NT workstations for video production

NT workstations for video production

Philip De Lancie

Behind every computer-hosted, video-production solution there is a workstation. As computers have won acceptance in editing, compositing, and effects, the workstation has become as commonplace in the post-house as cameras are in the field. It’s out of the spotlight, and certainly not the focus of attention. But when performance is sluggish, software freezes, or hard-drives crash, everyone suddenly realizes how integral the workstation has become to video post production.

As indispensable as workstations now are, however, there is a temptation to see them as generic, less significant than the rest of the system within which they operate. “Customers don’t pick a workstation and then decide what application to run on it,” says Jay Ornellas, global segment manager for Digital Content Creation for IBM’s IntelliStation, based in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. “They select an application and/or video board set, and then try to figure out what’s the best platform to run it on. The workstation is there to support the application, not the other way around.”

In the mid-1990s Apple Computer dominated much of the market for computer-based video tools, with UNIX-based (IRIX) Silicon Graphics machines claiming the top end. But while Apple has made a strong comeback with Final Cut Pro – aided by support from such companies as ICE, Pinnacle, and Matrox – the company’s well-publicized stumbles three or four years ago toppled it from its perch. As for UNIX, David Crowe, president of Core Microsystems in San Jose, California, believes that UNIX-based systems are “still too costly for most videographers. And UNIX software applications are very limited.” Thus the momentum in recent years has been with Windows NT.

Why NT? “For a number of years NT has been where solutions have been going in the video market,” says Robert Stacy, director of marketing for digital media at Intergraph in Huntsville, Alabama. “Three years ago Apple simply stopped making products appropriate to the video market, driving companies like Avid and Media 100 to NT much faster than originally planned. Also IT departments for many companies insisted on the standards they were already supporting elsewhere in their enterprise. And the multitasking and processing capabilities of the Wintel architecture make it a vast improvement in terms of overall productivity.”

Ujesh Desai, workstation line manager for SGI in Mountain View, California, which now makes NT-based machines, agrees that NT has “some key elements that have added to its success for digital content creation solutions. It’s a multithreaded, multiprocessor, networkable OS, and that is exploited by the leading software vendors.”

Crowe adds that NT workstations support RAID control for fast capture to video drives. And he also points out that a large number of software-editing applications run only on the Windows platform. Stacy concurs, “Independent software development has moved to NT and will stay there. That means more software products are available and will continue to be developed on NT first. The NT user will always be first to enjoy the upgrades and new product releases from the software partners.”

Gretchen Cole, acting director of Precision Workstations Marketing at Dell Computer in Round Rock, Texas, says that while “a certain percent of the population does not appreciate the power that NT boxes can deliver,” the sheer intensity of competition in NT space has great benefits for NT users. “You have various vendors trying to outdo each other by delivering the highest performing components and peripherals, which is really driving the NT marketplace to incredible performance levels.”

Ornellas agrees, adding that “the huge commercial market is driving advances in Intel, Microsoft, and supporting technologies that we can leverage in the digital content creation space.” But he cautions that there can be a downside to the extensive choice of NT-workstation vendors and technologies. “It creates an avalanche of different versions of motherboards, and components, BIOS and driver levels, et cetera that the application and board manufacturers potentially have to deal with in terms of both compatibility testing during product development and post-sale service and support. That’s why most of these vendors are drastically limiting the number of workstations they certify for their products.”

Exploring alternatives In addition to this compatibility concern, Desai reports other potential downsides to NT, particularly in large-scale installations. “Stability in larger networks and the costs associated with support have been some of the cons that our customers have cited,” he says. As for alternatives, he points, perhaps not surprisingly, to SGI’s version of UNIX. “The IRIX OS has been embraced by the demanding high-end film and video-effects houses, for its high bandwidth, scalability, and reliability. And we are seeing interest in and adoption of Linux in the entertainment marketplace, which can offer many of these same qualities at lower per-seat price points.”

Crowe, meanwhile, offers an upbeat assessment of the outlook on the Macintosh front, which has been bolstered by Apple’s recent introduction of dual-processor G4 machines. “As Apple develops multiprocessor capability and increased system performance,” he says, “video solutions will be more adaptable to the G4 Mac. I anticipate that Apple will become a more significant player in the video market as time progresses.”

But Ornellas is not convinced that either UNIX or the Mac can derail the NT train. “Solutions that are dependent on a single vendor, who has no competition within his operating system space, are inherently risky,” he says, “because they rise and fall on the changing fortunes of a single company. UNIX-based solutions at this point are really limited to IRIX-based solutions, and are, therefore, tied directly to SGI in the same way that G4/Mac OS solutions are tied to Apple. That was great for SGI partners four years ago, but not so great now. It’s great for Apple partners now, but wasn’t looking too good in the summer of ’97.”

