INSTALLATION: ATM network speeds film production

Planning is key to installing a complex multimedia network without overtime.

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Doug Wimberly / Pacific Coast Cabling

Guided by the imaginative genius of Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen, DreamWorks SKG, maker of box-office hits Saving Private Ryan and The Prince of Egypt, has established itself as a leader in using advanced technology to create feature-length animation films. When DreamWorks SKG decided to create the DreamWorks Animation Studio-a new, multibuilding animation production facility in Glendale, CA-the requirements of this project would tax the limits of current infrastructure solutions and demand the flexibility to adapt to emerging technologies.

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The DreamWorks Animation Studio campus in Glendale, CA, required a new multimedia campus and premises local area network covering 500,000 sq ft of office space.
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DreamWorks' model for animated film development calls for a multitude of computer-graphics specialists to collaborate on a single film and have access to the vast numbers of images involved in producing that film. The RenderFarm is a collection of networked servers-sometimes as many as 20, each with terabytes of storage capacity-that lets users store, retrieve, and edit individual images that may ultimately be assembled into the finished film. Rendering is a time-consuming process during which lighting, textures, and shading are applied to three-dimensional computer models to produce sharp, colorful images with photo-realistic detail. Rendering is done during the critical final stage before a film is released, but even the studio's normal operating environment requires bandwidth that can accommodate hundreds of users simultaneously requesting file services from the RenderFarm servers.

Designing and installing the structured cabling to handle such demanding applications can be daunting. For a cabling contractor, the secret to not being intimidated by a project as complex as the DreamWorks installation is to break it into a number of smaller, definable, and controllable segments and to complete them according to a schedule that makes the most sense for the project.

Consultative approach

The project went to bid, and DreamWorks selected Pacific Coast Cabling (Chatsworth, CA) to design and install its new cabling infrastructure. The company employs a consultative approach to tailor infrastructure solutions to the client's current and long-term needs. Working closely with the client throughout the planning stage of a project, the company's system engineers often make suggestions that minimize changes during and after the installation. Designers consult with clients about a broad range of topics that could impact the execution and satisfactory completion of the project, including distance limitations for various types of cables, potential or expected cable-routing problems, wiring-closet layout issues, and redundancy, quality, and capacity concerns.

Pacific Coast Cabling also addresses strategic-planning issues the client should consider, such as expected growth of the organization and the ease with which the current solution can reasonably adapt to growing user demand.

It is an advantage for the cabling contractor to be involved at the design stage of brand-new buildings like those for DreamWorks. There are no retrofit issues, and the guidance you provide during planning and implementation directly affects the quality and effectiveness of the end product.

Installation details

Among the unusual aspects of the DreamWorks project was the requirement that the cabling system reliably deliver extremely high bandwidth in multiple formats to more than 1,500 graphics workstations spread over an entire campus of multistory buildings. Each floor in each building contains its own intermediate crossconnect with copper- and fiber- backbone connections to the campus's main crossconnect. Individual workstations accept input from eight cables, distributed as follows:

  • Three Belden DT-350 (DataTwist 350-MHz) Category 5 copper cables (two for data transmission and one for redundancy).
  • One Belden Category 3 copper cable for voice, split.
  • One coaxial cable for closed-circuit cable TV to support live broadcasts and video distribution throughout the campus.
  • Two strands of 62.5/125-micron multimode fiber-optic cable to support user access to animation RenderFarm servers.

The installation included integrating 155-Mbit/sec Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) communications with coaxial cable as well as singlemode and multimode fiber-optic cable. According to Armando Lopez, Pacific Coast Cabling's sales engineer, the ATM network protocol is well-suited for the type of multimedia applications used at DreamWorks. "Because ATM employs packet switching using relatively small, 53-byte cells," says Lopez, "it can efficiently support the mixed transmission of voice, graphics, data, and full-motion video while accommodating the unique timing requirements of each to ensure a much higher quality of delivery than Ethernet."

Using components from Belden Wire & Cable Co., Krone, and Siecor, the Pacific Coast Cabling team installed the cabling system, which included 250,000 ft of 62.5/125-micron multimode duplex fiber-optic cable; Belden Category 3 voice-station cable; 700,000 ft of DT-350 Category 5 cable; 80,000 ft of coaxial cable; and a combination of 13,000 Siecor SC multimode and SC singlemode fiber terminations.

The campus backbone consists of both singlemode and multimode fiber to accommodate higher-bandwidth requirements anticipated for the future. The two types of fiber were used to meet different needs. Singlemode fiber carries light using one propagation mode along a single path, so it can handle large amounts of data with low signal loss, supporting much greater distances than multimode. Hence, it was used in the campus backbone and building risers. But expensive laser transceivers are used to launch light signals into the fiber, which makes cost an issue for short-distance links.

