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Saving nature: the storage solution behind 4K demands of Our Planet and Dynasties

Films at 59 recently switched its storage system to address the rising demand for 4K natural history programmes

Bristol, UK, known by British millennials as the backdrop for angsty teen drama Skins, also happens to be a world centre for the more wholesome genus of wildlife filmmaking, and home to the finest production and post-production facilities in natural history programming.

Post-production house, Films at 59, founded in 1990, is widely recognised for its grading and finishing work on wildlife docuseries from the BBC and National Geographic. Recently, the company has provided its services to the 4K programming of Netflix’s Our Planet and BBC1’s Dynasties. 

But in the industry arms race for ever higher quality, the throughput capabilities at Films at 59 are becoming overwhelmed by the enormous volume of 4K data that is bottlenecked by the facility’s legacy scale-out NAS and Fibre Channel (FC). Ben Leaver, Pixit Media CEO, explains: “It was no longer able to deliver the performance or reliability that is required to keep up with the demands placed upon it.” 

To support the increase in 4K workflows and provide scalability to accommodate future demands, both in terms of volume of work and potential shift to 8K finishing, Films at 59 needed to replace its current storage system. 

To The Lab

Following an in-depth examination of the leading systems on the market with integration partner Digital Garage, PixStor was recommended to Films at 59. 

PixStor is a software-defined storage platform by Pixit Media, a company that has become a mainstay for improving workflow efficiency with its storage solutions in the UK post-production and broadcast industries. 

Films at 59 was invited to visit Pixit’s Technical Lab in High Wycombe, two hours east of its Bristol headquarters.
The lab is a space dedicated to showcasing the complete PixStor ecosystem, where guests can test, collaborate and train with Pixit’s technical team in a real-world environment. 

“We’ve invested in a full complement of legacy, current and bleeding-edge hardware, applications and tools to support a wide range of contexts and workflows that are integrated with major cloud services,” says Leaver. “Featured technologies include Dell, NetApp, Islion, HP, Storbyte, Excelero, Mellanox, Baselight, Resolve, Transkoder, Adobe Creative Cloud, Avid ProTools, Autodesk Flame, Mist, Nucoda and Signiant.”

During the visit, Pixit’s technical team recreated Films at 59’s workflows using its standard applications, and were able to demonstrate performance of multiple workloads running full output at up to 99% capacity, with no negative effect on the finishing editors’ or artists’ user experience. 

“They posed questions and we responded by demonstrating the results in PixStor. They asked to see 4K and we delivered that – and showed them 8K seamlessly, too,” adds Leaver. 

The storage solution was installed on-premises at Films at 59 in December 2018.

Scalable Storage

PixStor has a software-defined architecture that offers scale-out capabilities without the commercial pressures that come with being restricted to one particular vendor’s hardware ecosystem. When combined with the cloud-based infrastructure, PixStor’s software-defined storage frees Films at 59 from the restrictions of its brick-and-mortar facility.

Leaver explains: “It becomes easy for them to add multiple vendors moving forward, ensuring economic architectural longevity and adaptability to future technologies. PixStor’s software-defined architecture provides choice and enables Films at 59 to take advantage of the technology and commercial benefits, and the ability to choose where, when and on what platform the software is run.”

The tailored PixStor system at the Bristol site currently has six workstations attached to it: two Autodesk Flames, two FilmLight Baselights and two Assist systems. It connects together the company’s Avid network, Storage DNA archive system and Object Matrix nearline storage. It also has a parallel file system that can manage petabytes of data and billions of files, all under a single global namespace. 

The data architecture foundation relies on a scatter algorithm to distribute writes across a spinning disk, removing the impact of fragmentation on performance so that there is no bandwidth degradation as the system fills – as is common on some file systems.

“Most other high-performing shared-access storage solutions require defragmentation to restore performance as they fill, causing downtime and loss of bandwidth,” Leaver points out.

With its foundations leveraging standard-compute, flask and disk platforms, alongside low-cost commodity ethernet technology, PixStor is more cost effective than the traditional legacy LAN at Films at 59. 

As Nature Necessitates

Since installing PixStor at the Bristol site, and with the introduction of modern flash technologies, the system now supports the latest in NVMeOF, creating a fast performance storage layer alongside the traditional spinning disk tiers, and a proven delivery of 16K workflows. 

In the future, Films at 59 will be able to make use of PixStor’s intelligent automated tools, including analytics, enhanced search using the AI and machine learning, and auto-tiering to collaborate remotely. 

As capacity and performance requirements inevitably increase, PixStor can be scaled up (or down) by additional commodity storage. Even now, Bristol-based Icon Films is working on an 8K feature documentary of Africa’s wildlife oasis, titled Okavango. 

Additionally, PixStor has the option to scale capacity into multiple cloud and object resources transparently through Pixit Media’s Ngenea offering. 

“It’s the only storage platform specifically designed to solve the media and entertainment industry’s workflow challenges. It binds changing technologies and business requirements in seamless fashion to help content creators and distributors remain competitive, without sacrificing the quality of their work.”

This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of FEED magazine.

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