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Media Files– What Do ‘The Studios’ Do?

May 3, 2012

© 2012 by Nick B. Nicholaou, all rights reserved
President, Ministry Business Services, Inc.
Reprinted from Christian Computing Magazine

The number of churches that use video is on the rise, and that presents some challenges to IT management!  So I was wondering: what do the movie and television studios do?  I got to interview someone who works in this area for one of the largest movie and television studios on the planet and was surprised at what I learned!

The Challenge
Media files are huge.  HD video files are about a gigabyte per minute (a sixty minute video is about 70gb).  With files that large, there are a few issues to deal with:

  • File transfer speed
  • File storage
    • Storage of final edited product
    • Storage of raw files for future use
    • Ability to search raw and edited files
    • File format changes over time
  • Asset Management

For church IT managers, the easiest thing to do has been to let the media team deal with it.  Media usually seems to have a larger budget, and IT would rather not be responsible.  But is that the best strategy?  Maybe; but I haven’t found a set of best practices among media teams either.  Each seems to be reinventing the wheel, and often doing so at a much higher expense than necessary.

What the Studio Does
The studio I spoke with handles a lot of titles– movies and television and audio.  In their building they have about a petabyte of storage available to manage their active files (a petabyte is 1,000 terabytes, or 1,000,000 gigabytes).  That is a lot of storage, and it’s for their active files (which they refer to appropriately as assets).

So how do they address the challenges I mentioned?  Here’s what I learned:

  • File Transfer Speed.  Production files are written to media called SxS cards (pronounced “S-by-S”).  SxS cards are flash memory cards that fit into Express Memory slots on Windows and Mac OSX computers, and they have transfer rates of 800mbps (burstable up to 2.5gbps), and they require a Sony driver.  Their files are transferred to a SAN with fiber connections to facilitate fast data transfer during editing.
  • File Storage.  All raw footage is copied to LTO5 tape, as is the final edited product.  LTO (Linear Tape-Open) is an open source standard developed in the 1990s, and LTO5 is the latest version of the standard.  Released in 2010, LTO5 can store 1.5tb natively (i.e. without compression) each tape with a data transfer rate of 140mbps– that’s fast!  To help ensure that assets will be available for future use, two things are done:
    • The file naming convention used surprised me!  Rather than using metatags, they put all potential search terms into the name of the file separated by underscores!  Their concern is that the metatags could somehow get separated from the files, and by putting them into the file names they accomplish the same thing with higher reliability.  Their file names are very long!
    • Tapes with files no longer being actively used are transferred to cold storage to increase their lifespan.  Older LTO formats are transferred to newer formats; they are currently converting all data stored on LTO3 tapes onto LTO5 tapes.  This helps keep the library quality high while making sure the files will be available with current technology.
  • Asset Management.  Though I was surprised by the heavy use of LTO5 magnetic tape media, this is the area that probably surprised me the most.  The technology the studio uses to manage, or track their assets is a spreadsheet!  A very large spreadsheet!  They looked at various databases and decided it was the method they preferred, though they know some other studios use databases that were either purchased or developed.

Should This Be Managed By the Church’s IT?
That’s a question I don’t have a good answer for.  I have conflicting thoughts in this area:

  • IT managers are often reluctant to be responsible for media storage because of the file sizes and value.
  • But data is data, so I recommend that IT at least be involved in the process.
    • Because backup and recovery is one of IT’s most important functions. IT can help ensure that the strategy employed is one that will meet the organization’s needs in various scenarios.
    • IT is responsible for buying a lot of hardware and software, and often has the best relationships to make certain that purchases are getting the maximum possible discounts.

Were you as surprised as I was in some of the ways the studios are managing this very important task?  They appropriately refer to it as an asset management process, but some of their methodology was very different than what I had expected.

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