With digital audio workstations in every audio environment from the bedroom to the studio to the multi-seat post environment, data storage becomes a bigger issue every day. And while our old friend SCSI has served the DAW community well, it is getting a little long in the tooth. In these days of high-resolution multichannel audio and high-definition picture, todays digital professional now finds SCSI less reliable and unable to keep up with the ever-increasing data storage and transfer demands. Enter Fibre Channel, the future of data storage, and a company called Studio Network Solutions that specializes in Fibre Channel systems specifically designed for the audio and video community with a product called A/V SAN.
What Is Fibre Channel?
Fibre Channel is a computer communications protocol that is designed to meet the many requirements related to the ever-increasing demand for high-performance information transfer. Compared with typical fast and wide SCSI, which has an access time of 20 MB/s, Fibre Channel runs at a breathtaking 200 MB/s and can be set up over a radius as long as 5 to 7 miles, which means those droning media towers can now even be set up in the building next door.
Thanks to Fibre Channel, a fairly new idea (at least where audio and video is concerned) called a Storage Area Network or SAN is now possible. SANs offer the ability to consolidate storage for ease of backup and archiving and move large amounts of data at astonishingly high speeds in a dedicated information management network. Another great advantage of the SAN is its 126-device/loop capability, with each port maintaining the 200 MB/s bandwidth and making even the highest video resolutions a breeze. And each user is totally independent from the other, so that if one workstation on the network crashes, the other users are left totally unaffected.
While all this SAN and Fibre Channel stuff is well and good, as with most things digital, its not enough to simply buy some Fibre products out of a catalog in an attempt to connect your DAWs together. This is where SNS comes in since their A/V SAN products are not simply off-the-shelf components, but are built with custom hardware and software specifically designed to communicate efficiently with audio and video applications.
And communicate they do. The advantage of the SNS system is that you can do things like 128 tracks of 96/24 audio with nine frame edits across every track on only a single hard drive compared to splitting the files across two or three or four SCSI drives as recommended by most DAW manufacturers. In fact, you can get 56 tracks of 24/48 audio plus 3:1 video from one hard drive (you normally need a separate drive for video in SCSI setups) and more than 128 tracks of 48k/24-bit audio on a single hard drive. Video-wise, you can get dual-stream uncompressed video with unrendered effects on a Media Composer off of a single drive. On top of that, the A/V SAN eliminates common annoyances like DAE errors and disk-related/PCI bus errors. It tolerates disk fragmentation and doesnt rely on awkward disk utilities to prepare drives for the next project, since defraging drives is no longer required. Offline archiving, backing up data while using drives at the same time, and the ability to access central storage from any control room makes this system a dream come true for small and major facilities alike.
The A/V SAN Package includes a 1U 4-drive enclosure, a number of Fibre Channel drives, a Studio Network Solutions PCI adapter card, custom SNS Software, and all custom-length cables to do the job. SNS exclusively uses OEM Fibre Channel drives from Seagate. The drive enclosure is a lot longer than your typical rack-mounted audio gear, and its a lot heavier, too. This is an industrial-strength unit thats obviously built to last. On the A/V SAN Pro, its possible to have up to 15 drives per 3U enclosure and as much as 2 terabytes of storage on the system.
Those of you used to the bulky SCSI cables with the multipin connectors are in for a major surprise. The Fibre Channel cable is extremely thin and looks more like a very flexible lightpipe. About as different from SCSI as you can get is the maximum cable length, with Fibre having a limitation of 7 miles (yes, you read correctly) as opposed to the 3 feet (and thats being generous) of SCSI.
While two users can easily use an A/V SAN, more seats require an A/V SAN Pro. On large multiple user systems, an SNS software application called Sanscan can search through an multiple terabytes (if that much is being used) and find the any session file on the system. It also provides a gas gauge of every drive on the network for available disc space on each drive as well as a total SAN capacity gas gauge to tell you when to archive.
We used a two-seat A/V SAN on several 96k projects running both Pro Tools and Nuendo. First of all, the system is dead easy to set up; far easier than SCSI since you dont have to worry about setting drive IDs and cable termination. Just install the SNS PCI card into an empty slot in the computer, plug in the Fibre cable, install the small software utility that authorizes drive access, and go. One thing to know is that A/V SAN has some really loud fans that make it virtually impossible to keep next to the workstation, but since cable length is virtually no object, its no problem to move it out of the room (hopefully to a machine room).
The performance of the unit was, in a word, spectacular. While we never had what youd call a huge session in terms of track count, we did have one that had 37 96/24 tracks with a lot of edits running from a single drive with nary a choke, error, or perceivable problem. In the past, we never could even dream of getting this kind of performance on less than two drives, and even then it would be problematic sometimes. Another 52-track 48/24 session that would consistently choke on the previous system ran like a charm on the A/V SAN. In fact, the system was so smooth that we forgot about it after a while since just about the only thing we had to remember was to start the SAN up before the computers or it wouldnt be recognized.
Having designed some large systems for clients like Abbey Road, Sony/ATV, and Technicolor, SNS has realized that most systems are custom to a degree, therefore they try to get as much background info as possible before they design a system for you. Among the questions they ask are what kind of system (Pro Tools, Nuendo, Avid, etc.) youre using, how many workstations will be connected (operator seats), and if youre working primarily with audio or video. That being said, A/V SAN systems prices start at around $3500 depending upon size, the number of drives, and number of seats.
Soon to come from SNS is a product called FibreWire, a personal standalone Fibre Channel system. The unit comes with an SNS PCI card and single-drive desktop enclosure with a 72 GB Fibre Channel drive, and all necessary software and cables. It provides the same performance as A/V SAN, and is upgradable as well.
Its easy to see that technology formerly available only to large industrial clients is now within the reach of the audio and video community. Indeed, SAN and Fibre channel are the future of data storage and for those of us in the audio business, Studio Network Solutions can enable that future for us.
PRICE: Prices start at around $3500.
Contact: Studio Network Solutions, 877-537-2094, www.studionetworksolutions.com.