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Makers of South Park turn to Apple for new storage setup

The cartoon studio plans to install a full SAN to ease backup headaches

January 2, 2006 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - While South Park may appear technologically amateurish with its character cutouts, over the past nine seasons the cartoon series has added a great deal of storage-consuming detail, including backgrounds and crowd shots that can take up to 100MB of memory each. And that's on top of a show that still produces all of its content in-house, where more than 30 artists work right up until deadline, making frequent changes to each episode of the weekly TV series.
To handle its growing storage needs, the makers of South Park this past season began moving away from a direct-attached disk backup and tape library that often took more than a day to back up data. Instead, the show's producers are changing over to a faster tape library system and disk systems that later this month will blossom into a full storage-area network (SAN).
J.J. Franzen, technology supervisor at South Park Studios in Los Angeles, said the show was simply running out of storage space on its digital linear tape (DLT) library and direct-attached disk storage from Plymouth, Minn.-based Ciprico Inc. So in May, a new linear tape open (LTO)-2 tape library from Exabyte Corp. in Boulder, Colo., and three Xserve RAID disk arrays from Apple Computer Inc. were installed.
Franzen said he also switched from EMC's Legato Networker backup software to Time Navigator from Atempo Inc. in Palo Alto, Calif.
"We were looking for something with a bit more functionality and less cantankerousness. We had to wrestle with Networker to get it to work," he said.
Franzen said South Park staff can now perform up to four incremental backups a day vs. one a day with the old system and one full backup a week as opposed to doing it once a month. In the event of disaster, the studio would lose only four hours of changes to the show's content vs. an entire day's data -- which would destroy the tight production schedule that leads up to the weekly broadcast, Franzen said.
"The last backup we did on the DLT7000s took about two weeks straight -- yes, two weeks. They were not the fastest things to begin with, and while they were fine for what we needed when we got them, we never anticipated making it to nine seasons or more, so we never thought we'd be backing up more than a few hundred gigs. Now that we're at a little over 2TB, we needed something faster," Franzen said.
Franzen said he chose Apple hardware based on a "gut" feeling that its technology would be good, and sofar, he has not been disappointed. Franzen said he now expects to add two more Xserve arrays for a total of 15TB of storage and place his disk storage behind a couple of switches from Cisco Systems Inc. in order to make managing his storage easier.
Apple began its foray into the storage market with the Xserve array in February 2003 and added the Xsan File System in August 2004. Apple's Xserve arrays now support not only the Mac OS X Server platform but also Windows, Linux, Unix and NetWare.
Xserve arrays use 7,200-rpm ATA drives. Each box scales to 7TB and includes 2Gbit/sec Fibre Channel ports at a price tag that starts at $5,999 for 1TB of raw storage. The 3.5TB and 7TB systems retail for $8,499 and 12,999, respectively.

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