDI video from the UltraStudio 3D as well as embedded audio.  The monitor then feeds a Behringer Minimon MON800 box which feeds our M-Audio BX-5a speakers.    


Overall I'm pleased with the updates.  So far we haven't had any major issues with the SAN.  The storage is reliable and our out of pocket costs have been minimal.  What's really great is that as we expand we can expand our network and if we eventually upgrade to a different SAN solution I don't feel like we've wasted our investment in this current technology.  As we continue to kick the tires I'll post updates as to how the setup is working so stay tuned.