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One of the hats I wear as a technologist is that of adviser to a small independent Television production company. A discussion we had last week centred around the viability of equipping a video editing suite against the expense of hiring it. The economics of that discussion are not the subject of this article, but the conversation did touch upon the different technologies available and the possible futures.
Photographers and Filmmakers have similar challenges around workflow and since these two industries are increasingly overlapping with the video capabilities available in modern DSLR’s it makes sense to discuss this storage question here. I wrote about the RAID storage solution I use for my photography last week, but that was obtained several years ago and although ethernet is fast, moving video data off a RAID and into an editing tool such as Final Cut Pro is demanding in ways that still photography just isn’t. What is required is super fast connectivity between storage and workstation. Fibre fits the bill, but for the photographer it is unnecessary. (It is appropriate for a professional video editing house using racked storage arrayed across multiple hard drives). For Photographers and Video makers, eSATA and Thunderbolt both offer very fast connectivity between storage and workstation. The problem here is that various vendors have adopted different technologies. G-Technology, the makers of the G Drive I raved about in my previous post use eSATA, and Promise, the makers of the Promise Pegasus solution have adopted Apple’s Thunderbolt technology.
eSATA boasts data transfer speeds of up to 200MB/second which is plenty fast enough to edit video. Compare with Ethernet at 125MB/second, Firewire 800 at 98MB/second, Thunderbolt weighs in with a staggering 1.25GB/second. Now be aware that data will only move at the speed the slowest component dictates, so if you are using a 7200 rpm disk drive it will deliver approximately 50-60MB/second. SSD drives on the other hand offer 100-500 MB/second depending on type. These figures are approximate and in the case of the traditional spinning disk drives, factor in the delay in locating the data on the disk.
At one level the debate boils down to identifying the slowest component on the network. If you’re going to invest in high speed data transfer and then use wireless to connect your laptop, you’ll see a data transfer of only 75 MB/second, making your investment in fast storage completely redundant!
So which one is king? Thunderbolt is clearly the fastest by a long way. It is also the newest which means it has the least support in the market at the moment. It does offer one very interesting capability though, which Apple have been quick to exploit. You can daisy chain Thunderbolt devices together in a way which has been commonplace in storage for years, but Apple have extended the principle to include other hardware components, notably monitors and desktop computers. This means that you can plug a Thunderbolt enabled storage component into your Apple Thunderbolt enabled monitor into your AppleMac Mini Server. Hmmm…. attach that server to your Ethernet LAN and you have a solution only limited by the speed of Ethernet. Install FinalCut Pro on the AppleMac Mini and you have all the speed that Thunderbolt allows.
On the other hand, eSATA boasts wider support, is plenty fast enough for local editing and substantially cheaper. You’ll need to buy an eSATA card or adapter to realise the full speed, but the drives all support Firewire 800 as a matter of course. As a photographer, I’d go with eSATA as the data speed is sufficient to make photo editing seamless. As a videomaker I would seriously consider whether my requirements justify the additional expense of Thunderbolt. Having said that, I wouldn’t underestimate Apple’s ability to push Thunderbolt to the forefront. They succeeded with Firewire, but at the moment, and this is to my mind a big disadvantage, the Mac Pro cannot support Thunderbolt. That support will be forthcoming when the next overhaul of the Mac Pro architecture is completed.
In conclusion, Thunderbolt is exciting, no question, but for my purposes, unless I win a lottery sometime soon I’ll be sticking with my ReadyNAS Ethernet based RAID and my eSATA back ups.