Special Report

Issues in Technology

This Month: Networked Production

Teamwork is big business. The MultiMedia Telecommunications Association (http://www.mmta.org) in Arlington, Virginia, estimates in its "1998 Market Review and Forecast" that spending on collaborative technology in 1997 totaled $7 billion, a 29 percent increase over the previous year's figures. The report also projects that this figure will reach $15.7 billion by the year 2001. Although the report focuses mainly on groupware, audioconferencing and videoconferencing, there's no question that collaboration-whether it's local or long-distance-is just what communicators want.

This Special Report should be especially helpful for companies that don't have a network in place but are thinking about it. We offer case studies and a rundown of the latest collaborative technology.

To prepare this report, David English called production houses of various sizes and asked them what, if any, kind of network they use for collaborative production. Not surprisingly, most companies had a network in place, but the ways in which their nets are used vary.

English also found that producers are no longer keeping their networks to themselves. Instead, they are using the whole world's network, the Web, to show clients works in progress. After all, getting feedback early is better than finding out after you've finished the job that your client wanted a green sky and grazing periwinkle cows, not a static bud vase on a black background. -Steven Klapow

Inside Out

Illustration by Greg Hargreaves

First they were just for e-mail.
Then they handled simple file transfers.
Finally they became a conduit for collaborative production.
Now, integrated with the Web, networks are bringing an outside world of clients into the company.

Networks are an essential part of the collaborative process for many video and multimedia producers. When Seattle's Raster Ranch was founded in late 1994, the company was planned with a network in mind. "It was one of our first meetings," says Wistar Rinearson, Raster Ranch's vice president. "We were sitting in these offices. There was no furniture or remodeling-nothing had been done. One of the first discussions we had was with a network designer. The network went in before anything else. … I can't imagine not having one. It would be like not having central heating, or having a city with no infrastructure."

Networks can take many forms, from a simple local-area network (LAN) that supports basic e-mail and file-sharing to a state-of-the-art storage-area network (SAN) that allows 100-megabyte-per-second access to video and multimedia files. Whether a network is right for you may depend both on the size of your company and on the type of content that's created by your company. A two- or three-person shop doing mostly Web work or CD-ROM publishing may function fine with a "sneakernet"-exchanging large files on a removable drive. However, as that same company grows to 10 or more employees, establishes offices in different locations, or begins to take on larger video-production jobs, a network becomes a necessity.

Setting Sites on Clients

Many production companies have found that networks are a natural fit when dealing with Web-savvy clients. With its seven employees, Raster Ranch provides high-end imaging, 3D animation, and Web design for organizations such as Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Disney and PBS. "One of the first things that we do on a job is build a collaborative Web site," says Renearson. "Here's a job, here's a Web site, and here's all the information about that job on that Web site."

Raster Ranch has its own Web servers, so it's easy for the production team to keep the Web site current by copying files from the production servers to the online servers. "If a client wants Photoshop documents, we're able to stick those out there. Or they may want to see a QuickTime movie or storyboards," says Renearson. "When you're done with the job, you can look back and see all the various processes that went on." From Raster Ranch's point of view, "the Internet is an extension of our network-only slower."

The company's entire "render farm," as Renearson calls it, is attached to the network running off several servers. "We usually take a server and put a big RAID drive on it," says Renearson. The drive is divided so that each artist, programmer or other staff member gets a public, private and e-mail directory. Everyone has access to everyone else's public directory. "You can say to the animator down the hall, ‘I just finished the 900-frame sequence that you need for moving texture maps. It's in my public folder. And I put it in your directory under some obscure name that no one will ever figure out.' That's how we trade files. It would be really tough to run this kind of business without that."

But as powerful as today's networks may be, they're not always the most efficient way to move data around. "The only thing that we might walk around sometimes is a tape, like DLT or AIT, simply because it's such a huge amount of data to try to transfer across a network," says Renearson. Every network has its limitations, especially when employees are feverishly playing the network version of Quake. "The rendering process can get in the way of good gaming."

Milking a Network

COW, a 20-employee production house whose primary line of business is developing corporate Web sites, had a network even when the company was just a calf. "We've been in this office for almost four years, and we started with a network and a T1 line," says Mateo Neri, creative director at COW in Santa Monica, California. (A T1 connection moves data at speeds as high as 1.544 megabits per second.)

At that time, the Web was, from a commercial standpoint, in its infancy, and COW focused on kiosk and CD-ROM development for clients such as Mercedes, Nike and Tetra Pak. "Our network was being used for assets and keeping everyone on the same page with projects, and we used it for e-mail a little. But there wasn't client access."

