One of the buzzwords of NAB 2014 has been “4K” and lots of vendors have been seizing the opportunity to feature those two characters in their media and promotional material (no I did not see “4K capable” gaffer tape but I saw some tenuous claims that were clearly a “jumping on the bandwagon” excercise!). Who can blame them? 4K resolution images on a correctly calibrated screen look gorgeous. It is quite something to see and watching other folks stare open mouthed as they experience their first viewing experience of one of these screens is quite amusing.
One technology that is connected (if you will excuse the weak pun) with 4K is Intel’s Thunderbolt Connector and specifically the version 2.0 specification of Thunderbolt.
Why? – well because Thunderbolt 2.0 is capable of allowing a suitably equipped computer to pass high fidelity, high resolution moving image data to a 4K capable display while simultaneously connecting the computer to storage or other high speed devices, while transferring or manipulating large data files at the same time. The version 2 specification allows for aggregation of the version 1 specifications of two separate 10 Gb/sec capable channels into one 20 Gbit/sec capable channel and thus can drive a screen displaying in the order of 4096 x 2160 pixels while simultaneously transferring large quantities of data at high speed. Of course this opens up a lot of possibilities for high resolution workflows especially for those who need portable or at least the capability of editing high resolution outside of a traditional highly specified Post Production edit suite in a specialist facility.
So what is Thunderbolt? Thunderbolt was developed by Intel to be a next generation data transfer connection for computing and data devices. It essentially combines PCI-E and Display Port technology into a serial signal and cables are available in both copper wire based format and optical format. With the copper format cables, a DC power connection is implemented that allows devices to be powered by a host computer. The optical cables do not have the power component but do extend the reach of Thunderbolt by extending the maximum cable length by some margin compared to copper cables. Up to six peripherals can be connected from one Thunderbolt port in a daisy chain (normally with up to five individual devices and a display type device) with the computer acting as the controller. The format of the connector used by both optical and copper cables is the same as the connector used by Mini Display Port.
While originally developed by Intel, the first commercially available implementation of Thunderbolt (Thunderbolt 1) was in an Apple Laptop in 2011. Apple held the exclusive right to the format for some time until PC manufacturers were able to incorporate Thunderbolt connectors into their products however the uptake by PC manufacturers was limited (with USB 3 ports being possibly more attractive). Apple released Thunderbolt 2 capable technology with computers such as their recently introduced Mac Pro Late 2013 model. With Mavericks OS, two Mac Pros can even be connected together directly and data can be exchanged between machines using a simple Thunderbolt 2 connection using TCPIP. With Intel releasing Thunderbolt version 2 technology very recently to PC manufacturers, it is thought that by June 2014 Windows drivers will be widely available from Intel to support their chipsets. Usefully, existing Thunderbolt cables are compatible with both Thunderbolt version 1 and version 2 technology.
I took some time at the NAB show to ask representatives of organisations manufacturing Thunderbolt capable devices what makes this technology useful to media users.
Most responded that the speed of the technology and the low complexity of the connectors used are big advantages for media based usage especially with the likely spike in data movement required as 4K and other high resolution workflows become more popular.
For lower speed devices, and single drive based devices where the drive itself is a performance limiter, USB 3 (which can reach up to 5 Gb/sec with the USB 3.0 specification) is fine and frankly for these devices, the capability of Thunderbolt is somewhat wasted. However for higher speed devices such as multiple drive RAID sets and 16 Gbit capable Fibre Channel (devices, Thunderbolt 2’s 20 Gbits per second performance ensures that users make the most of these high bandwidth capable devices.
The flexibility of using copper type cables for local devices that require external power and the possibility of using optical cables for devices that are self powered and or needed to be connected at some distance from the host computer was also raised as a convenient plus. Some representatives voiced the possibility that both Mini-SAS and E-SATA connections would also fall by the wayside to be replaced by Thunderbolt technology. What is certain is that as long as technologies such as Fibre Channel, SAS and 10 Gbit Ethernet remain popular and computer manufacturers such as Apple choose not to kit their computers with traditional PCI-E slots, Thunderbolt to PCI-E conversion units will continue bridge the gap between these technologies and allow them to continue to offer connections to high speed periferals.
At the Atto stand I saw a Mac Pro Late 2013 connected to a Dot Hill RAID chassis using ATTO’s Thunderlink FC 2162 device. This is essentially a Dual 16 Gbit capable Fibre Channel HBA in an external case connected to the Mac Pro using Thunderbolt. The performance of this set up was quite remarkable!
Aja were demonstrating the use of their new IO 4K device connected to a Mac Pro 2013 running both Adobe Premiere and Avid Media Composer with some lovely material captured using their new CION camera.
HP announced a PCI-E based Thunderbolt 2 adapter for their latest Computers including their flagship Z820, Z620, and Z420 workstations. It is available for purchase in the UK and requires a BIOS update and location in a specific PCI-E slot in order to work correctly as well as having the workstation fitted with a qualified Nvida Graphics card (K2000, K4000, K5000). Note that the card will not work with older HP workstations or with workstations from other manufacturers.
At MOTU I saw their Thunderbolt connected HDX-SDI connected to a PC running Adobe Premiere. This solution also supports running FCP X on Mac and Avid Media Composer running on either Mac or PC.
At the LACie stand I was shown their 8big Rack Thunderbolt 2 – a 1Rack Unit sized RAID set containing up to eight 6 TB Seagate drives for a raw capacity of 48 TB. Each drive, fan and PSU is hot swappable and the unit can deliver an impressive 1330 MB/sec performance.
Several other stands were showing various technology including Sonnet, Magma, who were showing Thunderbolt connected PCI expansion chassis, G-Technology, Promise, Stardom and Highpoint showing innovative storage solutions and Black Magic Designs who were showing AV related products and cameras connected to the host computer using Thunderbolt technology.
For more information on Thunderbolt Technology visit this page on the Intel Web Site: Thunderbolt Overview