by Scott Berinato

Technology on a Budget: How to Build a 1.5 Terabyte SAN for Less than $35,000

Jan 01, 20025 mins
Data Center

Lew Goldstein is a sound supervisor editor for C5 Inc. in New York City. C5 does postproduction audio for major motion pictures?which means it creates or embellishes every sound you hear in a movie from a dog bark to every spoken word. They put the hurricane in Cape Fear. The woodchipper in Fargo too.

Goldstein is also a closet IT guy. To store all those space-hogging audio clips, he built a 1.5 terabyte storage area network (SAN). He did this without a SAN vendor and for less than $35,000, a third of what vendors charge for equipment alone?never mind pesky consulting and integration fees.

His SAN has never crashed. Once, he unplugged it on purpose in an attempt to cross it up. When he plugged it back in, sound editors returned to work as if nothing had happened.

Goldstein didn’t set out to build a SAN because SANs are trendy. He did it because the transition from tape to digital editing was wreaking all sorts of havoc in audio postproduction. Digital audio files are big, and Goldstein has more than 45,000 of them. Every sound from the natural world?and thousands not of this world?is stored on a server’s hard drive at C5. Most of them are bigger than 1MB. Here’s a tiny sample: In Get Shorty, a 20-second clip of a 767 flying overhead was 8MB. Goldstein has gigabytes of “dins,” which are long stretches of ambient city noise. Some dins run 15 minutes (120MB). Goldstein has a file called Aircraft Toilet Flush. He has a folder called simply Blowtorches.

C5 not only edits the sounds; it creates them. Each new movie (he recently finished Men in Black 2) involves 15 days of recording with “foley artists,” people who are recorded knocking on a door or walking on gravel and so forth. Hundreds of audio files emerge from that work.

Work processes also contributed to C5’s storage problem. Because editors at C5 couldn’t share files, they made local copies of everything they worked on. They also made 6GB local copies of the movies in order to sync sound and picture. At any one time, C5 is working on four major motion pictures plus several documentaries and indie films, each having up to six editors. On top of that, directors will often change entire sections of movies during audio postproduction, which means everyone will stop what they’re doing, upload their work, wait for the new video file, make a new local copy and then start editing again.

Vendors offered to sell Goldstein a SAN, of course, but they wouldn’t sell him what he wanted. If he wanted just an empty rack to put his own hard drives in, they’d tell him he had to buy the drives, too, at enormous markups. If he wanted fibre channel, they tried to sell him on SCSI?a technology his research taught him to avoid. One vendor offered a discount if he would beta-test its SAN. He thought that sounded like he would be working for them instead of the other way around.

A SAN, Goldstein says, is just a big rack of hard drives everyone shares. With a hobbyist’s background and some dedicated research, he was able to learn the technology on his own and avoid vendors’ upselling, technology biases, and their price tags.

Goldstein did have to call on a couple of vendors to complete his first SAN. He bought fibre channel switches and PCI-to-fibre channel cards. He found a humble little company that sold him empty racks at a good price.

He picked up 10 9GB drives on eBay. He spent $51. Total.

Don’t scoff. They’ve never crashed.

He put each $5.10 eBay drive in one of the empty racks and connected the rack to the switches that in turn connected to four end users. “I slapped it together, and it worked,” Goldstein says. “I had probably spent less than $5,000 at this point.”

The thing hummed, and C5’s editors started jumping on board. Four nodes became eight. Eight became 16. Soon, every sound editor was connected. Users could share files. No more local replications. The editing process became more efficient and more collaborative. Goldstein believes without his SAN, C5 couldn’t have pulled off the audio postproduction on Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Lee was dissatisfied with much of the movie’s audio, and he leaned on C5. With the SAN, multiple members of the crack team could work simultaneously on a file. By the old method, each editor had to wait for the previous one to finish his work and upload it.

The system keeps growing. Goldstein now buys 73GB drives for about $700 each?still a minor theft. He has more than 3 racks running 1.5 terabytes of storage. He just added 500GB without a hitch. Each editor gets his own 20GB workspace, and each has access to the archive of 39,000 (and growing) audio files. In fact, Goldstein finds SAN-building so straightforward, he now sells them on the side.

The sounds of Scorcese’s New York, every wistful breeze in an Ang Lee film, every Coen brothers gunshot is sitting there on Lew Goldstein’s first SAN at C5. That’s probably a billion dollars in ticket receipts, and Goldstein has yet to spend $35,000.