Today, the company has linked its production servers with its Web servers to create a giant and carefully structured repository for assets and works in progress-including an area of the Web site that lets clients view how their projects are going. "We do several key deliverables on a project, such as concept presentation and design presentation," says Webster Lewins, a producer who worked on Champion Paper's Web site (http://www.championpaper.com). "With Champion, we did a prototype; it's not something that we do for all our clients."

One of the challenges that companies face when maintaining online and production servers is keeping files orderly. The Champion Paper site, for example, employs multiple levels of documents. "Rather than try to create another structure for how we would manage the files [on the Web server], we created the same folder structure on our [internal production] server," says Lewins, who often receives files from clients via e-mail. Then he looks them over and places them in the appropriate directory on the server. "Almost all of the information for a project is kept on a server. We don't save information on our hard drives often."

Says Kendrick Lim, one of COW's lead designers on the Champion Paper project, "I can access the files and the programmer can access them. Everyone can work off the server rather than passing around little pieces on disks."

Internally, each project has its own space on the network. The design group, the administrative group and anyone else who is working on a project can access information that needs to be shared. "Basically," says Lim, "our whole office is hooked up via Ethernet."

COWoperates eight servers. Three are Web servers; one runs the company's e-mail; one is dedicated to Web-site staging; and the rest are for clients' Web sites, such as those for Kahlua (http://www.kahlua.com) and Mustang Jeans (http://www.mustangjeans.com). "We don't really consider ourselves to be a hosting shop; it's included as support for the client," says Neri. COW's clients also can check their projects on the Web servers throughout the day.

Manhattan Bridge

On the other side of the country, networking keeps a bigger production company's operations efficient. Working in offices on opposite sides ofNew York City's Park Avenue, the 90 employees at Betelgeuse Productions use the company's high-speed, eight-server network to stay in touch and collaborate on projects. "We just put in a second T1," says Sam Domenico, executive vice president at Betelgeuse. "We had one for communications-phones and things like that. Now we have one specifically for moving graphics back and forth." FTP areas on the servers let the company receive information easily from clients. "We do that on all of our multimedia projects."

The company's video facilities include digital and analog editing rooms. Three rooms house Avid editing systems: "Two online and one offline," Domenico says. "Most of the [equipment], especially in the graphics area, is networked. We're using a Discreet Logic HiPPi (high-performance parallel interface) networking system for all of the Flames, and the Avid Media Composers are able to dump stuff onto the Flames and Flints." At Betelgeuse, this means that an editor on one side of the street can get files from the other side.

Betelgeuse had its first network, a token-ring configuration, installed several years ago to run groupware and to allow e-mail and simple file transfers. The problem with the original network? "If one piece went down, everything past that point went down," says Domenico. "Also, running the network across the street caused it to bog down. Now we have our T1, and everything is really fast."

With a faster way to access projects, Domenico says, "our producers will be able to download their files from their offices and keep up to speed on changes in the production. Our productions take a week or longer, so the producer and editor get real close and chummy."

Goodbye, Columbus

Electronic Vision, a 24-employee company in Athens, Ohio, that produces mainly CD-ROMs and Web sites, relies on networking partly to keep in touch with companies that aren't exactly around the corner. The closest large city, Columbus, is 60 miles away.

Combining its network with the Web has helped Electronic Vision reach clients outside the region. "It's nice-especially if we're going for Web work," says Brian Adams, a multimedia producer at the company. "We e-mail a link [to the prospective client] and say, ‘Here's how you do it: Go here, and we will update this periodically.'

"Because we're in a remote area, [the network] has helped us work with clients in bigger cities," Adams continues. "They don't feel so disconnected. In that respect, our network has really helped us to expand our business."

The company's 10 servers are split among project development, serving up Web pages and powering the company e-mail system. "One server is our development server," Adams says. "That's where we transfer all our files and where a client can go to check the status of a project."

At Electronic Vision, the network is as much about communication as it is about file safety. "It provides one more place for our files," Adams says. "If a creator's hard drive dies and the receiver's hard drive dies, you can still find the files on the server. For us, that's peace of mind."

Adams typically uses the network to transfer video files to in-house developers. "Instead of spending the time to burn a CD, we use our Linux-based central server running Red Hat 5.0 [from Red Hat Software.] We essentially FTP the files in-house over our network, which is much faster than doing it over the Web." If a client needs to see the files, Adams does a similar FTP to a public HTML folder on one of the Linux-based Web servers. "I give them a Web address, and they can instantly access anything I drop into the folder."

If there's a common thread in the comments that we have heard from video and multimedia producers, it's that networks have strengthened the collaborative process among producers and their clients. No, the network hasn't erased the need for producers to call clients on the phone or sometimes to leave their workstations to visit with them in person, but it supplements direct contact and heads off misunderstandings before work is completed-or at least before you think it's completed.

David English is a freelance writer in Greensboro, North Carolina.