A while back I covered creative.space’s //ROGUE, an edit-ready NAS system for small studios, complete with powerful managed storage software and a remote monitoring service. What I didn’t cover was the range of other managed solutions that creative.space offers, starting with the //ROGUE, but scaling all the way up to 1.5 petabytes of storage in a single system. What’s interesting about their managed storage solutions is that they can grow with you. Since you’re paying monthly for a service, if your data needs grow you can simply trade up your contract.
Now, if you’re anything like me, you have a resistance to leasing over owning. That’s what makes the creative.space // ROGUE so appealing: at the end of the day you own the hardware. However, in these days of massive tech acceleration, the drives you buy this year are almost boat anchors 18 months later. And when your client list grows, you find yourself making painful decisions about what to keep on the server and what to toss to make room for new projects. That’s where creative.space’s other service tiers start to make a lot of sense.
(Confession time: at last count I had over 50 x 3.5 inch hard drives in my storage room full of old work archives. You know I’ll never look at that data again, I know I’ll never look at that data again, but the thought of having to take an angle grinder to each one to properly destroy data means that they’ll probably sit there for another ten years. If I could just get my hands on one of these bad boys…)
Over the years I’ve worked both at major studio facilities with robot-manned nearline storage vaults and at small creative agencies running off Thunderbolt drives, Firewire drives, or—and this is where I really date myself—Iomega Zip disks and Jazz drives. Those solutions all make sense in those environments. What rarely makes sense is the crazy between these extremes: a chaotic mess of half-baked storage methodologies born out of the necessity of production deadlines. They bear more resemblance to the Stacks in Ready Player One than anything you’d call “network architecture.”
Most of us know our storage and archiving practices are sub-par. Nonetheless, the idea of spending money on an organized storage system instead of a better camera, better software, or a faster graphics workstation seems anathema. But what are the real costs of rolling your own storage solution and the benefits of managed storage?
Let’s take a look.
Issue #1: IT Staffing costs
Some of you are thinking, “IT staffing doesn’t apply. I’m too small to need a full-time IT person.” That may well be true, but if you have no IT department then you are the IT department. That means the three days you spent formatting and reformatting your server—only to find out it was a bad RAID card—were three days employing yourself as an IT expert. Or the day and a half where your primary workstation was locked up while you tried to recover files from a failing drive? Another day and a half of IT work.
When you’re starting out, “IT” days may be an equitable expense, but as the caliber of your work and the caliber of your clients grow, your hourly rate as editor/designer/animator/compositor may far outweigh the typical cost of IT. Not to mention the threat to deadlines and the workflow cost of interrupting creative train-of-thought.
So then, let’s recognize that at any level there’s an IT component cost to working in the world of digital content creation. Of course, to do an accurate cost benefit analysis of a service like creative.space we need to focus on the portion of IT that relates to storage. (Obviously the engineers at DigitalGlue, the company behind creative.space, aren’t going to drive out and reinstall Windows 10 on your workstation for you.) Falling into this category would be maintaining fast, real-time edit storage, providing file share access to clients, backing up work-in-progress data, managing performance caches for compositing applications, handling freelancer permissions, and managing file access and performance between multiple creatives in the studio hitting the NAS at the same time.
A lot of those expenses are consistently part of your daily workflow (setting up and transferring files for clients to access, or searching the archives for a specific piece of media). Then there are the ones that happen periodically. It could be a drive failure in a RAID, corruption of the operating system, setting up a directory structure for a new job, or any of a number of unique circumstances. Something that would take a trained IT technician half a day to solve might take you two or more days, since you need to educate yourself about the systems and processes (via a whole lot of Googling) before you can actually engage in, say, rebuilding a server OS.
Finally, when you lack an IT department you tend to “put up with” poor performance. For editors in particular, keeping a NAS tuned for real-time editing performance can be a challenge when the NAS is constantly operating at or close to capacity. So, you live with stutters, latency, and sluggish starts simply because you don’t have the time or understanding to troubleshoot video playback performance.
How creative.space helps
With creative.space, DigitalGlue’s managed storage offering, they are your IT department. In other words, it’s their job to make sure your storage system is behaving optimally. Not only will they proactively monitor the system for potential bottlenecks, but you have a real human being to talk to should problems arise. And since the support is included in the same service contract as the storage equipment, there’s no additional charge for service or replacement hardware, regardless of the significance of the issue.
Then there’s the storage software itself. I covered a lot of the highlights in my previous article on the //ROGUE (the same software is a shared platform across the entire creative.space line-up). In a nutshell, the software that comes with these systems handles user management, project partitioning, client file access, automated backup snapshots, self-healing, defragmentation, intelligent arrangement of commonly accessed data, fast indexed searching…the list goes on.
Unlike the commodity NAS you’re likely to buy for yourself, creative.space’s software is specifically designed to optimize the read/write activity associated with digital video and other media. Traditional file server software optimizes for tiny Word documents and Excel spreadsheets. Not only does the creative.space software tune performance for digital media, it actually employs machine learning algorithms to adjust that tuning to your work habits.
