Solar Odyssey – Computers and SAN

Having acquired some pictures and sound, hopefully of high quality, how are we going to edit given no Mac Pro on board (too big and too much power required) and definitely no Fiber Channel drives (again too big and too much power required).

Since Final Cut Pro X runs so very well on MacBook Pros, primary editing will be done on two mid 2011 Quad Core i7 MacBook Pros with 8 GB RAM each. Even better there are readily available 12v native power supplies for these computers and an older Core2Duo (December 2009 vintage). While this isn’t an ideal machine for Final Cut Pro X, it has other advantages and uses, as we’ll see.


The server is an Mac Mini Server Quad Core i7 again, with 16 GB of RAM (Crucial kit). Now that they moved the power supply internally, this will need to be modified to run off 12v direct. (Yes, voiding the warranty, but while it’s open I’ll add in the 16 GB of RAM.)

Storage will be directly attached to the Mac Mini. In an ideal world that would be Thunderbolt connected, RAID 5 in a four drive tower with 3 TB drives, formatting to around 8.7 TB. However, since we need these modified to work directly on 12 volt (the native voltage of hard drives) we’re currently working with ProAvio to use FW 800 drives. Since we’ll be mostly working with 24 Mbit/sec for ingest, and ProRes Proxy for editing, FW 800 will have the bandwidth we need.

Whichever we get (and sponsorship is open still) we’ll need two. The second unit will stay off most of the time, being our backup backup. Each day there would be a moment where the changes to Array 1 are replicated to Array 2, for an on-boat backup. With this configuration I could lose a drive in one array and not lose data and still have redundancy in the second array.

The Mac Mini will be headless – no keyboard or monitor – and operated by screen sharing from (primarily) the Core2Duo MacBook Pro. Analysis processing and proxy generation will happen with FCP X running on the Mac Mini server (which is also recording audio, unless that proves to processor intensive, in which case a base Mac Mini will be modded and added or we’ll ship an older laptop we have for the purpose.)

The server will also be used to run the custom apps that store and merge metadata with media, and trim audio media to match logged metadata.


With Xsan server built into Lion server, included with the Mac Mini model we chose, that was the first logical choice. Except the requirements are very unfriendly for our haiku and so it was eliminated from the discussion. (Not a slam at Xsan, it’s fine in most circumstances.)

At NAB I’d done my research, as we were skeptical that Xsan would work, and confirmed with Tiger Technology that MetaLAN and MetaSAN server would indeed do the job: even connecting over WiFi if desired.

And it most definitely works. We currently have it set up and working in the office feeding to two laptops via WiFi. Why WiFi? Historic really. An earlier boat we were going to use was an existing solar craft that we could not drill holes anywhere, making cabled SAN difficult. Some research suggested that ProRes Proxy, at around 6 Mbit/sec and 802.11N would comfortably cover at least 6-8 editing streams.

However, given that this boat is Skipper Jim’s design and ours to work with, there’s no reason to add the potential instability of a WiFi network when we can run Gbit Ethernet instead. MetaLAN works well in either configuration: WiFi or Ethernet, and looks like it will meet our needs 100%.

The only limitation with MetaLAN is that it doesn’t control read/write permissions so we will have some “human engineering” solutions to prevent people logging into the same workspace and “sharing” a FCP X Event or Project. (That would be bad.) Fortunately Final Cut Pro X will  auto-mount the last used share points, so it will be quite workable and not a real limitation.

Off-boat backup

One additional challenge is off-boat backup. I’m comfortable that we’ll have enough redundancy on board, with RAID 5 and duplicate towers (and two matching drives in case of failure) but I’m also a disaster planner: what if we get half way round and some disaster happens and we lose Ra? Everything on board would be presumed lost, so it’s important to have redundant off-boat copies of our merged and metadata-tagged Events and Projects.

I initially defaulted to hard drives, naturally, but rejected them for a couple of reasons. Hard drive sizes would mean that off-boat backups would be every 250 GB or so, or about 20 days of anticipated shooting. That’s too long to not have a backup. Drives are also more difficult to ship, requiring special padding etc. Plus the expense: drives are cheaper but not inconsequential.

Solution: after considering SD cards and rejecting because of cost, it looks like 8 GB USB sticks will be the media of choice. Each day, or second day, two copies of the new material will be posted out (as we’re near civilization almost every night). One copy will come to our home and be filed by the person house-sitting for us. One copy will go to another location.

So, Internet wisdom, what am I missing?

2 replies on “Solar Odyssey – Computers and SAN”

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  1. Philip,

    Sounds pretty good but you still have a single point of failure with the Mac Mini. Have you considered a spare or are you sure that at worst you can run the Server on one of the Macbook Pros?

    Just my paranoia and thinking about the risks of a marine environment.

    // Tony

    1. Agreed that’s a single point of failure but space & budget are an issue. Most of the the time we’re not too far from being able to get a new server delivered. Although that does mean I probably should get a second set of the 12v conversion bits.

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