Where Is Thunderbolt?

[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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


24 Responses to Where Is Thunderbolt?

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  1. I bit the bullet and bought a Pegasus R4 — it is blazingly fast and supports RAID level 5, so I’m feeling comfortable that the data on it is safe. It is expensive, for sure, and it’ll be great once there’s competition to bring down the costs, but so far, I’m really happy with the Pegasus.

  2. Barney Greenwood says:

    I have been using the Lacie Little Big Disc Thunderbolt 1TB for about 6 weeks. I can edit FCPX on my iMac with a second screen and then go to a client with my MacBook Pro (also works with second screen) and make fine cuts. All has worked well thanks to your FCPX training. I would like the expensive SSD version but at the moment it is available on the Apple US site but not UK. When I work on location I would feel more secure even if it is at a price. Best wishes Barney

  3. Alan Nordoc says:

    I had talked to two manufacturers a couple of months ago and they said they wouldn’t consider bringing a drive to market until the new Intel bridge chip is available. Without that chip, Thunderbolt is the same speed right now as eSata so it’s not worth it yet….

  4. Caesar Darias says:

    So are you saying that the Pegasus product does not do what Pegasus and Apple claim it does?

    • Larry says:

      No. No. No. No.

      Absolutely not. I say *nothing* bad about Pegasus. Simply that I was struck by the lack of other Thunderbolt systems in the market and wanted to find out why.


  5. Paul Cormier says:

    i have the pegasus connected to an iMac as well as another iMac Networked to the first iMac… both working with Lightroom and aperture and even Final Cut X…

    it has worked Really well

    No complaints as of yet…

  6. Han Raw says:

    Promise has been building Raids since way over a decade now. I would trust Promise more than pretty much any other hard drive vendor to build a decent product that meets quality requirements.

  7. Richard says:

    From AppleInsider, Friday, April, 15, 2011

    “Intel announced this week that it will ship silicon that will support both USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt in 2012. According to CNet, Kirk Skaugen, vice president at Intel’s Architecture Group, said he believes the two technologies are “complementary. Support for both Thunderbolt and USB 3.0 will appear in Intel’s next-generation chips, code-named “Ivy Bridge.” Ivy Bridge is the successor to the “Sandy Bridge” processors that began shipping earlier this year.

    How does this fit into the mix?

    • Larry says:

      Ivy Bridge is the second generation chip I mentioned in my blog – it is the key element, along with reasonable supply – that is necessary for most hard drive manufacturers to have the necessary hardware chips to easily support Thunderbolt. Intel has always been a big booster of USB, so their support of USB 3 is not a surprise.

      The key is “how soon” Intel will ship these new chips and what the manufacturing constraints are.


  8. PJ Palomaki says:

    We have two Pegasus R6’s in Raid 5 plugged to two iMacs, sharing data to about 5 stations (Final Cut, C4D, AE, Photoshop, Illustrator etc.) and performance is excellent from the drives though our network infrastructure is a slight bottle neck at the moment (STILL waiting for Mac Pro’s with Thunderbolt to install Small Tree Ethernet NIC to allow full Gigabit to each workstation – current setup works ‘adequatly’).

    The issue we’ve had with the setup is the intermittent R6 drive ejects which out of the blue. {This] seems mainly to affect the mid 2011 27″ iMac and it should be noted that the Pegasus R4 & R6 compatibility list does list the 21″ iMac as supported but NOT the 27″ iMac.

    Also apparently some people have found some success in wrapping the Thunderbolt cable in _aluminium foil_ which I’ve heard also serves to protect the system from invasion by aliens from outer space. So not all bad news!

    This is documented extensively in the thread below and it seems to affect mainly the mid 2011 iMacs and possibly have something to do with a mobile phone / other electronic signals near the Thunderbolt cable / drive. There is no news as of yet wether it’s an Apple or a Pegasus issue but I’m betting the former as people with MacBooks and Minis seem to have very little issue with these drives.

    Read the full thread on this at the Apple Forums:

    PJ Palomaki

  9. John says:

    There are also third party’s creating RAID boards for these drive and enclosure companies. If you saw press for IBC or IDF this year you would have seen that ATTO technology, the company that makes the great HBAs and RAID Adapters I use in editing is also creating a Thunderbolt RAID product as well! That gets me excited.

  10. Bruce says:

    What about adapter solutions, so I can plug my USB 3.0 disk into a Thunderbolt port? Or eSata? Anything like that available?

    • Larry says:

      Available? Well, if you attach an Apple monitor to your computer via Thunderbolt, you can use the ports on the monitor.

      However, standalone adapters are in process, I’ve been told, but not yet available.


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