Thunderbolt storage surprises at NAB '11

Thunderbolt is off to a promising start at NAB '11. Vendor support and product range is greater than expected.
Written by Robin Harris, Contributor

A high-performance storage interconnect is always welcome in bandwidth-gobbling video work. But the product range is greater than expected. It's a promising start for Thunderbolt.

MacBooks to the enterprise The biggest surprise is the Promise Technology SANlink, a Thunderbolt-to-Fibre Channel adapter. Breeze in from the field, plug into the SAN, and access all your organization's digital assets in minutes.

LaCie LaCie is showing several Thunderbolt products. The most interesting is their hard drive-based Little Big Disk, which houses 2 striped 500GB, 7200 rpm notebook drives. They showed 4 of them daisy-chained together with a total read bandwidth of 600 MB/s.

That's enough to handle a couple of HD video streams. The 4 drives require external power as the MBP Thunderbolt interface is only 10 watts - enough to power 1 LBD but not 4.

The Thunderbolt demo is running continuously. While the tiny DisplayPort connector was warm, neither it or the MBP was noticeably hot.

LaCie expects to add Thunderbolt to most of its storage lineup as demand sorts itself out. Even people who don't have Thunderbolt today may want to buy it to future-proof their investments.

G-Technology Hitachi's G-Technology prosumer unit is showing a simple proof-of-concept that ties an Intel Thunderbolt reference board to one of their PCIe SAS RAID controllers. They get over 600 MB/s out of this unoptimized proto.

Expect G-Tech Thunderbolt product in Q3/Q4.

Sonnet Long-time Mac vendor Sonnet Technology is showing Thunderbolt products ranging from a compact 2-drive unit to an 8 drive RAID.

Promise Promise is showing direct attach 4 and 8 drive RAID arrays in addition to the SANLink FC adapter.

The Storage Bits take Thunderbolt is making a stronger showing with more vendor support and more customer interest - judging by the demo traffic - than I'd expected. Granted, the NAB video crowd is especially bandwidth hungry compared to civilians, but they also buy a lot of gear.

More vendors would have been showing protos, but Intel has limited the number of early developers it supports. The planned release of an Intel Thunderbolt developer's kit later this quarter suggests that Intel is getting comfortable with Thunderbolt and expects to have answers for most new developer's questions.

There's a rumor that expected Thunderbolt iMacs will also be capable of acting as I/O hubs - FireWire, USB, DisplayPort, Ethernet and audio - for MacBook Pros. A nice thought, but as with all Apple futures, it remains to be seen.

Will consumers beyond the Mac faithful buy into Thunderbolt? That is up to Intel's pricing strategy. Civilians like faster, but love cheaper. At the single hard drive level there won't be a performance delta between USB3 and Thunderbolt, so consumers won't pay much more.

Initial Thunderbolt products will have a noticeable uplift. It will be fast, not free. We'll know more when products start arriving this summer.

Comments welcome, of course.

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