Videography November 1998
Cross-Platform Networking Gets
Easier and More Complicated
By Sheldon Liebman
It is the best of times. It is the worst of times. With apologies to Charles Dickens, these statements may be the most accurate way to portray cross-platform networking today. On the one hand, more tools exist to address the pieces of this puzzle than ever before. On the other hand, choosing the best way to create, grow and manage a high-speed network of computers has become increasingly more difficult as no single product or company has emerged to completely address this problem.
Earlier this year, we wrote about the changes that are taking place in the area of high-speed networking. The trend is away from creating homogeneous networks and toward mixed use environments, where different kinds of computers connect using more than one networking protocol to share many types of data.
Out With the Old, In With the New
One of the most obvious issues to address in this situation is what to do with existing equipment. The more active a facility has been in upgrading infrastructure over the years, the more of a problem this becomes. After all, if you're running Apple IIe computers with small SCSI drives, it's easy to throw them away.
Today, high-speed Ultra2 SCSI is used to connect with high-speed Low Voltage Differential (LVD) disks. Using LVD technology, the maximum burst transfer rate is increased to 80 MegaBytes per second (MBps) compared to 40 MBps for standard SCSI-2 and approximately 3 MBps for the original SCSI-1 specification. If a studio has purchased equipment on a regular basis over the past few years, it may have all of these types of storage devices in house.
Another issue is how to link disparate networks together. A few years ago, companies like ATTO Technology and Transoft sold SCSI-based networking solutions. Today, both companies have shifted to Fibre Channel. Early Discreet Logic customers purchased HIPPI networks to use with their SGI machines. More recently, the company has been supporting SSA and Fibre Channel solutions.
Finally, the computer platform itself has been shifting. Windows NT has been gaining ground on both the Mac and SGI platforms for video. At Apple, their new machines utilize the PCI bus that is found in PCs, so some of the same components can be used in both platforms (including some networking hardware). SGI's newer O2 and Octane workstations also have PCI bus capability. More importantly, SGI has announced and will shortly deliver Windows NT workstations, so they will certainly provide ways to connect them together.
In response to all of these issues, some of the players in this area have devoted considerable time and effort to developing ways to mix the old and the new. ATTO Technology created FibreBridge to connect between Ultra SCSI and Fibre Channel environments. With FibreBridge, SCSI storage devices can be connected to Fibre Channel Arbitrated Loop (FC-AL) network environments.
ATTO has also developed drivers and selected host bus adapters that can be used in more than one platform. The company is currently working to increase the number of platforms and operating systems they support to accommodate a wide variety of computing environments. This simplifies the selection and installation of network hardware in a mixed platform environment.
Even if all the pieces are connected together, managing the process becomes more difficult in a mixed environment. In ATTO's case, they are developing utilities and monitoring software using Sun Microsystems' Java language. With Java, applications can be ported easily from one computer environment to another and maintain a common user interface.
Transoft also offers a converter product that allows customers to link SCSI products with the Fibre Channel Architecture. According to the company, Transoft's Storage Area Networks (SANs) can also be used with other network architectures through the use of a hub or a switch.
In addition to connectivity, Transoft is developing products to make their Fibre Channel solutions as transparent as possible to end-users, regardless of the platform they are using. This is being accomplished through a Network File System that operates between the SAN and all connected workstations.
According to Transoft, their new FibreNet DataShare product allows all notes to transfer data directly to and from shared storage. The product supports multiple nodes writing to the same file system or even the same file. It is important to note, however, that high-level application software on the nodes needs to be compatible with this type of operation (see below).
At Mercury Computer Systems, they have also created a product that allows users to access disk volumes and files simultaneously. Mercury's approach is different from Transoft's and has resulted in a new product called SANergy, which builds on and replaces their existing SuiteFusion Pro product line.
According to the company, SANergy is actually "the world's first storage area network operating system (SAN-OS)." A traditional Network OS (like Novell Netware) sits on top of a standard operating system (like Microsoft Windows) and allows computers to work with Local Area Networks (LANs) in a transparent manner.
In a LAN environment, a "Network Administrator" is responsible for setting up the system, at which time it operates transparently to the users. SANergy connects an existing SAN and LAN to allow each node to access the high-speed SAN storage transparently. It even uses the permissions, passwords and access capabilities of the existing LAN to simplify setup.
Mercury claims that SANergy is available for use with MacOS, Windows NT and SGI Irix today and will be available for other flavors of Unix in the future. The system uses the Windows NT File System and at least one dedicated Pentium-based Windows NT workstation to act as a "meta data controller (MDC)." The MDC connects to both the LAN and the SAN and basically directs calls to the high-speed storage through the SAN connection instead of the LAN connection.
