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September 2014
Issue: July 1, 2011

Thunderbolt-enabled Storage

By: Marc Loftus

By working together, Intel and Apple were able to bring to market Thunderbolt, a new, high-speed I/O technology that offers bi-directional, dual-channel, 10Gb per second performance using a single cable. It is a dual-protocol technology, working with PCI Express and DisplayPort devices. 

Thunderbolt products require a controller chip, supplied by Intel  (www.intel.com), and a small connector. Apple has already included Thunderbolt in its MacBook Pro and iMac products, and Intel is working with component manufacturers to deliver connectors and cables that will be compatible with PC products. 

This month, Post spoke with a number of manufacturers working in the storage realm that have already committed to delivering Thunderbolt-enabled products. And while they were still in development at press time, you can expect to see some of them later this summer.

G-TECHNOLOGY

“We absolutely have plans for Thunderbolt,” says Pete Schlatter director of business development, professional products for G-Technology, based in Culver City, CA. “G-Tech — being a Mac-focused, content creation-focused company — we certainly see the advantages of having that nice fat pipe from storage to the system, especially on a laptop and for the portable market.”

G-Tech previewed its Thunderbolt product concept back at NAB, with what Schlatter described as “a science experiment.” The company had an ATTO RAID controller and a PCI bridge board connected to its G-Speed eS Pro — a four-bay, desktop unit. “We were getting over 500MBs a second [performance], so that is basically the potential of the interface. It’s just a matter of us productizing that science experiment and getting it out there. The easier task will be putting the port on our existing platforms like the G-RAID.”

The majority of G-Tech’s users fall on the Mac side of the business, so the company sees lots of potential in Thunderbolt. “I would say better than 90 percent of our customers are Mac focused, and our products are designed for Macs and formatted for Macs. They work on a Mac right out of the box,” he explains. “It’s an easy reformat to get them to work on the PC, and we have plenty of PC users, especially in the content creation market, because they like the reliability and style that we bring to the table.”

Adoption for Thunderbolt by the PC community could take some time, Schlatter notes. “My personal opinion is that you will see some things on the PC. Some of the PC manufacturers are pushing USB 3, as if it’s the best thing since sliced bread, and that seems to be the PC play right now. But as this technology evolves and becomes a bit more ubiquitous and available, I think the advantage will become apparent over USB 3, and we’ll start seeing adapters and things for the PC side.”

Schlatter doesn’t really consider USB 3.0 a serious competitor to Thunderbolt because “it’s built around a completely different technology. Basically, [Thunderbolt is a] PCIe connection, so you get extreme speed, very, very low latency, and the ability to do video and storage in the same pipe, whereas USB 3.0, I think, is a little bit more limited.” He points to Thunderbolt’s two channels of bandwidth. “There’s actually four channels, because it’s bi-directional 10 Gigabit, so it’s two channels of 10 Gigabit up and down. Basically, [there are] 40 Gigabits of bandwidth available in a Thunderbolt port. It’s just incredible!”

G-Tech’s products, says Schlatter, will evolve to support Thunderbolt, initially with their RAID products taking advantage of it, and then its single disk products. “The G-RAID will have a Thunderbolt port on it,” he predicts, pointing to Q4 and later to 2012. “I would see a product that also has FireWire, so it’s an evolution of that product. Moving forward to next year, you might see more RAID products from G-Tech. Something with a little more power.”

And the inclusion of a Thunderbolt port will increase the pricing on products as they come to market. “My understanding is that it is not an inexpensive interface,” he says of Thunderbolt. “It is significantly more than a FireWire port, and especially USB, which is a very, very inexpensive interface. It’s going to add some cost. Again, on the RAID products, it really makes sense because of what you can do out in the field with Thunderbolt on a laptop. You would need a desktop computer with cards in it to get the performance they are talking about.”

SONNET TECHNOLOGIES

At NAB back in April, Sonnet Technologies (www.sonnettech.com) previewed a number of Thunderbolt-enabled products, with the intention of shipping them this summer. According to VP of sales and marketing, Greg Laporte, the company is on track to deliver as anticipated. 

“There is performance,” says Laporte of Thunderbolt’s benefits. “From a single port perspective, it’s 10 Gigabits per second transfer rate. You get two channels of that. FireWire is 800 Megabits per second, so it’s substantially faster.”

Sonnet is expanding its Fusion line of storage products with Thunderbolt products that include a portable two-drive SSD system, an economical four-drive RAID-5 unit, and a professional eight-drive video edition RAID storage system. 

The company’s Echo Express PCIe 2.0 expansion chassis with Thunderbolt ports allows users to plug in high-performance PCIe 2.0 adapters, such as video capture cards, Fibre Channel cards, Sonnet RAID controllers, and other peripherals to a computer with a Thunderbolt port. 

