Thunderbolt: the home price & performance leader

Thunderbolt: the home price & performance leader

Summary: A reader wrote in to ask about a 10Gb Ethernet network for home use. Sorry. Thunderbolt is the home network price and performance leader - not Ethernet. What happened?


Several years ago an Intel briefer promised me $50 10Gb Ethernet ports. The shocker: prices have dropped very little in the last 8 years. Why?

I don't look back as often as I should. But this note from a ZDNet reader prompted some retrospection and research:

I just read a very old article (Build a 10 Gbit home network for $1100) [January 2008] of yours and I am very interested in creating a fast network . Can you update this article or please show me where I can similar equipment for the same amount. I can't find similar prices and I need the throughput for my renderfarm and quick transfer of other files on my home network.

That "very old" article covered a special deal for an Infiniband network - 2 10Gb adapters, cables and an 8-port switch. Surprisingly, it's still a competitive deal, 8 years later.

GigE: way old.

Apple introduced its first GigE system in 2000. 15 years later GigE is still standard on Mac systems.

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Obviously, Apple's - and everyone else's - networking investments have been going into Wi-Fi, not Ethernet. People are willing to pay for the convenience of faster Wi-Fi; not so much for faster Ethernet.

That shows in the pricing. The lowest priced 10Gig PCIe adapter online is about $100. Same with the lowest cost Infiniband adapter.

Lowest cost Thunderbolt adapter: $72. For 20Gb/s from Asus.

The Storage Bits take

Of course, Thunderbolt can't do many of the things Ethernet does, such as routing or communicating to dozens of devices. But for home users who want to connect a few peripherals, Thunderbolt is the clear leader.

You can even get fiber optic Thunderbolt cable hundreds of feet long. The ability to connect to PCIe peripherals is unique to Thunderbolt as well.

Thunderbolt isn't switchable, so daisy-chaining is the only choice. I currently have 5 - out of 6 maximum - devices on my Thunderbolt installation and it works great.

Need more devices? Buy another adapter. The Mac Pro's 6 Thunderbolt ports can build a monster system.

Given all the angst around Thunderbolt's pricing early on, it appears that Intel and Apple are doing something right compared to Ethernet. It is now the lowest-cost and highest performance home network available.

Courteous comments welcome, of course.


Topics: Storage, Hardware, Networking

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  • Going the way of Firewire

    Thunderbolt is a nice technology although those wires can get hot. There is also the problem of cost per wire and the failure of wires due to complexity with embedded chips.

    Personally I see Thunderbolt going the way of Firewire. Both good technologies but just not being adopted in mass.
    Rann Xeroxx
    • Greed

      killed firewire and is doing the same to Thunderbolt. They wised up when USB was released and made it available at reasonable prices that encouraged mass adoption. If the price penalty for moving to Thunderbolt were $20-$25 added cost per peripheral, ans maybe $10 to the motherboard for onboard, then it will/would have taken off. But no, got to do the greedy Apple thing and gouge customers, and see what ya get? Nothing..........
      • Then why is the Thunderbolt adapter cheaper than the Ethernet one?

        And with twice the bandwidth? Just asking.

        Robin Harris
      • Reflexive troll

        This is what happens when you bleat before reading.
    • Did you read the title of the article?

      Thunderbolt: the home price & performance leader
      Whether or not it will be adopted by the masses, if you are looking to set up a small, fast network, there is nothing better for less.

      Sadly, you may be right. But, that is not the point.
  • Cheap 10G Ethernet is still waiting for mass adoption

    10G Ethernet hasn't yet gotten cheap because not enough people need it to push it into mass production. Gigabit Ethernet is fast enough for most of the things that people use Ethernet for - sharing files, sharing internet connections, streaming video - both at home and in the office. 10G is useful in the data center but that doesn't create enough volume to push it down to mass market prices.

    Until recently, the technologies that would make 10G useful in the home environment were also unaffordable. The low cost hard drives used at home didn't push out data fast enough to require higher wire speeds for a home server, and internet speeds topped out well shy of a gigabit. Now that SSDs are common and gigabit internet is becoming available, there is actually some point to a higher speed network, though in the short term most homes will probably be served well enough by a network switch with a couple of 10G ports (for connecting to servers) and gigabit ports for most users.

