The Force Is With Them In Lucasfilm Data Center

Think you've got IT challenges? Kevin Clark manages a data center that's constantly being pushed to its performance limits by the most demanding of users: namely, the artists and special-effects developers at Lucasfilm Ltd., George Lucas' internationally renowned production company and home to the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises, among other hot properties.

Clark, Lucasfilm's director of IT operations, was the final keynote speaker at the LinuxWorld/Next Generation Data Center show in San Francisco last month. He gave attendees a virtual tour of the data center that supports Lucasfilm and its multiple divisions, including the legendary Industrial Light and Magic special effects shop, LucasArts (video games), Lucasfilm animation and Lucas Licensing.

Along the way, Clark treated attendees to lots of what he called "eye candy," including a preview of the video game "Star Wars: The Force Unleashed," the recently released animated film "Star Wars: The Clone Wars," and its upcoming companion TV series, and a short film that debuted at the SIGGRAPH computer graphics show in Los Angeles last month. Other clips showed off the special effects Lucasfilm created for the recent "Iron Man" and "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" movies.

But the real value for the audience was Clark's nuts-and-bolts description of the sophisticated IT system that supports Lucasfilm's operations. The company recently consolidated its IT operations within its Letterman Digital Arts Center in San Francisco's Presidio, where Lucasfilm moved many of its operations in 2005. The state-of-the-art data center supports production activities at the Presidio facility, as well as at the Skywalker Ranch and the Big Rock Ranch facilities in Marin County, and an animation facility in Singapore.

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Keeping Things Humming

Clark, who joined Lucasfilm five years ago, said his biggest challenge is keeping up with the demands the company's special effects and animation developers put on his IT systems. Creative minds, he said, often outrace IT capabilities.

At the heart of the data center are racks and racks of high-density Hewlett-Packard blade processors (66 per rack), incorporating dual-core, dual-processor AMD microprocessors. The company is making heavy use of virtualization to help consolidate server workloads. And within Lucasfilm, the graphics rendering system is affectionately known as "The Deathstar."

With all that animation and special-effects footage, it's no surprise that data storage is a critical part of the IT system. The company has NetApp OnTap GX storage systems totaling 400 TBytes of capacity and another 30 TBytes of capacity in HP XP 12000 storage arrays. The data center uses both NAS and SAN storage. "We had to design this data center for maximum flexibility," Clark said.

Industrial Light and Magic generally relies on systems running SUSE Linux, while the other operations generally use Windows systems.

With so much data to move around the company, it's the IT system's networking technology that's most important. "Network design is the key for us. I really look at that as the foundation of what we do," Clark said. Using products from Juniper Networks Inc., Sunnyvale, Calif., and Foundry Networks Inc., Santa Clara, Calif., the data center has four fully redundant network cores. The facility has 2,000 miles of copper wiring and more than 700 miles of fiber.

But sometimes even all that doesn't produce a fast enough system. "My network manager is always telling me he can't do anything about the speed of light," Clark said. "We're working on that."

Clark offered information about the center's data backup, disaster recovery and archiving systems. "We have some systems we thought were redundant, until they failed," he said.

But he didn't disclose much about the company's network security. That's not surprising. Clips of upcoming movies could be worth more than any purloined credit-card numbers, so hackers and electronic paparazzi are forever trying to crack the company's IT defenses, either through its firewall or during data transmission between facilities. Even physical security is important: Clark said obsessed fans occasionally show up at the front gate dressed as imperial storm troopers.

Clark showed a slide charting IT system capacity vs. usage and the two sometimes top out together. He said that usually happens in the spring when Lucasfilm is cranking to finish summer films, as it did last year with "Transformers," "Evan Almighty" and "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End." And so the quest for more computing capacity never ends. "We're going to have to expand again," he said of the upcoming year.

And like all IT managers, Clark wrestles with problems of power consumption and cooling. Each division is charged back for its share of the data center power usage.

Some might wonder how Clark, who worked at Autodesk Inc., San Rafael, Calif., for 10 years before joining Lucasfilm, landed such a dream job. He said he got it after responding to an advertisement on Craigslist. "They took me on, and since then it's been a great ride."