“It also gives access to customers who have portable laptops now that are equipped with Thunderbolt,” Laporte explains. “These video capture cards [and] high-speed RAID storage, in a portable fashion where they couldn’t before... I think the best benefit of it is the flexibility and the portability. Our Echo expansion chassis is going to give you the ability to take on the road those types of expansion cards that you needed a desktop MacPro to accommodate previously.”

All of the new Sonnet products include two Thunderbolt ports to support daisy chaining of up to six devices to a single Thunderbolt port on the host computer.

The Fusion F2TBR two-drive portable SSD storage system features 2.5-inch solid state drives mounted side-by-side in an aluminum shell. With its SSDs configured as a RAID 0 set, the F2TBR achieves data transfers up to 640MB/sec. read and 430MB/sec. write. This performance makes it suitable for video capture and editing on location.

The Fusion E400TBR5 four-drive RAID 5 desktop storage system includes a high-performance internal RAID controller that supports RAID-5 for great performance and file protection in case of a single drive failure. The unit can also be configured for RAID-0 for maximum performance, and JBOD for flexibility. Available in 4, 6, 8, or 12TB configurations, the Fusion E400TBR5 in RAID-5 achieves data transfers of up to 400MB/sec. read and 340MB/sec. write. This is nearly twice as fast as similar four-drive storage systems using an eSATA interface.

The Fusion D800TBR5 eight-drive RAID-5 desktop storage system includes a high-performance internal RAID controller that supports RAID-0, 1, 5 and JBOD. It’s available in 8, 12, 16, or 24TB configurations, and is well suited for HD video editing. Data transfers of up to 800MB/sec. read and 730MB/sec. write make it fast enough to handle a single stream of uncompressed 10-bit 1080 4:4:4 HD, or multiple streams of ProRes 422, uncompressed 8-bit 1080 HD, DV, HDV, and DVCPRO video.

Sonnet is also offering the Allegro FW800 Thunderbolt adapter, which converts the Thunderbolt connector to a powered FireWire 800 port, and the Presto Gigabit Ethernet Thunderbolt adapter, which converts a Thunderbolt connector to a GigE port.

PROMISE TECHNOLOGY

At press time, Promise Technology in Milpitas, CA, was getting ready to launch two new direct-attached storage products incorporating Thunderbolt. 

The Pegasus R4 and R6 will be among the first hardware RAID subsystem enclosures, notes product manager Billy Harrison. The four-bay and six-bay high-performance hardware RAID solutions are designed to unleash Thunderbolt’s ability to deliver two channels of 10Gb/s performance.

According to Harrison, the R4 and R6 use SATA drives to deliver approximately 860MB/sec. read, and 780MB/sec. write performance. The solutions support RAID-0, 1, 5, 6 and 10 configurations, and offer 4TB and 6TB of raw capacity.

“They will ship with SATA drives, and users can also use SAS drives or SSDs if they choose,” says Harrison. “If you are using SSDs, you can pretty much saturate the buss.”

Promise is working with Apple to make the Pegasus products available through its online store. In late June, according to Harrison,  they were “probably a few weeks out. We are getting there, but Apple is making some software enhancements to Thunderbolt on the Mac as well. There is going to be an update coming soon and that’s the same time that we release our product.”

Harrison sees several advantages to incorporating Thunderbolt technology into Promise’s product line. “There are definitely performance [advantages],” he notes. “The fact that Thunderbolt ports are dual channel is pretty impressive as well, because with dual channel, you can run multiple I/O to multiple devices sitting on the same buss.

“The display port, as well, is very nice,” he continues. “It allows you to add a large display, especially to laptops, where you typically have a small screen. You can have a large screen and storage device for those that are into editing, whether it be audio, video or photography. And the dual-ported architecture is very cool because you can put two boxes on there and you have dedicated bandwidth or 10 Gigabit in each direction. You can do writing to one and reading to the other, and the performance from one box or the I/O from one box does not impede the performance on the second.”

At the NAB show back in April, Promise introduced SANLink, a single-cable solution that provides a dual 4G Fibre Channel link for users to connect to external Fibre Channel storage or an Xsan network. Each adapter features full duplex FC ports that automatically detect connection speed and can operate independently at 1, 2 or 4Gb/s. 

“It’s a Fibre Channel to Thunderbolt adapter,” explains Harrison. “It allows you access your Fibre Channel devices through a Thunderbolt port, so you can take your MacBook or iMac, plug in a SANLink and then plug in your SAN to the SANLink, and you have access to your SAN via a MacBook Pro, which is something you couldn’t do before.”

