As I was getting ready to create my latest Final Cut Pro X training for the 10.3 update, I decided this would also be a good time to work with some new gear. So, I contacted the folks at ProMAX. Jess Hartmann, CEO of ProMAX, graciously loaned me a Platform Studio for three weeks so I could create my training and learn more about how his hardware worked.
The ProMAX Platform is a family of workgroup-oriented shared-storage products, designed for video editing with browser-based control software and a range of tools and facilities that are not found on other shared storage systems.
ProMAX has configurations designed for field use, small workgroups, and machine-room rack-mounting. Core features include: Shared storage, asset management and LTO archiving.
It is a scalable product, designed for workgroups of 5 or more, supports editing directly on the shared storage and features enterprise-class hard drives.
System: ProMAX Studio — 24 TB storage, 16GB RAM (I think), 8-drive RAID 5
MSRP: Varies depending upon configuration. The system I used was about $20,000.
In creating my latest Final Cut Pro X training, I used a 27″ iMac system for recording all movies, then a second 27″ iMac which was used by a team of editors to create the final movies for release. Both these iMacs were connected to the Platform via 10-Gig Ethernet using Cat 6 cable and a Promise Technology SANlink 2 Thunderbolt to 10-Gig Ethernet adaptor.
NOTE: All our files were exclusively ProRes 4444, 720p/60 QuickTime movies.
The Platform can be configured to connect via Thunderbolt or 10-Gig Ethernet. Thunderbolt is more accessible because it is built into every Mac, but only allows a limited number of users. 10-Gig is more flexible because it can run through a switch thereby supporting a larger number of users; and the cable runs can be far longer. However, since this system was configured for 10-Gig, I decided to use that.
The problem with 10-Gig, though, is that the iMacs I was using for editing, don’t support 10-Gig Ethernet natively. This required a converter from 10-Gig Ethernet to Thunderbolt 2. Promise Technology makes the SanLink2, which ProMAX recommends, so I rented a pair from Hula Rents, connected everything, installed the drivers and got ready to edit.
NOTE: We had some initial configuration problems with the SANlink, which ProMAX was able to resolve via a screen-sharing tech support phone call.
Once the SANlink2 is connected, you need to configure System Preferences > Network so that it sees the Thunderbolt connection as Ethernet.
NOTE: 10-Gig Ethernet requires Cat 6 Ethernet cable or faster, so make sure your cable is properly rated to get the performance you expect. Fiber will yield faster performance, but costs a lot more.
ProMAX is based in Orange County, CA, so I drove down to their offices and spent two hours getting oriented to the system by their CEO, Jess Hartmann.
NOTE: I can’t over-stress the importance of orientation. This is a complex system, you will need help getting this setup and running properly. Once running, though, operation is simple and straight-forward.
The Platform is not just a server. It is a multi-purpose system designed for media creators:
I had this great vision of putting all these different elements to an in-depth test. However, the day I got it set up, Apple launched their update to Final Cut Pro X and I was heads-down into full-on production.
The Platform became the central hub for all our storage, but the deadlines were far too tight to allow me to play with as much of the system as I would like.
ProMAX installs a small program – ProMAX Listener – which processes all the data between your computer and The Platform. It runs quietly in the background and, once installed, you can forget about it.
You access the system via a web browser – I was using Safari. Security is achieved using user name and passwords. The Platform provides a LOT of control over who can access what using permissions. I also made a point of not connecting it to the web, just in case.
Mounting storage from the Platform to a Mac is as easy as clicking the Dismounted button. At which point, volumes on The Platform show up as standard volumes on the desktop.
Dismounting is equally easy, though experience taught me to dismount volumes using the Browser, rather than ejecting the drive using the Finder.
PUTTING IT TO WORK
Platform uses a concept of “sparse storage.” This means that it only assigns space as you need it, rather than carving out fixed blocks on your server. In this case, I created three volumes:
Each volume was assigned 10 TB of storage, though the total capacity of this version of the Platform was only 24 TB. In the end, we needed about 4 TB of storage for all our masters, compressed and work files.
NOTE: The latest version of Final Cut (10.3) allows creating Libraries directly on SMB volumes without requiring an XSAN. We briefly tried to get this to work with the Platform, because it uses the SMB protocol, but were unsuccessful. My deadlines did not allow for me or my team to figure out why this didn’t work.
The shared storage worked similar to most servers, except, because we were connected via 10-Gig Ethernet, it was really, REALLY fast. We were getting around 600 MB read and write speeds measured using the Blackmagic Design Speed Test.
However, speeds varied significantly depending upon who was doing what with the system. In retrospect, giving the rapid nature of our production – my whole project generated about 340 source videos, all in ProRes 4444 format – I would have turned off automatic proxy generation, as creating proxies often interfered with moving files on the server.
The Platform is built on Windows server running eight processors and some ridiculous amount of RAM. Even with both of us working full-tilt, we never got the CPUs very excited.
There is a full media asset management system, including proxy generation, built into the system, as well as archiving to LTO tape.
A year or two ago, ProMAX bought Cache, which made LTO archiving software. They’ve now integrated LTO archiving directly into the Platform, so that backups and archiving can be automated.
NOTE: Backups make a copy of your data and store it somewhere else. Archiving moves your data off the main server and stores it safely somewhere else.
