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Inside the Lucasfilm data center

In the wake of its Oscar nominations, Lucas' film operations open up the doors to an impressive array of servers and storage devices. Photos: The guts behind ILM's magic

Inside the Lucasfilm data center SAN FRANCISCO--Given the cult-film status of 1971's THX 1138 in the George Lucas universe, it should come as little surprise that the total capacity of Lucasfilm's giant data center is 11.38 petabits per second.

Granted, that number--which represents the value one would get by adding up the bandwidth capacity of all the company's 1 gigabit per second desktop machines and its 10-gbps backbone--is purely theoretical. But in an environment like Lucasfilm, which is celebrating four Oscar nominations this week, and where self-referential history is a big parlor game, numbers like that are nothing to be messed with.

The 10-gbps backbone is the core of the data center's network. That rate is faster than the prevailing industry standard of around 1 gbps for most servers.

"They're hesitant to change that capacity," Kevin Clark, Lucasfilm's director of IT operations, said of the total theoretical bandwidth number.

For IT professionals, Clark must have one of the most enviable jobs in the world. After all, after spending several years at enterprise software maker Autodesk, he now oversees a 10,000-square-foot data center--Clark said that might equate to the size of a Google data center, or one run by a financial institution, though those types of organizations would operate more of them--that houses the computing guts of the Lucasfilm empire, the corporate umbrella for Industrial Light & Magic, Lucasarts, Lucasfilm itself and

The data center, which is housed on a lower level of the Letterman Digital Arts Center where Lucasfilm is headquartered, opened its doors in 2005 as Lucas was moving much of that empire to San Francisco's Presidio, a former army base in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge, from its previous home across the bay in San Rafael.

And while a major data center move for any company would be disruptive, Clark and his team had to find a way to minimize the impact on the many major motion pictures, video game projects and other initiatives it was involved in at the time.

"If the systems go down here in corporate, you might not have your e-mail for a couple hours," said Greg Grusby, ILM's technical publicist. "If the systems go down in this data center, you lose $50 million."

In fact, Clark said, the data center "far exceeds" the computing power of any other production house in the world.

From Web sites to e-mail to graphic rendering, all the bytes pass through here at this high-tech movie production company.

All told, the data center currently has more than 2,000 servers. At its core are 198 Verari servers, in three matching front-and-back racks of three rows of 11 servers each, all dual-core/dual-processor Operton server with 16GB of memory.

Clark said that he expects that number to double within the next month.

And with a host of projects in the pipeline, including Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, Evan Almighty, the next Harry Potter film, Transformers and more, it's important that Clark and his team keep up with the company's computing needs.

"There's a large R&D effort that drives much of the this," he said, "based on the goals of the projects."

Beyond the 198 Verari servers, the center also sports row after row of "legacy" servers, including racks of 65 Angstrom Microsystems servers.

"It doesn't take long to turn legacy," Clark said. "Sometimes it's only six to seven months before we're moving on to the next technology."

And when considering which servers to buy next, Clark explained that he pays close attention to the performance per watt of potential purchases.

"Power utilization is a big thing for us," Clark said. "We do have a keen eye on performance on that front."

Given the company's business, it's no wonder that Lucasfilm also has a substantial storage system. It is using a Network Appliance SpinOS network-attached storage system, and will soon be moving to GX cluster.

And that's crucial, since films like Pirate of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, for which ILM received a best visual effects Oscar nomination Tuesday, can require 60 terabytes of storage, Clark said. And the next release in that franchise's series, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, will likely require at least 50 percent more storage, he said.

In total, he added, the storage farm has more than 300 terabytes of capacity.