Defining an NT solution While NT’s broad base makes it an appealing option for video professionals, it’s important to define the specific attributes that make a given workstation appropriate for video use. “There is a wide range of ‘NT workstation products’ on the market today,” Ornellas says. “Not all of them are well-suited for professional video production.”

To Ornellas, the biggest single indicator of which machine to choose is certification from the makers of video applications and video I/O boards. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” he says. “Certification will eliminate the vast majority of potential problems with set-up, compatibility, and reliability. The risks are mimimized when a vendor sells a system as a turnkey solution, and are lessened when the vendors coordinate their service response.”

Desai agrees, noting that “the most important thing is how the workstation vendor works with key independent software vendor partners to make sure that the workstations are tuned for their applications. At SGI, for instance, we have a large group of partner managers and applied engineers that are focused on vertical applications. The professional video market is one of these areas.” Additional factors that Desai lists as important are I/O throughput (64-bit PCI expansion, for example), memory throughput, and graphics performance.

For his part, Ornellas adds scalability and robustness. “Scalability means dual-processor capable, multiple open PCI slots and storage bays, and open memory slots,” he says. “Robustness includes Pentium PIII or Pentium III Xeon CPU, at least four fans, tuned BIOS and drivers, Ultra2 or Ultra160 SCSI, and at least 128MB of RAM, preferably 256MB.”

Given the vast amounts of data generated and manipulated in video work, Crowe puts a lot of emphasis on storage. “One key feature,” he says, “is a video storage array – usually RAID-configured for fast data transfer – that is large enough to store the required number of hours of video data at the required compression rates.” He also mentions “a graphics card with overlay support for playback on the computer screen, dual processors if using multithreaded editing software, expandibility for future hard disk and I/O device requirements, and comprehensive manufacturer warranty and technical support.”

Core Microsystems Crowe also points out that the complex nature of video software applications makes the availability of product training an important factor. “Core provides complete training materials for key video software applications,” he says.

Direct sales of turnkey video and graphics workstations are an important market for the company, with the video editing product line accounting for about 60% of overall sales. The company’s line includes DVPro, DVRT2k, and DVXtreme workstations. “We have a portfolio of recommended system configurations that have proven to be the most reliable and stable for each given product,” Crowe says. “But every system may be custom-configured to the user’s unique requirements.”

Crowe emphasizes that all systems come with a three-year warranty, as well as toll-free technical support for the life of the system. “This applies to all components shipped in the Core workstation as well as the operating system.”

He also stresses the relationships that Core has developed as a vendor specializing in the video market. “Core is a Gold distributor for Matrox,” he says, “and top-tier distributor for Canopus, DPS, and Pinnacle. We also are a direct distributor of 3Dlabs graphics cards. This makes Core extremely competitive in pricing and overall video product knowledge. It also enhances our access to products, since we purchase direct from the provider, which results in shorter delivery times. Core also is an authorized NewTek representative for provision of Lightwave software.”

IBM IntelliStation Ornellas also points to relationships, in particular that of IBM and Avid. “Avid has chosen a single NT workstation, our IntelliStation, as its worldwide standard,” he says. “It reduces the complexity and expense of its development process, and improves customer service and support after the sale.” In addition, he says, “vendors like Adobe, Canopus, Discreet, DPS, Fast, in-sync, Matrox, NewTek, Pinnacle, Sony, and many others have selected the IntelliStation as their exclusive or preferred NT platform for their professional video production offerings.”

The IntelliStation lines that are most popular for professional video use are the M Pro and Z Pro. “The M Pro provides excellent scalability and robustness for a midrange price,” Ornellas says. “For example, beginning in 1998, Avid has used the M Pro as the standard NT platform for its Symphony, Media Composer, Film Composer, and Xpress offerings, solutions that need a solid platform but rely more heavily on Avid’s video I/O subsystems for throughput. Since February of this year, IBM has offered Avid Xpress DV as a turnkey solution on the IntelliStation M Pro. Other vendor partners, such as Pinnacle Systems with its Ready-to-Edit line and Matrox with its Pro Edit line of turnkey video products, also have standardized on the M Pro.”

As for the Z Pro, Ornellas says it offers “better scalability and robustness than the M Pro. It has more slots, more bays, more cooling, Pentium III Xeon versus Pentium III, 64-bit PCI, and Ultra160 SCSI. But it comes at a somewhat higher price than the M Pro. It is the preferred platform for Discreet edit superscript *, in-sync SpeedRazor, and NewTek Video Toaster for NT, applications that tend to rely more heavily on the system CPUs for performance.”

In some cases (such as Avid) the IBM machines are purchased by the manufacturer of a turnkey system; in others, systems are put together by third-party integrators. Ornellas says a three-year, on-site, parts-and-labor warranty is included with every IntelliStation sold in the United States and “most other parts of the world.”