I strongly support this idea. The more that we make backups and archiving a regular part of our post-production operation the fewer missing media crises we are likely to have. I also recommend using LTO tape. It is actively supported, the roadmap is detailed for the next several years, and the technology is used everyday in corporate America, meaning that an on-going market for this technology will continue to exist.
INTERVIEW WITH JESS HARTMANN
Because there is so much to learn about the Platform family, I recently had an email conversation with Jess Hartmann, CEO of ProMAX to learn more.
Larry: How would you describe the Platform?
Jess: ProMAX Platform is a workflow server that enables creative collaboration through thru Shared Storage, Asset Management, and Archiving.
Larry: You mentioned that the Platform was more than Shared Storage. What do you mean?
Jess: Shared Storage is essential to any creative workgroup. But creative users have a lot of additional needs beyond just Shared Storage. For example, some of the issues creative users are dealing with:
With Platform, we looked at all of those challenges beyond just Shared Storage, and we built solutions to these issues into one single, easy-to-use product.
Larry: What are the key features in the Platform software?
Jess: [There are several:]
Larry: Who do you consider a typical customer for the unit?
Jess: Any workgroup that is developing video or creative content. They really vary in size from 2 to 100+. But if I had to pick a typical range. I would say creative teams of 5-25.
Larry: What were your design goals in creating this family of products?
Jess: Our design goals were to create a system that could grow and expand both in performance and scale, but also in functionality. That’s why we call it ‘Platform’ because it is a system that users can build their workflow upon.
Larry: Assuming the criteria for evaluating storage is more than just “speeds and feeds,” how should we determine what storage to buy?
Jess: It’s true. There are many shared storage options available today and most offer high capacity and high performance. The key is to focus on purchasing a solution that will do more than what every other solution does. Research and find the solution that will best improve your workflow. The best way to start is to determine what key areas of your workflow can be improved with the right technology. Examples of these include Integrated Asset Management, Transcoding and built-in Archiving — all components of a more efficient workflow process, but not every vendor delivers them in one integrated solution. We do.
Larry: What do we need to consider when purchasing a system, if we expect the size of our workgroup to grow?
Jess: Growth can mean more storage, more users, more performance or more of all of these factors. The ability of the system to scale (add more storage, add more speed, add more processing power) is the key to your investment. But I would also say you should consider how flexible that system will be as you change your workflow requirements. And finally, make sure to select a company that can support you in the long term.
Larry: How do we choose between using 10G Ethernet vs. Fiber to connect our system?
Jess: Both technologies will perform well and support very high speed 4k+ workflows. Normally it just depends on what cable you have in your facility. If you already have Fiber in the building, go with that. But if you are starting from scratch, most companies will go with 10GBaseT (copper) because it costs less to install.
Larry: How important is the underlying operating system of a storage system – Windows vs. Linux vs. something else?
Jess: For end users, not very important as our market has seen many very successful network servers for years based on both; they are both great options. This is more a question of preference for the IT team (if there is one). Depending on the organization there may be an Active Directory or Open Directory to join, many organizations also have strict IT and security policies. These are the area’s that will need to consider the underlying OS. With the ProMAX solution, administrators rarely have to login to the OS because the system is administered from the browser which can be done on a Mac.
Larry: What features are in the Platform software that most customers don’t know about?
Jess: Automated metadata tagging is a pretty cool one, no one likes applying metadata. [Also:]
Larry: Buying a system with Shared Storage, Media Asset Management and Archiving all built into the same unit is convenient. However, are we limiting ourselves by getting everything from you, rather than buying “best of breed” software from a variety of vendors?
Jess: If you know ProMAX’s history, we used to sell all best-of-breed solutions. In theory, it’s great, but it costs more than an all-in-one solution and the training and installation budget quickly gets squeezed. Customers get amazing technology, but it is complex and they don’t have the time or budget to train their whole team on it. We’ve seen very low user adoption with the best-of-breed method in the past. The user adoption of proper workflows with our product is far beyond what we’ve ever seen with multi-vendor systems. It doesn’t matter if there are more buttons, what matters is, are those buttons getting used. With ProMAX Platform, they do.
Larry: How do we determine which system best meets our needs? Is storage size the main determining factor?
Jess: Capacity and performance are critical, but you also have to look at how quickly you need to grow, how to protect your data (mirror, LTO), and how much processing power you want for additional capabilities (rendering and transcoding). From the Platform Portable to the Platform 2500 all of our systems run the same software and which one you choose is based on the factors I just mentioned.
Larry: If you could do a one-paragraph commercial for The Platform, what would it be?
Jess: Today’s creative professionals are producing more content than ever before yet upgrading to complex new technology often slows down production. With one product, one interface and one price, ProMAX Platform takes the complexity out of the workflow process making it easy for creative teams to keep up with content demands. From ingest to archive the easy way, ProMAX Platform.
It was interesting working with a high-powered workgroup server as a part of my training project. We had several issues on setup and the tech support provided by ProMAX was excellent.
In looking back, I should have allowed a week to learn more about the system and get all the necessary drivers and connectivity figured out before starting real-time production. I would have liked to use the tape drive for backups, but there just wasn’t time to get it configured and running.
I also recommend not just reading the manuals, but having a ProMAX tech show you how the system works. There are a lot of moving parts and the demo I got from Jess was invaluable.
I also think that while this system is best used, as Jess wrote, by larger workgroups.
I’m thankful to the team at ProMAX for the loan of this unit. If you and your team are looking for something more than a simple shared server, the Platform, from ProMAX, should be on your evaluation list.
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