[Updated 12/13 with clarification on Promise and more info on the incremental cost.]
I needed to buy more storage for my editing system – as if needing more storage for video editing is a surprise or something…
Anyway, I decided that since one of my editing systems supports Thunderbolt, I would buy a Thunderbolt RAID. Except the only ones currently available seemed to be from Promise Technology. Promise has been making and selling RAIDS to the video editing market for more than a decade. As Andrew pointed out in the comments: “Promise succeeded Apple’s Xserve RAID with their vTrak RAID.” As you can see from the comments below, lots of people like them a lot.
However, I decided to see what else was on the market.
And, hmmm, there’s not a whole lot else on the market. So, I decided to do some research and had a number of off-the-record conversations with different hard drive vendors to figure out why – when we are almost a year after the launch – there are so few Thunderbolt units available. Here’s what I learned.
Basically, Thunderbolt was released to the market too early. Thunderbolt requires not just one chip from Intel, but a master chip and a variety of supporting chips to be able to handle all the signal processing.
The first problem was that there was a shortage of both the master chip and the supporting chips.
Next, all these chips needed to be integrated onto a new IC board. Anytime hardware engineering is involved – as opposed to making software changes – a minimum of six months of engineering and manufacturing time is involved.
HARDWARE TAKES SPACE
In fact, this hardware board with all these chips takes so much space that it won’t fit inside a standard enclosure – in general, it requires about another 1/2 in height inside the RAID unit.
This is space that, in smaller units, just doesn’t exist. This means that many manufacturers need to retool their enclosures to support the new protocol hardware.
APPLE AND INTEL NEED TO HELP
Once the hardware has been figured out, the SDK (software development kit) necessary to support Thunderbolt was several months late coming to market – most drive vendors didn’t get them until early summer. In fact, the specs were published several times – and kept changing with each iteration. This is good, in that it allowed the protocol to improve, but every change caused delays in creating software needed to support the protocol.
In addition, Thunderbolt requires significant support from Apple and Intel engineering to explain how the new system works so that RAID manufacturers can get their systems to interconnect properly with this new protocol.
And, because Apple and Intel do not have unlimited engineering support staff, not all RAID vendors were able to access the engineering help they needed in a timely fashion. So, some vendors are farther along in their development than others are.
There’s also, apparently, a political issue. I was told that some vendors were given market exclusivity for a year after the announcement – an exclusive period that expires just before NAB next year in April.
WHAT’S IN THE FUTURE?
There are many elements of potential good news here. First, every drive manufacturer that I spoke with is extremely interested in developing for Thunderbolt – so, while the devices may still take a while longer to get here, when they do arrive, they will arrive in quantity.
Second, Intel has already announced – at least to the drive vendors – a second generation bridge chip that includes both the Thunderbolt master chip and all the supporting chips on a single chip. This will vastly reduce both the amount of engineering that is necessary to support the new protocol and the amount of space it requires. From what I have been told, this new chip will support both FireWire and Thunderbolt on the same chip.
However, we probably won’t see these second-generation chips in quantity until late in the first quarter next year.
Intel is also working on a third-generation chip which supports data transfer over fiber-optic cable, but that chip probably won’t show up until 2013.
THERE’S ALSO THE ISSUE OF COST
As one of my contacts told me, all new technologies are more expensive than current technologies. This was true with USB, FireWire, even Blu-ray players; and is true with Thunderbolt. Costs don’t fall until enough people adopt the technology to allow increasing volume to drive down costs.
“The cost of Thunderbolt will remain higher than alternatives until native implementations are made into motherboards and the external devices and if and when this happens we could see the price drop very quickly.”
In this conversation, his feeling was not that the technology was announced too soon, but that the implementation of this new technology takes a while to figure out.
So, what’s the take-away? Thunderbolt is coming – but the majority of units probably won’t arrive in quantity until the second quarter next year. By a year from now, we should have a wide variety of Thunderbolt devices to choose from.
Initially, most Thunderbolt devices will probably support RAID level 0 or 1 – which provide speed or redundancy, but not both. RAID level 5 units – which are both faster and more secure – will take longer to get to the market in quantity.
For now, though, we need to wait.
Let me know what you think.