Thunderbolt 3 goes PC at NAB 2016

Thunderbolt is 5 years old and ready to go mainstream after years on the sidelines. Last week's NAB 2016 is the show for video production, where 4k practically demands Thunderbolt speeds. The biggest surprise: Thunderbolt 3 is taking off because of PC adoption.

Supported on hundreds of systems and peripherals, with dramatically higher performance, and "all of the above" protocol support, Thunderbolt 3 is now on Ultrabooks, motherboards, mobile workstations and desktops, even on a video camera.

I've been using Thunderbolt for almost 5 years and have found it to be a rock-solid interconnect from the very first, even when fully loaded with docks, storage, and monitors. It is the perfect backplane extension for mobile systems that don't even have a backplane.

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Thunderbolt 3 uses the same connector as USB-C and, when supported by an Intel Thunderbolt interface chip, offers 40 Gbit/s bandwidth with half the power consumption of Thunderbolt 2. That's enough bandwidth to drive dual 4k displays at 60 Hz, PCIe 3.0, HDMI 2.0, DisplayPort 1.2, as well as 10 Gbit/s USB 3.1. Plus 100 watts of power to charge systems and up to 15W for bus-powered devices.

It's pretty cool. And the 40Gb/s version will be much more popular than v1 and v2.

What's changed?

Thunderbolt has faced serious headwinds since it first shipped in 2011 on Macs. The Mac's high-end market domination made them the logical choice for introducing a high-end/high-cost interconnect, but also slowed Thunderbolt acceptance on Wintel machines.

But the high-end is a small part of PC volumes, and chips need volume to get prices down. So Intel is pushing Thunderbolt 3 to Wintel vendors, who want to compete with high-spec Macs. Dozens of Wintel systems from Lenovo, Dell, HP, Asus, Acer, Razer and other vendors are available today.

But there have been other issues:

  • First gen Thunderbolt chips were expensive and power hungry. While 40Gb serdes will always generate heat - that's why Thunderbolt isn't in the new MacBook - prices have come down and energy efficiency - and heat - is much improved.
  • Expensive active cables. Thunderbolt 3 supports a short passive cable at 20Gb/s, a much lower cost alternative.
  • Wintel device support was slow in coming, and no support, no sales.
  • Intel's certification process has sometimes been overwhelmed by applications, making Thunderbolt investments riskier for the smaller vendors who make high-performance products for niche applications.
  • The DisplayPort connector isn't very robust, which makes USB-C a vast improvement.
  • The slowing PC market has hurt sales of all Wintel systems, not just Thunderbolt, but it hurt the new interconnect even more.

But all these issues have either been fixed or improved, which is why Thunderbolt is coming into its own.

Cool Thunderbolt products at NAB

There are a number of pro audio, video and SAN interfaces already available on Thunderbolt, and NAB-goers are prime prospects for those. What surprised me was the variety, capacity and performance of Thunderbolt storage options.

  • 8 and 12 drive arrays from Qnap, LaCie and others boast capacities up to 100TB.
  • Two companies are offering Thunderbolt clusters.
  • G-Tech, Glyph, LaCie and others were offering small and very fast SSD-based palm arrays.

Thunderbolt 3 clustered storage

The Accusys A12T3-Share is, they say, a shareable desktop storage solution. Two 12 bay units can be linked, offering a total of 8 Thunderbolt 3 interfaces to as much as 200 TB of capacity. I'm hoping to hear more from Accusys on how they manage this feat, since Thunderbolt 3 is without a doubt the fastest and lowest cost cluster interconnect available today.

Symply integrates Quantum's StorNext cluster - the basis for the Mac's Xgrid cluster - with innovative new hardware designs to deliver up to 120TB of shareable desktop storage over Thunderbolt 3. Symply starts shipping next month.

The Storage Bits take

I'm biased: I've been using Thunderbolt for years in some demanding applications and it has worked extremely well. With the move to USB-C connectors and supporting USB 3.1 (10Gb/s), as well as PCIe 3.0 and DisplayPort, Thunderbolt 3 enters the PC mainstream.

While all Thunderbolt products need Thunderbolt controllers, the ability to add Thunderbolt 3 cheaply to Wintel machines means that buyers will have the chance to future-proof their machines with a fast, robust and low-cost interconnect. That slim Ultrabook could support a powerful (and hot!) external graphics card for serious gaming or video production, while also tapping into hundreds of TB of storage.

It's taken 5 years, but Thunderbolt 3 is bringing high performance at low cost to the rest of us.

Courteous comments welcome, of course.