    Widespread adoption of 802.11ac will also create a new demand for 10G Ethernet. The fastest variants of WiFi are fast enough to saturate a gigabit uplink, and future upgrades will require a faster uplink to achieve their full potential.
  • There are physical limits

    10G never got cheap because we've reached the limits of how fast you can run differential signals over twisted-pair copper. Along the lines of Thunderbolt, you've got to use multiple pairs, limit the length, and have drivers and cables that are tightly specified (i.e., costly). The same problems are hitting the SATA and SAS interfaces.
    • Rewind 15 years and you will find...

      ..the exact same arguments were being made for 1G Ethernet over copper vs. fibre. Cat 5 cables (standard at the time) didn't support Gigabit, so the more expensive 5E/6 cables were needed (more expensive, tighter specifications, etc). It was only in the past half-decade or so that 1G ethernet became widespread and cheap enough for home use.

      Manufacturing processes are continually improving - tighter standards will make the manufacture of cables more expensive in the short-term, but we seemed to have done a good job squeezing performance out of copper.
  • Thunderbolt - will it ever achieve mass acceptance?

    I am also not convinced that Thunderbolt will ever be a mass market technology. USB 3.0 is fast enough for most of the things that people need, and a 10 gigabit upgrade is on the way. Thunderbolt is faster (the latest variant can do 20Gbps bidirectionally), but its higher cost may limit its adoption. Apple's adoption of Thunderbolt as the expansion mechanism for the new Mac Pro will help a bit, but unless we see widespread use of Thunderbolt peripherals on other Mac models it will remain a small niche market. So far there is little evidence that anybody is buying Thunderbolt devices other than displays to use with other Mac systems, nor is there much incentive to do so. A single Thunderbolt hard drive, for example, will not be significantly faster than a USB 3.0 hard drive. (A box containing a RAID 0 array could be, or one with an enterprise-grade SSD inside.)
  • ThunderBolt is Unparalleled....

    I have a 2011 iMac which has four USB 2.0 ports (USB 3.0 did not arrive until the 2012 model)

    On the 2011 iMac the user can max out the RAM and fit an SSD without too much hassle although in my particular case I run the whole system from a Buffalo Thunderbolt Mini Station containing a 512GB Crucial M4 SSD.

    Performance is lightning fast.
  • The problem with Thunderbolt... rate of adoption. Even Intel has publicly expressed surprise that the platform isn't being adopted as quickly as they would have hoped. The main most problem with Thunderbolt is how it was brought to market. Rather than focus on releasing TB for PC motherboards and devices first, Intel (unwisely) chose to launch it on Macs, first. Bad move, and one that Intel has had trouble reversing. If you want to launch a new technology, do it on the platform that holds 92% of the market, rather than 7%. That little problem aside, I'd love to see Thunderbolt take off, but I have a feeling it's the FireWire of our current technology cycle. Excellent technology, big promises, but it isn't coming off the hotplate.
    • Mac first - do you think there was a reason for that decision?

      Is it possible, I ask, that Apple did much/most of the original development work on Thunderbolt and realized that all of the "want it all for nothing crowd" would not take it with an Apple label because they would bleat bleat bleat that it must be too expensive so it came out from Intel instead. If that is the case, should it surprise anyone that Apple was given a year head start?
      • Thunderbolt is a derivative of Light Peak

        Which came out of Intel's silicon photonics lab.
        • The original LightPeak specs came mostly from Apple

          and are based off Firewire and SCSI.
  • Wait, what happened to USB 3.1

    Assuming the connectors ever get standardized, it's supposed to be reasonably fast and cheap.
    • USB 3.0

      I think with USB, it's more of a distance thing. I don't believe you can run the cables far enough to create a network.
  • Cost is king

    USB 3.0 is "good enough" and within the price range of the masses. Remember VHS vs Betamax.

    Thunderbolt is better but out of reach of the masses. Cost to add to system, cost of the cables, cost of the peripherals. And it is not a small cost difference.

    Cable, Thunderbolt: $35 - $40.
    Cable, USB 3.0: $6 - $10

    Thunderbolt 1 TB: $130 - $250
    USB 3.0 1 TB: $60