Call of Duty animator Axis Animation quashes storage anxiety with EMC Isilon

The IT team of a production studio approaching a critical point reached a newfound work-life balance with Isilon and OneFS

Axis is an animation and motion design studio that has produced work for titles like Halo and Assassin's Creed. The team noticed it was going to hit a critical point in its storage six months in advance, and began exploring options for how it could accommodate its hefty data needs.

"If you looked at our storage usage over time, the graph tends to look almost like an old-school hockey stick, where it starts to take off vertically," IT systems manager for Axis, Peter Devlin, tells Computerworld UK. "We were just about to turn that corner."

According to Devlin, Axis looked at "pretty much everyone" but ultimately picked Isilon, the scale-out platform bought by EMC in 2010 for $2.25 billion.

"We looked at Dell Compellent, ironic given the Dell-EMC merger," Devlin says. "Dell Compellent is essentially a 20th century solution, not a 21st century solution. We also looked at building our own system, though in this case we concluded that to roll out our own solution - which would have been built on GPFS or IBM storage technology - was actually too big a business risk.

"We did a very preliminary look at DDN, Data Direct Networks, but basically they talk seven-digit telephone numbers at you right from the outset, and that just wasn't suitable for us."

EMC partner Reciprocal was drafted in to go over Axis' specific storage needs and concluded the company's data usage was unlike anything they'd seen before. Reciprocal's typical approach is to make the best use of the existing kit or go in for a particular price point, but due to the sheer amount of data Axis generates, that wasn't going to work - so instead they opted for a complete storage upgrade.

Following a three-week negotiation on specs and pricing, the two agreed - and six weeks after that an initial implementation took place with a rollout lasting about three days.

"There was some refining and tuning over the course of the next month but essentially it was within a three-month window," Devlin says. "We reckon that actually, from placing the order to being 100 percent happy took no more than five weeks."

Devlin notes that several strengths in the Isilon toolkit appealed to the business - in particular the sizeable and well-developed feature set of OneFS, Isilon's core software. "You'd look at OneFS because of all the things it brings to you," he explains. "It's also quite seriously roadtested in installations way bigger than us, and has a very robust API and good graphical user content so you don't need to have a storage guru on site."

Axis previously had a "bunch of siloed storage implementations" used for various parts of the production pipeline, but an advantage to Isilon is being able to tag storage performance by extension or other parameters - for example, files with a .MOV extension can be partially cached into SSD automatically.

"That fine-grained policy application is a much deeper and insightful toolset than is available on other policy systems like Dell's Compellent, where the policies aren't really that fine-grained or clever," Devlin says.

Devlin sums up the needs of a production house like Axis with an anecdote from an EMC conference late last year - while speaking, he asked the room who was generating more or less data, and there was only one person in the audience who was generating more, with a system designed for DNA sequencing and analysis.

"Everybody else in the room was generating significantly less than us, which was a bit of a surprise to me - I thought we were just the norm, but apparently we're not," he says.

There have been a few really concrete tangible business benefits to date. First, there's been a noticeable difference in the IT team's work-life balance: because the primary cluster snapshots every four hours onto the backup cluster, meaning the team can wind back to any four-hour point in time if anything disappears on the primary, Devlin is no longer getting phone calls at home.

"Nobody's really concerned, and any time we do have an issue we can fix it pretty much instantaneously," he says. "Us techies can actually have a life."

"In terms of the impact on the business, we have some fairly stringent clients who will look at our systems as part of their pre-qualification for doing work with us," he says. "In the last year alone, we have doubled our revenue, and we are now doing long-form work where previously we wouldn't have been able to, not only because we didn't have the storage but because our clients wouldn't have necessarily had the comfort that all these things were in place.

"The only thing it can't do for me is if this building blows up, because it's not an internet-facing link, it's a layer 2 link - and at that point I have bigger problems than 'can I access my data'.

"I've got 100 percent confidence in the Isilon care, we've probed it and done disaster recovery tests. The benefit really intrinsically comes out of what we are doing now versus what we were doing about a year and a half ago, in terms of business."

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By Tamlin Magee

Computerworld UK
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