Promise also has plans to release a JBOD product too. “[It] will be a small form factor,” he explains. “It will be the size of a Mac Mini, and it will hold four 2.5-inch drives.”

Promise, says Harrison, it trying to meet the demands of professionals who want portable storage. “That was a big message that we heard at NAB. A lot of people were saying this is something that I can take on the go for use with a MacBook Pro; design studios, especially the small and medium sized, where you have editors and multimedia professionals that need to have local storage for their MacBook or their iMac; for those that want to do ingest, edit and playback as well.”

BRIGHT TECHNOLOGIES

Reno, NV’s Bright Technologies (www.4bright.com) is a software company that provides media file servers, such as the BrightDrive, that are  specifically designed to meet the needs of media file-based workflows.

“We are not a hardware manufacturer,” says company president/chief architect, Ed Rodriguez, “we are a software manufacturer. The same way we operate over Fibre Channel [and] InfiniBand, we’ll do the same thing with Thunderbolt, although I have not received any Thunderbolt-enabled storage yet, so I can’t say for sure what the performance is going to be.”

Bright’s software has been developed to maintain predictable and managed performance of storage. “We let the storage vendor handle things like failed drives, but we want to be able to make sure that all the client machines attached to that storage are going to get the kind of bandwidth that they expect,” Rodriguez explains.

“From our standpoint, the interconnect doesn’t really matter, as long as the interconnect is capable of delivering data at the rate that the customer is looking for. We’ll have to see, once we can get some samples, how well it is going to work for realtime HD or realtime 2K. The most interesting thing about [Thunderbolt] is the theoretical ability to do editing from a laptop.”

As for Thunderbolt’s broader potential, Rodriguez hopes to see it adopted by PC manufacturers. “Intel is claiming that they are going to start putting it on their chipset,” he notes. “I don’t know. I was kind of disappointed with the limitations of FireWire and it only being well supported on the Mac side. It would be really big if Thunderbolt were equally well supported on the PC side.”

LACIE

Back in February, LaCie (www.LaCie.com) introduced its first Thunderbolt product — the Little Big Disk — which is designed to store large audio and video files, and provide ultra-fast data transfer, system back up, and content editing performance. At press time, the company was just a few weeks away from delivering the Little Big Disk, and by this printing, it’s expected to be available.

The Little Big Disk can deliver multiple streams of HD video and offload hours of content in minutes without compromising bandwidth and performance. The portable solution offers speeds that previously were only available from rackmounted storage arrays, and when connected to an Apple MacBook Pro featuring a Thunderbolt port, can allow users to edit on-set during a day of shooting, and then quickly transfer assets. The Little Big Disk can also be daisy chained for storage expansion or connecting other peripherals. 

Erwan Girard is the business manager for professional products at LaCie, which is headquartered in France and has US offices in Hillsboro, OR.

“Thunderbolt brings several different advantages to the common interface that we have been using for the past few years to connect the storage or a display to a Mac, for example,” says Girard, noting that significant engineering needs to be done to implement Thunderbolt into its products. “Indeed, this interface is not just plugging another USB or FireWire chip on a PCB and getting it to work with a MacBook Pro. It allows the user to [plug in] whatever Thunderbolt compatible storage, display or camera — you have to bring this all together into the development process to get it to work properly. In terms of technical skills, it requires you have some pretty good people indeed.”

Girard is cautious to comment on the company’s future product line, and notes that the preview of the Little Big Disk before it actually shipped was an exception for the company. “We’ve been with Thunderbolt technology since the beginning and when Apple announced the MacBook Pros, we were showing some Little Big Disks together with them, so we announced it also at the same time, even though it was not available before the summer.”

Girard sees lots of potential for Thunderbolt-enabled products in the professional and prosumer fields, as many users are looking for a high-speed interface between storage and their workstation. “Thunderbolt brings a lot of answers to these people, and in a technology that I would say is field proven. The connector is not brand new or a mix between different connectors or brand new wires. It’s a mini display port connector — well known and in the field for three years.”

He adds that while Thunderbolt-enabled devices are still considered point-to-point technology, users can daisy chain external accessories, including storage and high performance cards from the likes of AJA and Blackmagic, for example.

USB, says Girard, “will still have its purpose. I am not talking about two, three, five years. I am not sure how this will evolve. It depends on the costs of interfaces, but I think, in the early days, you will have USB 3 and Thunderbolt evolving in parallel.

LaCie already offers the Little Big Disk Quadra, a $300 portable storage product with eSATA 3Gbits, USB 2.0, and FireWire 400 & 800 connectivity. The Thunderbolt product will cost slightly more, says Girard, but within reason, reflecting the increase in comparable performance.