Thunderbolt™ aka “Light Peak” by Intel

Thunderbolt represents a connectivity technology developed by Intel Corporation meant to connect external peripherals. It was originally introduced as “Light Peak” at an Intel Developer Forum running on Mac™ OS X. Its original incarnation was that of an optical interface; however that was changed to electrical in order to lower its cost and add the capability of carrying up to 10 watts of power to connected devices. The technology was even faster than USB 3.0 (4.8Gbps.). In fact, Light Peak could provide up to 10Gbps. (10 gigabits/second) in both directions simultaneously. Since its beginning, many have hoped that Thunderbolt would be the secret sauce to not only deliver speed but also a shared storage medium. It should be mentioned, that the architecture was never designed to support shared storage.

In early 2011 Apple™ became the first to introduce this technology in their new line of MacBook™ Pro notebook computers and tagged the technology to be commercially known as “Thunderbolt™”.

Since its earlier introduction we have seen several iterations of this technology. In June 2013 Intel announced Thunderbolt™ 2 that would allow aggregation between two previously separate 10 Gbps into a combined speed of 20 Gbps.

Thunderbolt™ 3 was introduced in 2015 and was developed by Intel in its Israeli division. It uses a USB-c plug and allows up to 40Gbps (5GB/s) streaming. Thunderbolt 3 allows backwards compatibility with the first two versions by the use of adapters or transitional cables. Devices with Thunderbolt™ 3 interfaces began shipping in 2015 and include notebooks running Microsoft Windows various manufacturers.

The new Intel controller supports PCIe 3.0 and other protocols, including HDMI 2.0, and DisplayPort 1.2 (allowing for 4K resolutions at 60 Hz). By virtue of being an Alternate Mode of USB Type-C, Thunderbolt™ 3 ports implement USB Power Delivery, allowing the ports to source or sink up to 100 watts of power, which allows companies to eliminate the separate power cable from some devices.

Intel has released 3 versions of its controller as follows:

  1. “DP” version that uses a PCIe 3.0 ×4 link to provide two Thunderbolt™ 3 ports (DSL6540)
  2. “SP” version that uses a PCIe 3.0 ×4 link to provide one Thunderbolt™ 3 port (DSL6340)
  3. “LP” (Low Power) version that uses a PCIe 3.0 ×2 link to provide one Thunderbolt™ 3 port (JHL6240).

This follows previous practice, where higher-end devices such as the second-generation Mac Pro, iMac, Retina MacBook Pro, and Mac Mini use two-port controllers; while lower-end, lower-power devices such as the MacBook Air use the one-port version.

About Thunderbolt attached storage….

In late 2011, Promise Technology introduced Pegasus R4 (4-drive0 & R6 (6-drive) enclosures focused on the prosumer and professional market, initially offering up to 12TBs of storage and later up to 18TBs. Believe it or not these early product releases came to a standstill when floods in Thailand (largest country involved in hard drive manufacturing) created a shortage in hard drive availability and drove prices up. What was already a pricey product became out of reach for most.

As of 2012 a few companies such as Sonnet Technology and Drobo began to have Thunderbolt™ related products; however the marketplace was still developing slowly.

Today in 2016 there are many Thunderbolt™ based products and more coming every day. Of interest, here’s a link to a Thunderbolt Brief provided by our partner, ATTO Technology click here.

Although Thunderbolt was never meant as a shared storage technology many have crafted solutions with that aim in mind hoping to capture a relatively untouched niche market.

To date, I personally have not seen much success in creating shared storage for media and entertainment via Thunderbolt™. This may be changing soon but for the moment the results I have seen or heard about leave something to be desired. For more information or to discuss your experiences with Thunderbolt™, I invite you to get in touch.


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