Hollywood blazes trail in hybrid cloud

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DigitalFilm Tree, a company that does post production work for TV and film, once spent a lot of time managing the delivery of hard drives to and from various partners. Now, however, it's using a hybrid cloud from Rackspace to foster collaboration among all the partners, like Disney, that develop a TV show or movie. ABC's Mistresses and TNT's Perception are two programs using the new setup.

Image credit: Flickr/photographerglen

Historically, at the end of a day of filming a TV show, DigitalFilm Tree would get a hard drive or several hard drives and copy it onto its on-premises shared storage system, Guillaume Aubuchon, DigitalFilm Tree's CTO said. DigitalFilm Tree would convert the data into a low resolution version and send a worker to deliver it to a partner that does editorial work. That partner would copy the low res version onto their shared storage system, work on it, transfer the data onto another hard drive and send a worker to deliver it to another partner, maybe a visual affects company. And so on, until a complete product made it back to DigitalFilm Tree and eventually the original studio.

Back then, using "FTP would have been utopia," said Aubuchon.

Gradually, DigitalFilm Tree has begun using both private and public clouds to offer studios and production companies a video streaming and collaboration service called Critique. The service lets all the partners work on a project at the same time in a way that improves efficiency.

Here's how the service works. At the end of a day of filming, Critique enables the uploading of a low resolution version of the video to Rackspace's public cloud. Because a full resolution version of a day's shoot might run to 35 terabytes of material, using a low res version saves on bandwidth and storage costs as well as transmission time.

Once it's in the public cloud, producers, directors, cinematographers and other partners can review the film and make notes for each other in real time. Partners like Disney can do editorial work or add visual affects. When they're finished, Critique matches the low res version with the original, making the changes to the high res version that's stored in a private cloud.

"What we needed to do is have this hybrid where we have this proxy material that's easy to manipulate and collaborate on in the cloud but that has an association back to this high resolution material that's also in the cloud," Aubuchon said.

DigitalFilm Tree is running a private OpenStack cloud set up with help by Rackspace and using the container sync function in Swift Object Storage to replicate between the high res local material with the low res material in the public cloud. It also recently started using Rackspace's performance servers which reduces costs and improves speed, Aubuchon said.

There are a couple of reasons DigitalFilm Tree uses private clouds rather than going 100 percent public. "We have studios that are highly paranoid about pre-release content. They like to know that it's stored in their four walls or a trusted vendor," Aubuchon said.

Also, the sheer size of the files means it's easier to manage and less expensive to store it on-premises. Some of the larger features have hundreds of terabytes or even petabytes of data, he said.

Using the cloud makes it easier for all of the involved partners to allow new people to work on projects. "If the marketing department wants to pull a shot for a promo, it's just a matter of granting them access," he said. "It's not a matter of requesting that shot and someone putting it on a drive and driving it over."

Critique was also used in the creation of the movie Her and is used by Modern Family and NCIS: LA, but those users did not employ the same hybrid setup.

OpenStack backers are hopeful that the entertainment industry will settle on widely using OpenStack. There is an effort underway by a group called The Entertainment Technology Center to investigate ways the cloud might be useful to the industry. Aubochon said it's key to use an open technology so that independent companies could use the cloud service of their choice while easily interacting with each other. He said he has investigated other clouds but settled on OpenStack for its potential for interoperability.

Rackspace pointed out the potential for conflict that its rival and dominant cloud provider Amazon Web Services might present for movie studies. John Engates, CTO for Rackspace, said the entertainment companies don't want to lock themselves into a particular cloud provider, "especially if that cloud provider aims to be their competitor down the road. If Amazon gets into the movie business, it puts people in a funky spot," he said.

Read more of Nancy Gohring's "To the Cloud" blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Nancy on Twitter at @ngohring and on Google+. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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