Getting It On Tape

Tape continues to be the preferred home for nearly 70 percent of the world's data, especially at the core of the digital revolution: video.

When you think about the "digital revolution" -- the mass migration of analog information to digital formats that, according to researchers at the University of California at Berkeley, has seen the total volume of digital information double about every one to two years since the beginning of the millennium -- you may be scratching your head to find evidence of all that data in your own shop.

Chances are very good that the amount of new data produced by your company isn't doubling every 18 to 24 months (though you may be doubling up on your storage capacity). In fact, and in contrast to several questionable studies produced by one prominent analyst house and funded by a brand-name disk array vendor, the bulk of the much vaunted "data explosion" isn't actually occurring in most business computing infrastructures. Only about 35 percent of total projected digital data growth is occurring within the business world, said UC Berkeley in its seminal study, How Much Information.

Instead of looking to your business "SAN" to find the tell-tale signs of the digital revolution, you might better direct your gaze to the bookshelves (or under the beds) in your kids' messy bedrooms. CDs, DVDs, MP3 players, and now electronic book players such as Amazon's Kindle and Sony's Digital Books are the harbingers of the real digital revolution. Truth be told, most businesses haven't seen nearly the rate of data growth evidenced in consumer audio/video -- unless, of course, your business happens to be in the broadcast industry, audio/video postproduction, or digital asset management.

Hundreds of thousands of hours of high-definition video are being produced, edited, and broadcast each year by the entertainment industry, with most being stored as digital bits. This is a bona fide digital explosion for NASCAR Media Group's director of internal operations, Scott Rinehart, who is responsible for the TV arm of NASCAR and the preservation of the organization's digital video assets.

To Rinehart, the problem of what to do about the digital revolution is represented by a single equation. "NASCAR has about 60,000 hours of archival racing video, which translates to 2.5 petabytes of storage, and we are growing the repository by at least a half petabyte per year."

Rinehart began looking for a digital storage solution about eight years ago. He says that his archive, previously comprised of analog videotape, was deteriorating; traditional approaches to preservation, involving periodic tape-to-tape transfers from old media to new, were both manually intensive and time consuming, not to mention prone to generational loss of image quality.

He began hunting in late 2000 for a way to build an archive that would enable NASCAR production staff to locate content rapidly when producing new programs while protecting all video assets against a disaster. "Digital archiving was the obvious choice," he said, but he quickly added that a gating factor was cost. "We learned early on that it would be prohibitively expensive to spin all of the video on disk. With anticipated capacity growth, there was financially no way we could keep up with content."

At the Discovery Channel in Miami, vice president of engineering Joe Walker confronted related challenges that required a thorough investigation and competitive evaluation to resolve. Walker's operation supplies 25 standard-definition video feeds and one high-definition video feed, comprising a total of nine networks, and handles Latin American broadcasting for Discovery EspaƱol. His storage solution needed to be able to store more than 24,000 hours of digital broadcast video programming. This video is restored from the archive over to disk, where 900 hours are reused or replayed on a 72-hour rotation, following the original airing.

To Walker, a major constraint was hardware footprint. A hard disk array supporting drives capable of handling the capacity requirements, he determined, would simply be too large and too heavy to fit in his facility. As a practical matter, he needed a digital archive solution that would fit in place of an Odetics TCS 90 digital beta tape library and that would not consume a significantly greater amount of power than the equipment he was replacing.

For both NASCAR Media Group and the Discovery Channel, digital tape libraries provided the right solution to the problem. In both cases, Spectra Logic won the business.

Based in Boulder, CO, Spectra Logic is a pedigreed player in the tape-automation business. The company has sustained a thriving business in traditional tape markets, but initiated a "concerted push about three and a half years ago to bring digital tape archiving to the media and entertainment vertical," according to Hossein ZiaShakeri, senior vice president of strategic marketing and business development.

ZiaShakeri says that the application of automated tape-based archiving was "obvious given the movement of the industry to digital formats in order to manage content and find scenes faster so they could be re-edited and re-purposed. There has been massive growth in content creation and it makes no sense to keep it on disk after a week or two. We sell both disk and tape, so we believed we could fit into this market well."

He discovered quickly, however, that quality digital tape storage technology, regardless of solution quality, was not the sole bellwether of success.

"This market relies more on word of mouth than on technical specs," he said. Getting to success required both a good story around tape economy and a thorough-going knowledge of the rarified workflows, standards, and business problems of the video market.

It also required good relationships with established systems integrators and content storage management companies within the industry. Front Porch Digital, with whom Spectra Logic inked a strategic partnership in 2004, was one such insider. A developer of "unique software and services that convert audio, video, images, text, and data into digital formats that enable searching, browsing, editing, storage, and on-demand delivery of content in nearly any other digital format through a single capture," Front Porch was the number-one provider of archive management software in Europe and Asia. The company has since made major strides in the U.S. market, in part thanks to its relationship with Spectra Logic.

NASCAR's Rinehart reported that the combination of Front Porch and Spectra Logic provided a comprehensive solution both to managing highly scalable archives of video content and the underlying infrastructure and media comprising his archive system. The system provides editors with a presentation of "proxy images" that can be used to mark video segments required for a specific project. This information is sent to Front Porch which interfaces with a T950 library containing seven LTO 4 drives and over 3300 cartridges to call up a specific archive tape. Requested data is recalled automatically.

Rinehart added that the preservation of assets is assured by the approach. "When the time comes to migrate to the next version of LTO, the Bluescale software on the Spectra Logic library can take care of it for us. If there are changes in media formats used by the industry, migrations in video format can be handled effectively by Front Porch. Backup tape copies are made immediately and shipped off site."

NASCAR's solution has been in operation since January 2008 and Rinehart says he hasn't looked in the rear view mirror once. "We considered competitors such as the STK 8500 from Sun Microsystems, but I had a gut feeling about dealing with a company that was a bit too much like IBM. Density and floor space favored Spectra Logic, their price was competitive, but it ultimately came down to personal relationships. They dropped the equipment in and it worked: we now run two shifts five days a week processing 30GB per hour through the system."

Discovery Channel's Walker reports similar, positive results. "The integration of Front Porch's DivaArchive with the Spectra Logic hardware does exactly what I want, as it stands. It fit neatly into the space occupied by the Odetics gear and provides a file-based environment that is consistent with Discovery Channel's plan. Duplicate tapes are made automatically and shipped offsite, providing a great continuity capability as well."

With endorsements like this, it is easy to see why Spectra Logic is fast becoming a preferred digital assets archive provider for the broadcast world. Their reputation is growing; customers include Scripps Networks, Foxtel, CBS, Showtime, Cox Television, MTV, National Geographic, AC Neilsen UK, and a host of others.

Word of mouth is that Spectra Logic is moving up the storage ladder with ongoing innovations in a technology area deemed by most of the trade press to be, well, uninteresting. Far from fading away, tape continues to be the preferred home for nearly 70 percent of the world's data -- especially in the core of the digital revolution: video.

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