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Hardware Today: Working Miracles With Xserve RAID

Monday Apr 26th 2004 by Ben Freeman

Price/performance is an obvious consideration for most outfits, but for the Children's Miracle Network, it is the driving force. Apple's Xserve RAID and Power Mac G5 tower provides a lithe technology backbone.

The Apple server snapshot featured in last week's Hardware Today described a vendor working to combine ease of use and robustness with commodity pricing as it moves into the server space. Its first two offerings are the Xserve G5 server and the Xserve RAID. The Xserve G5 server, a powerful dual PowerPC-based G5 running the interoperable and secure Panther OS X (now in version 10.3.3), starts at just under $4,000, and the Xserve RAID provides equal storage bang for the buck, cramming 3.5 TB of data into a 3U unit for $10,999. But while price/performance product advantages roll easily off of most vendors' tongues, customer praise carries far more weight.

Price/performance is an obvious consideration for most outfits. But for the Children's Miracle Network, a not-for-profit organization whose annual five-hour Celebration telethon raises millions of dollars for 170 North American children's hospitals, cost savings can literally be a life saver.

Like most nonprofit organizations, Children's Miracle Network looks to save on costs in many ways. Technology is one area in which it has been successful, having reigned in its spending by electing to edit televised segments in-house using a dual-processor Power Mac G5 tower with Xserve RAID .

Xserve RAID
Apple's Xserve RAID device

"Every time we can spend $1 less on Apple products that's one more dollar we have to buy a $35,000 incubator for an infant at a NICU," Children's Miracle Network Director of Television Production Warren Junium told ServerWatch. (NICU stands for neonatal intensive care unit.) By Junium's estimate, Children's Miracle Network has raised 2.4 billion dollars for children's hospitals since 1983. "That's a lot of money," he noted, "but the problem is children's hospitals give away about $2.5 billion in charity care each year." In other words, in its 20-plus years of hard work, Children's Miracle Network has covered just under a year's worth of charity expenses for the hospitals.

Need for Speed

The backbone of Children's Miracle Network's editing facility is its dual G5 tower system, running Panther and connected via dual Fibre to an original Xserve RAID. Although the current RAID offering leaves room for 14 drives, this slightly earlier version of the Mac's Xserve RAID stacks seven 480 GB drives on one side and four on the other, for a total of 11 drives and 2.2 TB of storage. The unit is configured in RAID 0 mode, which trades speed for a lack of fault tolerance. "Because for the most part we're video editing, I need the speed, rather than the backup," Junium said, adding that he backs up project files individually using a Firewire drive.

This configuration runs Apple editing software efficiently, and Children's Miracle Network, like many Mac-based video production shops, uses Final Cut HD editing and DVD Studio Pro rendering software. Junium says speed was an issue for earlier Apple machines, but the dual G5 server's speed has made rendering a snap in DVD Studio Pro. "Now with the G5, I have a whole show, multiple layers, and it's done in 25 minutes," Junium laughs.

Product Bonding

Despite the performance boost from the Xserve RAID and G5 tower, the Children's Miracle Network team puts in long hours when a deadline looms. As such, uptime is a huge factor, and the G5 tower/Xserve RAID combination has proven itself extremely stable. The RAID unit has had 122 days (and counting) of uptime as of press time. This number would be higher, but Junium's group believes in periodically giving the server some time to cool down.

Junium's team has named its Xserve RAID drives for characters in the Strongbad Flash animated cartoon, and his admitted motive for giving the Xserve RAID downtime when convenient is to "be nice to my little silver box with the pretty lights."

Children's Miracle Network has made sure that the love continues by purchasing the AppleCare protection plan for its Apple products. AppleCare extends the typical 90-day product warranty for up to three years. Children's Miracle Network's experiences with it have been rare but positive to date. While building up the Xserve RAID to 11 drives, one drive (which was purchased from an outside retailer) came defective. "I had a new drive module overnighted to me the next morning," Junium said. He then simply overnighted the defective one back. "It was a flawless process," he glowed.

>> Mixed Client Base

Mixed Client Base

While Children's Miracle Network's video production and communications team runs Macs, most of the remaining Children's Miracle Network users run IBM ThinkPads. Not surprisingly, moving back and forth between systems isn't always fluid. Case in point: At last year's Children's Miracle Network Celebration at Disney World, presentations ran smoothly on Mac G4 and G5 laptops; then someone tried to present on a ThinkPad, and a quick call over the radio for help from tech support ensued, Junium said. Whether it resulted from the tricky IT-less prospects of porting a Mac presentation to a PC or the Mac's audio/visual superiority is unclear.

Issues have also surfaced in the day-to-day operations. "A lot of our people can't even play the DVDs I make because their drives don't have DVD players," Junium said.

For the future, Children's Miracle Network is looking to expand its editing facilities to include several Xserve G5 rack servers linked to additional Xserve RAID units, as well as to experiment with Apple's newly announced < a href=" http://www.apple.com/xsan/">Xsan software SAN solution. From a design perspective, he'd like to see the Xserve RAID device run slightly quieter. "The only complaint I have about the thing is [that] I think the fans are loud," he said.

Children's Miracle Network's thriftiness pervades its technology strategy, extending to its data center real estate. Junium edits in the same room as the main server and storage unit, which explains why hearing the typical noise of server equipment day after day might bother him. "We feel as though we are living up to our mission statement, and our donors would be pleased with what we've gone and done," he said. Using Macs for editing has saved $750,000, Junium estimates, over typical $500-per-hour external editing costs. Ultimately, this savings helps ensure donations get routed to where they belong: the children's hospitals.

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