Data Center Gets Star Treatment

Data Center Gets Star Treatment

As it rushed to complete work on Star Wars: Episode III-Revenge of the Sith last February, special effects company Industrial Light and Magic found itself split between two worlds. The new home of the San Rafael, California-based studio was in the final phase of construction as part of the Letterman Digital Arts Center (LDAC), a 850,000 -square-foot, four-building campus in San Francisco's Presidio National Park. Two of those buildings today serve as headquarters for George Lucas' Lucasfilm as well as its ILM and LucasArts Entertainment Co. subsidiaries.

ILM had been given responsibility for moving IT operations for all three business units. But Chief Technology Officer Cliff Plumer was also in an enviable position. His group had a rare opportunity to create an IT infrastructure, including new data centers and the network, from the ground up.

That February, however, ILM didn't have the processing power in its overcrowded data center in San Rafael to finish rendering all of the movie frames on time, and it didn't have the space for more servers. Bringing down the 2,500-processor server farm to move it would have had a huge impact on operations, since it runs 24 hours a day, says Plumer.

Keeping Star Wars fans waiting was not an option, so ILM bought an additional 250 dual-processor blade servers, installed them in the new data center at the LDAC 20 miles away and connected them into the render server farm in San Rafael by way of a 10Gb/sec. fiber-optic link.

Today ILM resides in a quiet setting with views of the Golden Gate Bridge. From the outside, the style of the buildings is more in keeping with the former Army base's heritage than what one would expect for a high-tech special effects and movie production company. There are no signs, and even at the main entrance, hidden behind plantings, the only indication of who occupies the buildings is a statue of Star Wars character Yoda atop a fountain.

Inside, everything is state of the art. The multistory buildings include a 13,500-square-foot data center, 18-inch raised floors that accommodate more than 600 miles of network cabling, and a 3,000-square-foot media data center. The latter is capable of simultaneously delivering high-definition video to remote clients and to several in-house viewing spaces.

The main data center includes a 3,000-processor server farm, approximately 150TB of network-attached storage and a 10 Gb Ethernet backbone that may be the largest built by any company to date. It has some 340 10Gb ports and supports traffic loads of 130TB per day. Power and cooling systems sit in two adjacent rooms, which Plumer says helps to keep maintenance traffic out of the data center.

Going Live

Getting moved wasn't easy. The data center was ready to go back online in February when the new servers and other equipment arrived at the LDAC. The IT staff had already moved in, becoming the building's first tenant. But the rest of the building was far from finished. "We had to wear hard hats and goggles" during those first weeks, recalls network engineer Mike Runge.

With all the construction, finding a place to store equipment shipments -- dual-Opteron Titan64 Superblades from Angstrom Microsystems and networking gear from Foundry Networks -- was tough. "It was hard to find a room that would lock and be free of dust," Runge says. Once the equipment was unboxed, however, the installation took Angstrom technicians just two hours, says Lalit Jain, Angstrom's CEO.

"Within seconds of powering [the servers] up, they were processing an image," Plumer says. Since then, the rest of the data center equipment has moved over. The bulk of it arrived in mid-August, when ILM's 400 artists and other staffers began moving in.

ILM's move is part of a corporate consolidation that also includes video game maker LucasArts as well as Lucasfilm. Some 1,500 people work in the new facility. Moving LucasArts and Lucasfilm was fairly straightforward, says Kevin Clark, director of IT operations. ILM was more difficult. "The infrastructure is much more complex," he says.

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