Who's the Boss?
Even if the SAN is transparent to the users, as claimed by Transoft and Mercury, there is still the issue of application software to deal with. There is a big difference between "being networked" in a workgroup and having "workgroup enabled" software. For a very simple example, let's look at Microsoft Word, a very popular word processing package. If I'm editing a document (like this article), everyone else on my network has access to it also. If someone else tries to open it, however, they get a message that "the document is already in use" and are given the choice to access it "read-only" or to cancel the request. The reason for this is simple - while we're on a network, Word does not allow multiple users to "collaborate" on a document.
Lotus Notes, on the other hand, was designed from the ground up for workgroups, so it doesn't have these types of limitations. In the world of video and graphics software, similar limitations exist - the Editing Suite probably can't edit the audio track at the same time the Audio Suite has it open. Like our Word example, though, the Editing Suite may be able to play it (read-only) even though the Audio Suite is working on it.
As more and more workgroups are created, manufacturers have to develop ways to let multiple users work on a project together. As these same companies go "cross-platform," they also have to deal with the issues of complex networks and accessing data through different operating systems.
One company that is already working hard on this is Avid Technology. Originally developed for the MacOS, Avid has expanded their product lines to include the SGI and Windows platforms. With their recent acquisition of SoftImage, they are now looking at how to integrate different types of applications along with different types of platforms and networks.
To demonstrate how serious Avid is about this, they have created an entire department devoted to "Infrastructure." This is more than just the hardware, but includes how data is passed from place to place and how it is shared. It is also about more than just conversion software. For example, you can "convert" a Softimage project to a bunch of rendered images and then save those images as a digital "movie" that can be used inside an Avid Media Composer. What might be more useful, however, would be to open the SoftImage "script" as a channel in the editing system with the ability to adjust certain parameters to make sure they match the rest of the project.
Can you do this today? No. Is Avid promising you'll be able to do it tomorrow? No. However, the types of things the company is working on will help us move toward this scenario.
The key to all of this is "meta data," descriptive information that exists as part of a project. In the Mercury example above, meta data helps the controller determine whether files are really on the SAN instead of the LAN. In Avid Media Composer, for example, meta data can maintain complex directory structures to help locate all the files that are part of a project.
Today, that meta data can be used to "send" a project from one Media Composer user to another using the AvidNet transfer tool. Tomorrow, it may help a product from another company read and utilize a Media Composer project automatically. To get to that point requires companies like Avid to publish their data specifications and let other developers, even if they are competitors, find a way to use it.
Avid has a long history of proposing "standards" for the video industry. Sometimes, these are embraced willingly. Other times, Avid is criticized for trying to create artificial standards where none are required in order to exert control over the industry. Whichever camp you belong to, it's hard to argue with the notion of sharing information between applications, even if they are from different companies.
As the industry leader in non-linear editing, Avid has the luxury (or perhaps the obligation) to look at the big picture and the long-term view. The company has been selling high-speed storage for a number of years, is already involved in designing and implementing network architectures for its customers, and more recently developed partnerships with Media Management companies to address that part of the issue.
The ultimate goal is called the Open Non-Linear Environment and it includes three areas - connecting systems together, providing tools for interoperability and managing the process. The physical network connection is part of the first area and a number of third party companies, in addition to Avid, can provide that part of the puzzle.
The second area is heavily dependent upon the existence of meta data and the ability to recognize and use this information. Avid's older OMF standard has been superceded by the newer AAF standard to address this issue. One of the proponents of AAF is Microsoft, a company with more than a little influence in the industry. As anyone who attended the Videography Open Media Roundtable at NAB will remember, Apple does not embrace AAF, claiming that everything it has is already built into QuickTime 3.0. This article can't resolve this issue, but it is certainly one we'll keep watching.
The final area is management, which Avid is addressing with their Open Media Management Initiative. OMMI describes how Avid's data structures are organized and allows any asset management system to understand and manage the data used by Avid systems.
Are We Compatible?
It would be nice is everything just worked together already, but it doesn't. We have a long way to go before we reach the ultimate in data sharing, which is probably best illustrated in any episode of "Star Trek" or its offspring. Universal translators let any two species communicate (even if they've never met before). Every computer seems to use the same size computer disc and the same file system. Although the content may be in a different language, it can always be read.
Our industry has a long way to go before we reach that point, and there will certainly be many bumps in the road. However, we are making great strides in connecting our systems together and it's only a matter of time before they truly understand each other.
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