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Thunderbolt storage devices not seen as an SMB staple

It's unlikely that Intel’s Thunderbolt storage systems will see widespread SMB adoption; Promise has a Thunderbolt system but few others have committed.

The first storage system to use Intel Corp.’s Thunderbolt storage technology came out soon after the high-speed technology became available, and more are sure to follow, but industry experts don’t expect Thunderbolt to become a major factor in small- to medium-sized business (SMB) storage products.

“[Outside] of some niche or corner-case scenarios similar to where or how USB is used today, [I] don’t see much future traction in the mid- to upper SMB and enterprise for storage,” Greg Schulz, senior analyst at StorageIO Group, wrote in an email.

Developed by Intel Corp. in collaboration with Apple Inc., Thunderbolt combines PCI Express and DisplayPort I/O into a dual-channel cable capable of 10 Gbps bandwidth in both directions in each port. Thunderbolt storage technology also allows up to seven devices to be daisy-chained together on a single port, according to Intel, although Apple’s website puts that limit at six devices. Thunderbolt’s promised bandwidth compares favorably to USB 3.0’s 5 Gbps, FireWire’s 800 Mbps capacity, Fibre Channel’s 8 Gbps (soon to be 16 Gbps) and eSATA’s 6 Gbps bandwidth.  

Thunderbolt currently uses a three-meter long copper cable to connect devices, though in published materials, Intel promises Thunderbolt will eventually switch to an optical cable that will be physically longer and offer far greater bandwidth. In a 2010 white paper on Light Peak—the technology on which Thunderbolt is based—Intel claimed that data transfer capacity could grow to about 100 Gbps using optical cabling.

Apple storage partner Promise Technology quickly pushed out a Thunderbolt RAID storage system in July. Promise’s Pegasus systems come in four-bay and six-bay configurations, scaling from 4 TB ($999) to 12 TB ($1,999). LaCie is planning a Thunderbolt version of its Little Big Disk external hard drive with optional 240 GB and 500 GB solid-state drives (SSDs).

Minh Le, LaCie’s director of marketing, said Little Big Disk will be aimed at customers who handle extremely large files—such as video production professionals—who need a fast and easy backup solution.

“It will probably be like every storage story, a success first with video pros, creative pros,” Le said. “Because that’s globally the portion of the market that has the most [need] in terms of storage and in terms of speed. We believe it is a technology that will compete on the other side with Fibre [Channel] technology. You know that Fibre is a great technology, but you need a lot of time to set up a Fibre environment. Here [with Thunderbolt], you just plug it in, it works.”

Western Digital has publicly stated it will enter the Thunderbolt market, but hasn’t released details.

“At this time, we cannot share more detail on those plans,” Western Digital spokesman Steve Shattuck wrote in an email.

Thunderbolt storage details still a mystery

Thunderbolt’s developers haven’t been much more forthcoming. A representative for Apple directed questions to Intel when contacted for this story. A representative for Intel provided a link to materials available on the company’s website, but did not respond to questions about its plans for the technology.

IDC senior research analyst Liz Conner said she expects Intel to roll out Thunderbolt technology to non-Apple vendors, but that could put Thunderbolt in competition with the latest version of the widely used USB standard. She also sees it as a desktop product that is unlikely to move up into enterprise storage.

“Considering [Thunderbolt is] an Intel product, I have a hard time thinking they are going to make it Apple-only, because then it would almost become another Firewire,” she said. “I really do think that PCs will eventually pick it up. Right now, this is going to be a desktop solution, it’s not going to be a data center solution. That could change going forward, but if you look toward the enterprise side, the vast majority of those solutions are network-based, whether its NAS, SAN, iSCSI… those are all network solutions and we just see the network side [continue to] keep growing. And again, this is going to have to be direct-attached unless they really do take it at a 90-degree angle and put it into something I haven’t even thought of yet.”

StorageIO’s Schulz said Thunderbolt may be an answer for a question the IT industry is not asking. He said with upgrades to established network technologies—such as PCIe and 10-Gigabit Ethernet (GbE) and converged adapters that support NAS, iSCSI and Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) “Thunderbolt appears to be a solution wanting to play in the enterprise. However, it’s lacking a problem to solve.”

He added that a new technology “needs to be more than just faster, as the roadside is littered with predecessors of some really cool and neat technology that had speed plus features.”

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