For mid-sized and larger studios with dedicated flesh-and-blood IT staff, the reduction in staffing costs is a much more tangible number. If 50% of IT time is spent managing server issues, then there’s a direct measurable reduction in budget when licensing a creative.space system.
Issue #2: Disaster prevention and recovery
If a $200 drive is storing the project files for a $300,000 project, then that drive is now worth $300,000; it’s that simple. I’ve yet to meet someone who’s been in the industry for a while without their own story of a data catastrophe, or at least one narrowly averted. From the intern accidentally deleting an entire tentpole feature from the server to drive failures wiping out the last 30 minutes of an animated movie, data loss and corruption is an inevitable part of the digital age.
The hardest part of dealing with data loss is human error. When the server crashes you discover that the new PA was never trained to perform the weekly backups. Or no one ever actually bothered to turn on the 2am drive mirroring. Or no one ever got around to buying the backup drive at all. When you’re just trying to get a job out the door, time spent backing up seems like an inconvenient luxury.
It’s not just the proactive side of things that’s a concern here. Even with consistent backups the recovery process can produce its own issues. Conflicting versions in a week-old backup can throw everything out of whack. I’ve had situations where starting over was easier than trying to pick up the pieces of a partial archive.
How creative.space helps
The creative.space software is constantly backing up. It creates intelligent snapshots of data states as you work. (You can also create explicit ones manually.) Delete a file by mistake or corrupt your project file and you can simply roll back to an earlier state.
What’s particularly cool about snapshots is that they don’t need to take up a whole lot more drive space. They record changes in data, rather than simply duplicating it. Since redundancy protection is built into the RAID array, you get protection against both hardware failure and software corruption, without requiring a duplicate copy of the drive’s contents.
The software is also proactively monitoring the data, along with the human team at creative.space HQ, who receive and review health reports from the system. They can detect hardware failure well ahead of the time a drive might succumb to the “click of death,” and rebuild the system with a new drive before any bits start disappearing from the platters. They’ll even be alerted by unusual temperature readings from your system, an indication that your AC isn’t behaving.
It’s really hard to quantify the value of the pre-emptive monitoring. You might get lucky and your drives behave themselves for a solid 5-year run. On the other hand, disaster might strike, and you lose the data for that $300,000 contract. At that point, a creative.space service contract is a downright bargain.
We came pretty close to that kind of loss on a film where two of our drives failed at the same time in a RAID 6 configuration. If we’d lost one more that would have been it. Turns out all 16 drives in the RAID were purchased from the same bad production batch. Had we been smarter we would have purchased the drives from different vendors to mitigate such a risk. Just one more of those things you just don’t know when you roll your own IT. creative.space’s system would have identified the drive errors long before the drives failed completely.
Issue #3: Aging hardware and growing storage needs
I’ve already mentioned the speed with which hardware depreciates in value these days. Purchasing a NAS today could mean that the system is worth half its purchase price a year later. A related issue is the likelihood of drive failure. Purchasing means that you’ll want to keep your hardware in service for as long as possible, to “get your money’s worth.” Of course, the longer you keep drives in storage, the closer they get to their failure age. In other words, the risk of data loss climbs the longer you hold on to your NAS. When failure does occur, it’s not usually on Black Friday, meaning you’re forced to buy a replacement system at whatever price is available.
A related problem is the issue of growing storage demands. Let’s say you have a 12 bay NAS populated with 8TB drives. You max out the 80 TB (at RAID 6) and need more storage. You could replace the 8 TB drives with 16TB drives, but you’ll need to either offload the data, then rebuild the NAS, or slowly migrate the NAS one drive at a time, a major headache. Of course, you can just go out and buy another NAS, but that’s a whole other depreciating expense.
How creative.space helps
Since you pay monthly for creative.space’s service, you can upgrade your storage capacity at any time. This can come in the form of additional drives added to the initial system, or you can look at migrating to one of their larger systems. One of the unique features of creative.space is that the filesystem is actually stored on the drives themselves, so migrating is dramatically easier than with traditional storage technologies like hardware RAIDs. Upgrading to a new chassis is as easy as pulling the drives out of the old chassis, loading them into the new one, and importing the drive pools. Alternatively, upgrading drive capacity can be as easy as creative.space sending a temporary chassis to load the new drives into and copying the data over.
The issue of aging hardware is a moot point too. You’re not paying for the hardware, so the drives can be swapped for new ones the moment there’s any indication of degraded performance. The architecture is extremely flexible and modular to make data migration manageable as your data footprint scales. Instead of the rollercoaster of having to migrate everything every few years to a new system (and potentially a new vendor after a lengthy capital budgeting process), budgeting storage with a creative.space system is a predictable, monthly experience. Unlike most things these days (like apartment or office rentals) storage technology prices are always going down, so replacing the system when your contract is up will probably end up being cheaper for the same performance—or the same price for the latest model and storage capacity.