Compaq Computer The video market is an important, strategic target market for Compaq’s Commercial PC Group, according to Dan Lee, worldwide market segment manager – Digital Content Creation for Compaq. He sites two elements where he feels Compaq excels – educating and delivering a completely integrated solution. “We believe that a better-educated customer will understand the value and quality of a video solution delivered on a Compaq system. Compaq and its partners run hands-on training classes so digital artists and videographers can learn about the power, ease of use, and affordability of DV and DVD authoring solutions from Compaq.” He adds, “By partnering with Adobe, Pinnacle Systems, and Matrox, we’ve been able to deliver a completely integrated and certified solution for DV editing for less than $5,000.”

Of the workstations that Compaq offers, the AP250 and AP550 are designed as “affordable, performance class” workstations. These cost-effective platforms are designed for the mid-range professional editing market and include such applications as Discreet edit superscript *, Media 100 iFINISH, Matrox ProEdit, and Pinnacle Systems’ DVD1000. The AP550’s integrated Ultra3 (160 MB/sec) SCSI controller gives it an added cost advantage over competitor’s mid-range workstations for video editing.

The company’s high-end workstation, the SP750, is based on the Intel 840 chipset with 64-bit PCI and has power, cooling, PCI slots, fast disk controller, and the large-drive capacity that high-end systems require. Each Compaq Workstation is backed by a three-year, next-day, on-site,

parts-and-labor, global warranty. “That means that customers get low total cost of ownership for their video editing system,” Lee says. “The amazing part is that the complete cost of these systems is less than the annual maintenance cost on the UNIX workstations that people had been using in this industry.”

Dell Computer Dell offers a three-year warranty as well, Cole says, on its Precision workstations, with on-site support “within four hours of incident reporting – standard.” She adds that the company’s online tech support and “24/7” telephone support specialists are “trained to support not only the hardware, but also to offer application assistance for software that has been certified on Precision workstations.”

Dell’s workhorse for video applications is the Precision 420. “The system supports up to two 1GHz Pentium III processors, has integrated U160 SCSI, and supports up to 1GB of dual-channel RAMBUS RDRAM memory,” Cole says. “So it’s extremely well-suited for the demanding video production environment. For customers who require the highest levels of performance, including large cache options, we suggest the Precision 620, which features Intel’s Xeon processor. We also offer an optional IEEE-1394 FireWire card, and multiple AGP 4X graphics solutions.”

“For those primarily working in 2D,” Cole continues, “Dell offers the Matrox G400 Max, which supports two monitors from a single card. Customers who need great 3D performance often chose the nVIDIA-based cards that have been certified in our Precision workstations. For video capture, we offer the Pinnacle DC1000 Non-linear Video Editing Solution through Dell Plus.”

Dell Plus is the company’s system integration service for customers who require specific configurations of the workstations. “Customers can request any offering of software and peripherals,” Cole says, “and Dell’s customer engineers will test the configuration to ensure a seamless out-of-box experience.”

SGI and Intergraph Unlike Dell, known as an early leader in direct sales of computer equipment, SGI works through reseller channels rather than selling direct. “Our reseller channels specialize in specific markets,” Desai says, “and they can provide a complete turn-key solution for our customers.”

Desai says SGI’s NT workstations are tuned for the demands of nonlinear editing, compositing, and effects applications because they offer high-bandwidth throughput, optimized BIOS, hardware-accelerated OpenGL graphics, and support for professional-level digital-media options. He adds that SGI believes it is important to have workstations that cover a range of prices for users at various points in the production pipeline.

“The Silicon Graphics 230, 330, and 550 Visual Workstations,” he says, “are priced and designed to support the leading hardware and software applications for web authoring, web streaming, DVD authoring, editing/compositing, and effects systems.” The 550, which offers two 64-bit PCI slots, fast PC800 RDRAM, and dual-Xeon CPUs, ships with Windows NT or Linux.

SGI also announced in July that it had formed a strategic alliance with Intergraph and acquired exclusive rights to market Zx10 ViZual workstations and servers. “The Zx10 ships with Windows,” Desai says, “and offers two 64-bit PCI slots, large memory support, and a custom video I/O solution for doing graphics-to-video output.”

Stacy calls the Zx10 “a perfect product for professional video production. It delivers six full-length PCI slots, as well as up to a 400W power supply. And Intergraph’s Wahoo architecture is specifically designed to increase overall throughput and graphics performance. The architecture is substantially faster than that of i840-based systems, and gives the Zx10 the ability to process HD video with real-time 3D graphics. It will also render up to 20% faster than an i840-based system.”

As SGI’s addition of the Intergraph product suggests, the NT workstation market thrives on variety, with a broad cross-section of machines available for different types of users and budgets. Such diversity is no guarantor of continued success, but it certainly is a healthy indicator. “As a video production platform,” Stacy concludes, “NT is here to stay.”

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