Thunderbolt at NAB: speedy new interface empowers post power users

Posted By Tom Couglin on April 17, 2011 09:15 pm | Permalink
By Tom Couglin

Apple introduced a new generation of MacBook Pro computers with an advanced peripheral interface developed by Intel in late February 2011. The interface is called Thunderbolt and is based upon the Light Peak technology developed by Intel, originally using a fiber optic connection.

The Thunderbolt interface directly connects the attached device to the PCIe bus on the computer allowing very fast data transfers up to 10 Gbps.  7 devices can be daisy chained together and the cable carries 10 Watts power, some of this power is needed for the active clock data recovery (CDR) electronics incorporated in the interface. The last device in a daisy chain of thunderbolt devices can be a display port monitor since display port was incorporated into the thunderbolt interface.

High-speed direct attached storage will be very useful for professional media and entertainment post production work.MacBook Pro computers with Final Cut Pro are ubiquitous in the M&E market. With video resolutions increasing and with stereoscopic content becoming more common, the demands for storage capacity and bandwidth are greater than ever. A 10 Gbps interface will be very useful for rich video editing.

At the 2011 NAB show at least six companies were showing Thundebolt external storage devices in their booths. These included Avid, G-Tech, Intel, LaCie and Sonnet. In addition, Blackmagic, Matrox and AJA exhibited Thunderbolt compatible displays.

At the Promise booth the company was showing Thunderbolt daisy-chained storage arrays with a display port monitor at the end of the daisy chain. The company also had a SANlink adapter product that allowed connection via Thunderbolt to an XSAN storage system —essentially a laptop connection to a SAN. Intel said that the first generation Thunderbolt is copper wire based but they plan to introduce an electrical-to-optical cable version in the next few months, allowing more than a three meter connector (current Thunderbolt product length). Earlier demonstrations of an optical-based Light Peak direct attached interface promised up to 100 Gbps data rates.

The vendors said that Thunderbolt products will be available in calendar Q3 2011. Because of the additional costs for the CDR chips and specialized interface cards, Thunderbolt interface products will be more expensive. In addition, storage arrays in Thunderbolt storage devices will likely use higher performance RAID hardware adding to the cost of these products. We expect at least a 50 percent premium and perhaps even a 2X initial price differential for the first generation of Thunderbolt products.

Thunderbolt offers a fast new interface to support richer media workflows on desktop editing systems.  For the media and entertainment industry products like this will continue the trend of higher performance tools available at lower costs enabling more creative products by more professionals.