It’s genuinely worth taking a long look at the “OpEx” vs “CapEx” equation with drives. You need to evaluate the cost savings of owning your own drives, the expense of repurchasing every few years, and the risk of end-of-life failure against the monthly rental costs. A monthly fee also spreads the expense of storage over time, as opposed to the sudden expense of replacing a failed system. The annual cost can even be claimed on your taxes as an operating expense instead of a capital purchase.
Issue #4: Keeping things simple
All the high-end hardware in the world can’t compete against a skilled artist with a sharp pencil. I discovered this years ago in my other life as a soundtrack composer. I’d launch Logic Pro and spend the next 3 hours auditioning and blending the 3000+ samples, loops, and presets available to me. At 2am I’d realize I hadn’t written a bar of music. Ultimately, I found starting compositions in GarageBand with its limited choices got me into the creative mode much faster.
The more complex a system, the more it pulls you out of a creative flow. It’s why so many creatives love Macs over PCs. (I personally feel like that distinction is a little unfair in the days of Windows 10, but Mac lovers will go to their grave clutching a MacBook Pro, so…)
Linux is de rigueur for server operating systems. However, unless you spend each day in a Linux terminal, I can pretty much guarantee that every time something goes wrong with your server you’ll spend a day scouring the internet, learning not only how to grep, nano, and chmod, but also trying to figure out why services refuse to restart at all.
How creative.space helps
If you really want to scan and analyze performance, there are plenty of pretty metric gauges to look at. The point is, if you just want to get to work, a twenty-minute crash course in the user admin, project partitioning, and a few file features is all you’ll need. Between the intelligent file system and the active support monitoring, the hard work is being handled for you.
Issue #5: Locking down client access
Clients like to see works in progress. They also don’t want to drive down to your studio every time (especially in the COVID era). At the same time, throwing files onto WeTransfer is both a security risk and just plain unprofessional.
You can create a dedicated file share system, but then you’ll have to make duplicates of files, ensure you’re copying the right version, make sure each client only has access to their files, etc. You could easily lose 10-15 minutes of flow each time you set this up for a client review request.
How creative.space helps
Sharing files with clients just takes a couple of clicks with the creative.space software. No need to copy files to a separate file server; restricted access can be granted to specific files (and only those files) wherever they’re situated on the NAS.
In a world where everyone seems to be focused on “The Cloud” as the answer for everything, creative.space provides an interesting alternative that they call “Fog”. You can use your own VPN or ZeroTier, a software-based VPN that they’ve integrated into both the desktop and web apps. The best part about ZeroTier is that their plans start for free, so most teams will be able to collaborate without an added subscription like the VPN solutions from other storage vendors. The idea behind Fog is that it blurs the lines between local (on-prem) and remote (cloud) storage, especially in terms of the user experience. In fact, all a remote user has to do to mount a Space remotely is install the desktop app, click on a “.creative” file that you can easily download or email from the web app, login with a username and password, and click the mount button on any of the Spaces they have permissions to.
Instead of managing IP addresses and copies of files between cloud and local storage, creative.space lets you store your files in one place, then access them from anywhere. Of course, we’re talking about video here and that’s where this solution really shines—if you follow some best practices (the team at DigitalGlue provides training for your crew as part of the managed service). The reality of the cloud for many of us has been waiting for giant video files to transfer over the internet. With creative.space’s Fog approach, local users are able to work directly with the high-bandwidth files while remote users access low-bandwidth proxies optimized for remote connectivity. When the remote editors are done, workstations with local access to the higher quality media can be used for the final renders. It takes a bit of time to wrap your head around this different way of approaching your workflow, but it allows teams to start working immediately and then wait to sync or ship the larger files overnight.
Do the numbers really add up?
Whether creative.space’s managed storage is a fit for your studio really comes down to two things:
1. Do you want to manage your own IT?
2. Are your studio server’s requirements outgrowing your ability to manage and maintain it?
There are some people who genuinely enjoy the IT side of things, just like there are the producers out there who love a good, ordered spreadsheet. And maybe you just haven’t reached the point where media management is getting in the way of your creative tasks, be they editing, motion graphics, grading, whatever.
It’s worth looking at a case study though, to see how someone who’s been there ahead of you has found the overall cost savings and quality of worklife improvements:
Dipping your toes in the water
creative.space’s solutions aren’t going to make sense for everyone. But what I like about their tiered strategy is that smaller ventures can test the waters without having to commit to a long-term service contract. The //ROGUE unit allows a boutique studio to own a NAS with the creative.space service contract for as little as $4,795. That’s in the ballpark of what you’d pay for an entry-level portable NAS without the service contract (and without the proprietary software that gives creative.space servers their magic). However, when you compare the underlying hardware that they pack these systems with and the next generation architecture, even the smallest system performs closer to enterprise systems from a few years ago that cost tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Check out their full line of systems at creative.space.