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Pacific Coast Cabling designed this triangular bracket cable-support system to eliminate cable trays and reduce costs.
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Multimode fiber, on the other hand, carries light using several propagation modes and multiple trajectories. While it does not have the long-distance capability of singlemode fiber, it offers significant advantages for local area networks. Because multimode fiber uses inexpensive light-emitting diodes for signal launch, these systems are less expensive than singlemode. Furthermore, multimode terminations are easier and faster, and they can be done with simpler tools usually familiar to technicians. For these reasons, multimode fiber was brought to all the DreamWorks desktops, creating a relatively inexpensive solution with more than adequate bandwidth to support current and future applications.

Project-management challenges

One of the major challenges faced by the Pacific Coast Cabling team was project management. Even with Pacific Coast Cabling's consultative approach, it is often difficult to eliminate major changes after project inception. While cost considerations frequently influence customer decisions during the planning stage of a project, situations that arise during implementation may create the need to reverse some of those initial decisions. For instance, in projects employing emerging technology, the actual performance of the technology may vary significantly from the theoretical performance assumed during planning. Also, changes in market conditions, rapid unexpected changes in business volume, availability of newly announced technology, and other factors may dictate the need for changes to the project's scope.

In this project, the client initially requested that, in one building, only portions of each floor be built out. However, during the course of construction, it decided that all floors would be completely built out. "This decision was made at a point when we had almost completed our current scope of work," says Layne Coley, project manager. "Terminations had been made and cable was tested and labeled. Upon receiving the changes, the client also decided to change the labeling scheme. Our solution was to move our termination fields around on the equipment racks."

With these blocks, technicians have full access to the terminations from the front of the rack. Each block can be removed from the frame and repositioned into a new location without having to remove the cable and reterminate that location when a change is requested. When an entire floor must be renumbered after the fact, the blocks allow the contractor to make changes with minimum labor and lower overall cost to the client.

Lessons learned

Faced with a new, more challenging environment than usual, even an experienced contractor can devise ways to improve efficiencies during various stages of the project. Our team of more than 20 field managers and technicians found ample opportunity to gain valuable new experience from this project. Terminating fiber connections in a construction environment subjects them to dust and dirt generated by other contractors working in the area. We learned that it is best to wait until the major construction work is complete to terminate the fiber connections. Doing so avoids the need to reclean, reprep, and reterminate the fiber.

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Each of DreamWorks' more than 1,500 workstations contains a multimedia outlet like this one.
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We also found that when pulling large numbers of cables to a common termination point, we were able to save considerable time by pulling in bundles of 24. That number aligns nicely with the 24- and 48-port count on patch panels and other terminal equipment. When we labeled and coiled each bundle of 24 cables before pulling the next, it was much easier to sort them out when it came time to terminate the cables.

We also perfected our method for labeling cables. Pacific Coast Cabling records circuit numbers and other identifying information directly on the cable with indelible ink. Further, we use the convention that labels at both ends of a cable are written to be read left-to-right, with the terminal end of the cable to the reader's right. Without such a convention, someone might hold the connector toward his left and mistakenly read cable number 18 as 81.

Finally, to reduce overall project costs, we eliminated cable trays for supporting overhead cables. Instead, we designed a triangle bracket and mounted it to the ceiling every six feet to support the cables. As cables are placed in the bracket, two counterweight support clips grip the steel "pencil rod" more tightly, providing more security to the assembly.

The client was satisfied with the result. "Based on the recommendations of systems engineers at Pacific Coast Cabling, DreamWorks selected the best solution to meet the communications demands we face," says Paul Kronenberger, IT/telecom manager at DreamWorks Animation Studio. "Having everyone effectively 'under one roof' with the RenderFarm has reduced our network costs. Collaboration has definitely improved because our artists are together on one campus with fiber to their desktops. Having our graphics terminals communicate at ATM speeds has greatly improved efficiency over the slower Ethernet speeds we used to experience. The system that was installed met our expectations and we are sure will continue to support our needs in the future."

Throughout the project, Pacific Coast Cabling relied on strategic management, communications, and leading technical expertise to ensure rapid project cycle time in meeting all objectives without the need for overtime. The management approach was to extend the duties of field personnel, giving more responsibilities to key persons to gain greater overall accountability. To support ongoing communications throughout the project, we provided an office trailer on-site for regular team meetings, allowing managers to quickly address small issues before they became big problems.

Doug Wimberly, registered communications distribution designer (RCDD), is systems engineer and account manager at Pacific Coast Cabling (Chatsworth, CA-www.pccinc.com). He can be contacted at dwimberly@pccinc.com.

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