Thunderbolt Crashes the USB Party

Arthur Cole

To paraphrase the avatar of David Bowman in 2010: "It's all very clear to me now."

The "It" in this case has been Intel's and Apple's less-than-enthusiastic embrace of the USB 3.0 protocol despite its nearly 10-fold performance increase over USB 2.0. The clarity was restored this week with the commercial introduction of Thunderbolt, the renamed Light Peak data transfer technology that puts even USB 3.0 to shame.

To be fair, the technology was not exactly a secret over the past year or so, but now that it is available in an actual product, namely Apple's latest MacBook Pro, we can see first-hand what a significant development it is.

In the first place, it provides a whopping 10 Gbps bi-directional throughput, easily doubling USB 3.0 and outclassing FireWire 800 by an even greater margin. For users dealing with heavy data loads and increasingly popular rich media files, Thunderbolt offers the kind of throughput that finally takes advantage of the tremendous gains in processor power we've seen over the past few years. And this is only based on narrow copper wiring. A planned fiber-optic version could push the data rate past 100 Gbps.

But there's an even greater benefit on the table than just raw throughput. Like FireWire, Thunderbolt offers the ability to daisy chain numerous peripherals, which means you can say goodbye to the rat's nest of wires and cables behind the typical enterprise workstation. And because it is based on the PCI Express and DisplayPort standards, it can easily connect to a wide range of devices, including monitors, external drives, cell phones and tablets.

The big unknown, however, is cost. As of yet, there are no Thunderbolt-compatible peripherals on the market, although Intel has dropped a few names said to be in development. Among them are Aja, Apogee, Avid, Blackmagic, LaCie, Promise and Western Digital. More than likely, the hottest interconnect on the market will cost a premium at first and then drop steadily as economies of scale kick in.

It's tempting to think that a PC interface is not that big of a deal for the enterprise considering all the major changes taking place elsewhere in the infrastructure. But at the end of the day, data is only useful if it can be effectively delivered to the end point. A game-changing high-speed interface may just be the crowning touch that makes all those other developments worthwhile.

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