Over recent decades many of the tools used in video production and post have become smaller, easier to use, and less expensive. It is possible to edit and finish projects on a single iMac or iMac Pro that would have taken an entire edit facility in the past. This trajectory has also applied to media storage – the lifeblood of post-production. Both spinning and solid state hard drives are cheaper and offer larger capacity than ever before. Less costly systems and storage make it easier for small and medium production and post companies to ramp up the number of edit/graphics/audio seats within the facility.
Adding a few more iMacs and attached local drives is easy, but the hurdle comes when you want to share media and projects among those systems. In the past, most smaller companies had to resort to sneakernet methods or basic cloud services like Dropbox. True shared storage systems remained the realm of “heavy iron” and out of reach for many small companies. Larger Avid Media Composer-based installations have used shared storage (SANs or storage area network systems) from Avid and Facilis for years. Older Final Cut Pro shops enjoyed a short run with Apple Xsan installations. But these were pricey and harder to administer without some level of active IT support. Thanks to advances in ethernet and the dropping cost of the hardware, that is no longer the case.
Ethernet and Thunderbolt put shared storage within reach
If you are in the market for shared storage, then it’s imperative that you purchase a unit designed for video editing. Shared storage products come in all sizes and price ranges. Many are designed for general business or home media applications and those are simply not viable for video editing. They may be cheaper, but you won’t get the performance that video editing software requires. So do your homework before buying.
Modern solutions from companies like LumaForge, QNAP, Studio Network Solutions, and Synology have leveraged ethernet networking to provide a range of rack, desktop, and mobile systems that are within the budget of any thriving content creative company and are specifically intended for the professional video market. These solutions typically consist of a single unit with a built-in server and integrated storage. They connect using the 1Gbps or 10Gbps Ethernet protocol. Affordable 40Gbps is coming in the near future. Some of these products also offer Thunderbolt 3 connections. By definition, these are considered NAS units (network attached storage).
Any computer with a standard ethernet (1Gbps) port can access the system, which is adequate for HD and proxy-file viewing, logging, and editing. If you own an iMac Pro, then you have a faster, built-in 10Gbps port. But there are numerous PCIe cards and Thunderbolt adapters that can be added to modern Macs and PCs to facilitate 10Gbps connectivity. That’s the bandwidth you’ll need for smooth 4K editing.
Affordability is certainly relative, but a mobile or desktop NAS unit with 32TB of storage will run you in the $5K to $12K range, depending on model, vendor, and whether it uses spinning disks or SSDs. If you have a bigger budget, then you can bump up to larger tower and rack models with hundreds of terabytes of storage capacity, but the price increases accordingly.
These are RAID-protected systems using RAID-5 or better for redundancy and data protection. In addition, you don’t want to use more than 80-90% of the net available storage. Therefore, a 32TB won’t give you a full 32TB of useable capacity. It’s more like 60-75% of that, depending on the system. Total capacity is based on the internal drives that you purchase. If the same chassis is populated with 14TB drives instead of 8TB drives, then you will obviously have more total capacity – assuming the internal drivers and power supply will accommodate. However, these are not units like a Drobo. You cannot mix-and-match drive types and sizes along the way. All drives have to be matched, which is why it’s a good idea to also buy one or two spare, matching, replacement drives at the time of the initial purchase.
Hooking your system up
Connections are the biggest consideration. If you are using ethernet, then each system can connect to the NAS directly or through an external ethernet hardware switch. Direct connection requires that the NAS chassis include a built-in port for each computer. Many NAS products include two ports by default. If you intend to connect multiple systems, then you’ll need to buy a unit with more built-in ports or a separate ethernet switch. Typically the built-in ports handle 1Gbps and/or 10Gbps connections, but you’ll need to purchase the correct ethernet switch for 10Gbps bandwidth to all systems.
If you intend to connect directly with Thunderbolt 3 cables and your NAS has two of these ports, then you can network two computers. This may be appropriate if the unit is in close physical proximity to the two computers, because Thunderbolt 3 cables are currently only available in shorter cable lengths. (Corning had released long optical Thunderbolt 2 cables, but no such Thunderbolt 3 version is available yet to my knowledge.)
To share storage via Thunderbolt, you will need to make sure the manufacturer enables Thunderbolt networking or a Thunderbolt NAS mode. Otherwise, these ports may simply be connections to use the device as local attached storage with one computer or in order to add an expansion chassis for additional capacity. In other words, don’t take it for granted that having Thunderbolt ports automatically equates to multi-editor collaboration via Thunderbolt.
Short distances of a few feet using Thunderbolt may be the perfect configuration for an editor and an assistant working in the same room. It’s also a good use case for a single editor or DIT who intends to use a NAS unit for local storage instead of other types of RAID arrays. Ethernet cabling applies when the separation is greater than a few feet. Cat 6 cable is ideal for runs under 100 feet. Cat 7 cables are recommended for runs longer than 100 feet or where the cable is located close to electrical wiring in the wall or ceiling.
Getting up and running
The last factor to consider is software configuration, which used to require an IT specialist. Not any more. Most NAS providers include a user-friendly, graphical front end to their internal operating system. Various administration utilities can be accessed through a web browser, like Chrome, from any connected computer. You’ll rarely need to touch this on smaller systems, except for the occasional software update or to reboot the unit. A NAS will usually look and function to the operator just like any other drive.
This is ideal for Final Cut Pro X and Premiere Pro editors whose workflow differs from that of Avid editors. While Avid offers a well-honed method for networking, there is “secret sauce” software to properly manage Avid’s bin locking feature. This function can be successfully replicated in non-Avid storage, using MIMIQ from Indiestor. You can also use Avid’s Nexis storage with non-Avid editing products, because Avid has developed their newest Nexis NAS products to be more open than in the past. No special utility is required for FCPX or Premiere Pro; however, some brands have optimized their systems to “play nice” with Final Cut. Typically both NLEs work well when you connect to the NAS using the SMB network protocol.
There are a few simple steps to follow to make sure your computer is optimized for the 10Gbps connection. Companies like LumaForge include a small configuration app that does most of the work for you. In addition, since they also sell some of their pre-configured models online through Apple, they include simple step-by-step instructions for a fast and painless installation. Finally, if you do get into a bind with any of these modern NAS products, there are a number of video engineering specialists around the country who can talk you through it on the phone or set up your system remotely using Team Viewer. In short, no need to put an IT engineer on staff!
The storage market is one of the most quickly evolving segments of post. Shared storage is not only affordable, but today, installation and operation is simple and nearly foolproof. As this trend continues, look for even larger-capacity, SSD-based systems and faster connectivity protocols. Whether your shop only has a couple of editors or a whole team, NAS units will continue to be the best solution for the ever-increasing challenges that will confront editors in the future.