Hot News: New Thunderbolt Technology From Apple (and Intel)

Posted on by Larry

[ This article was first published in the February, 2011, issue of
Larry’s Final Cut Pro Newsletter. Click here to subscribe. ]


The release of any new hardware is exciting; as we saw last week with the release of the new MacBook Pros.

However, the stunning news is the new Thunderbolt (née Light Peak) I/O technology. The ONLY reason this exists is because of the Pro market. The greatest novelist, or spreadsheet junky, in the world has absolutely no reason to get excited about this. FireWire meets their needs perfectly.

But for people pushing pixels (or waveforms) this is a birthday present come early.

WHAT IS THUNDERBOLT?

Thunderbolt is a very, VERY fast I/O (input/output) communications protocol (10 Gbps or 1.25 GB/second) that supports both hard drives and monitors. This is faster than anything else on the market.

Apple’s Thunderbolt white paper states:

For time sensitive data, such as video and audio during creation and playback, data transfer can be critical to the success of the work. Thunderbolt technology was specifically designed with video and audio applications in mind with inherently low latency and highly accurate time synchronization capabilities.

Currently, Thunderbolt is supported only on MacBook Pros. However, I have every expectation that this connection protocol will be added to all future Mac systems. (I don’t see it being added to IOS devices simply because they don’t hold enough data to require these kinds of transfer speeds. Well, at least not yet.)

Today, Thunderbolt connects two devices using copper wires, but the protocol has already been developed to support optical fiber as well, which provides longer cable runs and faster speeds; though without the on-board 10 watts of power.

The great news is that, unlike FireWire and USB, the protocol does not slow down when you have multiple devices attached to it.

Additional features include:

In short, this is some amazing technology!

For those that want an overview, here’s the relevant page from Apple on the technology: http://www.apple.com/thunderbolt/

For those that want more technical details, here’s Intel’s website on the new protocol: http://www.intel.com/technology/io/thunderbolt/index.htm

Here’s an additional analysis from Storage Newsletter: http://www.storagenewsletter.com/news/connection/analysis-intel-10gbs-thunderbolt

HOW FAST IS IT?

Remember the first time you saw Han Solo go into warp drive in Star Wars? It’s THAT fast!

It is:

It is dazzlingly fast.

(This chart was published on Apple’s website.) PLUS, the spec calls for speeds ten times faster – up to 100 Gbps – in the near future. (No, not next week.)

Keep in mind that the only way you can take advantage of this new system is using a RAID. A single hard drive, no matter how large, does not begin to provide the speed offered by this new protocol. To take advantage of all the speed, you’ll need to invest in a RAID system.

UPDATE – Mar. 3, 2011

Adam Lloyd Connell sent me the following link to an EndGadget demo using Final Cut Pro.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CCz_c_rDAXw

WHAT SUPPORTS THUNDERBOLT NOW?

Apple’s three latest MacBook Pros.

That’s it. No other hardware is currently shipping that supports the protocol.

On the other hand, until Apple ships a device containing this protocol, there is no incentive for any hardware manufacturer to create devices to support a protocol that doesn’t exist. First, Apple needs to ship something, then, the rest of the technology world can start to support it.

As always, this will take some time before we see actual products ship.

WHAT WILL SUPPORT THUNDERBOLT IN THE FUTURE?

Both Promise and LaCie have announced new hard drive systems that will support this protocol and both will be shipping in a few months.

I also sent emails to friends in the hard drive industry and every single one of them is frantically studying the new protocol so they can add it to their product line.

My expectation is that we will see Thunderbolt support on hard drives – more specifically RAIDs – sooner than on monitors. With nothing from any vendor before NAB in April. I expect most shipments to start in the early summer.

As one hardware vendor wrote:

Thunderbolt is THE hot topic of discussion everywhere. What happened is that when it was being developed, Apple went to Blackmagic Design, AJA, Promise, Western Digital, LaCie & even CalDigit to see if they’d be interested in being 1st onboard the tech, so it’ll be interesting to see what AJA, BMD & the rest will come out with. We already know Promise has a 4 bay and a 6 bay TB product line called “Pegasus” which doesn’t ship till April and LaCie has a new TB 2 bay, that I know of.

I don’t think it’ll kill FireWire anytime soon & our mini-SAS 8 bay product is still selling very solidly and will continue to do so at nearly 1000 MB/s with the ATTO R680 card.

CAN THUNDERBOLT BE RETROFIT ON EXISTING COMPUTERS OR STORAGE?

No.

Based on what I’ve learned so far, support for Thunderbolt can not be retrofit into current RAID technology. It requires a new chipset from Intel on both the computer and RAID to support the protocol. Also, the chipset does not look like it can be added via a PCIe card into a MacPro.

WHAT DOES THUNDERBOLT MEAN FOR THE FUTURE?

Thunderbolt is absolutely, and only, designed to meet the needs of the Pro market. No consumer needs speeds this fast – they can use it, they can appreciate it, but they don’t NEED it. Pros do.

To me, this is a strong indication that Apple has not forgotten the needs of Pro users. Which is a very good thing — for all of us.


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