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Visual effects firm turns server room into data center

Visual effects company Image Engine is re-building its data center for better efficiency and cooling capabilities and more space.

To bring to life the images that go into a movie like Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Image Engine Design Inc. needed vast amounts of computing capacity and storage. The visual effects company is now expanding in anticipation of other major projects that will one day hit the silver screen.

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"We have been known for television series work and, about three years ago, became involved in film and needed additional technology and expertise to turn the division into a reality," said Peter Muyzers, head of Image Engine's Film Division. "We are still actively building that division with added bandwidth for films, more storage and speed."

For the past 10 years, Vancouver, British Columbia-based Image Engine has created visual effects for TV and film, and in that time the company has added lots of computing power. Along the way, the company also hit the limits of server room space and power and cooling capabilities.

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The existing server room at Image Engine holds seven Hewlett-Packard Co. BladeSystem servers with about 15 blades per rack, all running Linux. The room also houses 12 other servers, plus a Network Appliance Inc. Data ONTAP GX storage system, said Jason Navarro, systems administrator at Image Engine.

Image Engine hit the limits of its server room space and power and cooling capabilities.

The company plans to add more servers and has already purchased additional racks to fill the new space being built, which is 20% larger than the existing room, making the facility more of an actual data center.

"We are expanding the server room, which we designed from scratch, to double its efficiency," said Navarro. "We are building more capacity and using more blades, upgrading cooling and power systems in there. We've looked at this critically to make sure we aren't wasting any money in the room, which is being designed by workers here."

Muyzers said the company has added a small 56-square-foot addition to the existing building, and the new server room, which occupies a portion of that space, will be complete by the end of August.

The most expensive piece of the new data center is a more efficient cooling system from Liebert Corp., an Emerson Network Power company.

"The cooling we have in place now works, but it isn't configured for a data center," Muyzers said. "For the new space, we created hot and cold aisle, and we are using a cooling system designed for data centers."

The design company is putting faith in their power suppliers and won't be investing in a backup generator. The building is located in an industrial area with what Image Engine believes is reliable power, and the company is using Liebert uninterruptible power supply (UPS) that maintains workloads on battery long enough for critical equipment to be shut down in an orderly manner if a power outage occurs.

"Adding a generator didn't make sense from a cost perspective since we don't run all day the way a bank does," Muyzers said.

The current server room has a door that doesn't lock and is often left open, allowing dust to get in and lessening the effectiveness of cooling mechanisms, Muyzers said. The new server room will be more secure and efficient, with locked double doors that are accessible only by IT administrators.

Executives from major production companies visit Image Engine to view the data center, so the new data center will have a glass wall for visitors to survey the equipment without entering the room, Muyzers said.

Sweet on HP blades
Image Engine broke in its 48-node HP BladeSystem on the making of the Marvel Comics-based movie Rise of the Silver Surfer, which was released in June. The company used HP ProLiant BL460c servers and HP xw4400 and xw6400 workstations. The boxes were specially configured for Image Engine's design needs and include high-end applications that translate artist renderings into two- and three-dimensional designs.

IT expert at Image Engine Joel Shaikin said the company looked for hardware with scalability and reliability and ultimately decided on HP.

"In the visual effects industry," said Shaikin, "white-box technologies are commonly used to save money, but you eventually have to look to a reliable vendor who can build servers to our specifications, and [HP] is there to support the hardware as well."

The company has not ventured into virtualization technology and doesn't have plans to, instead relying on blades for density.

Image Engine does have some IBM Corp. servers, but HP wooed the company with aggressive pricing as well as back-end support, according to Navarro. Though it has had good luck with HP so far, Image Engine will consider other vendors.

"It depends on what the flavor of the month is," Navarro said. "We favor HP lately because it is priced aggressively, but that can change."

Now the company is working on a film about a toy store where a train room comes to life. Image Engine is also working on a Walt Disney picture called South of the Border about a talking Chihuahua who ends up lost in Mexico while on vacation with her owner.

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail Bridget Botelho, News Writer.

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