With version 3, Thunderbolt is finally a cross-platform hit

Friday, 24 March 2017

Thunderbolt 3's recent success is good news for high-end post production.

When Apple replaced their (then) high-speed Firewire 800 connections with Thunderbolt ports in 2011, pro users were happy with the many improvements. Sadly USB 3 turned out to be 'good enough' for the vast proportion of PC users. That prevented a competitive market for Thunderbolt devices. That meant external drives and capture card prices didn't come down significantly

The situation didn't improve with Thunderbolt 2, despite it doubling bandwidth. It was for ‘Mac people who do postproduction' - not a large enough market for big economies of scale.

It looks like version 3 of Thunderbolt will finally go mainstream. It now has 2,750 MB/s of PCI Express bandwidth - significantly more than USB 3.

As well as Apple including in in recent MacBooks and MacBook Pros, Intel's Thunderbolt 3 buyers guide shows 52 PCs implementing Thunderbolt 3.

Bare Feats have been testing external GPU chassis that connect to Macs via Thunderbolt 3

Bare Feats are working on benchmarking a Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Box. I'll link to that report here soon.

QNAP have launched a Thunderbolt 3 NAS:

By supporting the SMB protocol, Final Cut Pro X 10.3 allows users to create a library on a NAS volume and use it as if it were on a local storage device. This simple-yet-important change allows users of Final Cut Pro X 10.3 (Mac users) and users of Adobe Premiere Pro (Windows users) to centrally store their video materials in the same shared folder on the NAS, greatly improves productivity for highly-collaborative projects in multi-workstation environments.

Simultaneous online editing by multiple users is made possible as the newly-added SMB protocol on QNAP NAS runs faster and more stable than the NFS protocol used in previous versions. Multiple Final Cut Pro users can edit different events and projects for the same media files simultaneously and combine each piece later to speed up the editing process, making it especially ideal for fast-moving media environments. Collaboration is also highly simplified now that Mac and Windows users can share files through SMB networks for separate steps of production work.

Felipe Baez points out that QNAP connects Macs to their NAS using Thunderbolt networking. From the same QNAP page:

Directly connecting a QNAP Thunderbolt 3 NAS to a computer establishes a peer-to-peer (P2P) network and enables 20GbE connectivity.

Detailed QNAP data sheet PDF on their Thunderbolt 3 NAS.

 It is good news that QNAP consider Thunderbolt networking is now reliable enough to be the basis of a professional product. Intel has a PDF on networking PCs using Thunderbolt. with a few notes on networking Macs using Thunderbolt:

  • To be able to communicate with another Windows computer through Thunderbolt networking, the Apple computer should share the same subnet as the other computer.
  • In a multiple communication environment, Apple computers act as bridges. Therefore any computer in a networking chain that is Apple should have the same subnets as its connected peers

Apple has a support note on Thunderbolt networking over USB-C:

  • Be sure to connect your Mac directly to the Thunderbolt 3 computer and not through a USB-C hub. USB-C hubs don't support Thunderbolt 3 connections between their ports
  • Make sure that the USB-C cable that you're using supports Thunderbolt 3. Not all USB-C cables support the requirements of Thunderbolt 3. For example, a USB-C charge cable doesn't support a Thunderbolt 3 connection

Apple’s support note on shared storage with Final Cut Pro X 10.3.

It is good that there are high-end solutions for Thunderbolt 3, but it is important to remember that these are driven by a market of game enthusiasts who want to run advanced games at or even watch TV on 4K monitors. A post by Jeff Atwood covers using a $500 external Thunderbolt enclosure to add a $600 video card to a $1,000 game PC.

Playing games at 1080p in my living room was already possible. But now that I have an incredible 4k display in the living room, it's a whole other level of difficulty. Not just twice as hard – and remember current consoles barely manage to eke out 1080p at 30fps in most games – but four times as hard. That's where external GPU power comes in.

...

40Gbps is, for the record, an insane amount of bandwidth. Let's use our rule of thumb based on ultra common gigabit ethernet, that 1 gigabit = 120 megabytes/second, and we arrive at 4.8 gigabytes/second. Zow.

That's more than enough bandwidth to run even the highest of high end video cards, but it is not without overhead. There's a mild performance hit for running the card externally, on the order of 15%. There's also a further performance hit of 10% if you are in "loopback" mode on a laptop where you don't have an external display, so the video frames have to be shuttled back from the GPU to the internal laptop display.

This may look like a gamer-only thing, but surprisingly, it isn't. What you get is the general purpose ability to attach any PCI express card to any computer with a Thunderbolt 3 port and, for the most part, it just works!

 Keep up with Thunderbolt 3 at Intel’s Thunderbolt site.