Tech Report: Thunderbolt, SSDs, and Storage Trends for 2012

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Tech Report: Thunderbolt, SSDs, and Storage Trends for 2012

With last year’s introduction of the Thunderbolt interface, the mobile editing workstation really came into its own. Some observers speculated that the super-high-speed jack, which makes incredibly powerful peripherals truly portable, was a signal of the impending demise of the decidedly non-portable Mac Pro tower.

And when it came to portable power in 2011, more editors and VFX artists than ever started eyeballing solid-state storage as a potential win for their mobile workstations. The drives remain quite expensive compared to spinning disks, but with hard-drive prices sky-high in the aftermath of major floods in Thailand, they didn’t seem quite so extravagant by year’s end.

Curious how the makers of increasingly mobile desktop software packages were seeing their user’s experience changing, we asked reps from the big three makers of nonlinear editing software – Adobe, Apple and Avid – about Thunderbolt, SSDs, and what other storage trends they expect to make the difference for their customers this year. Scroll down to read the responses.

Adobe

Steve Forde, senior product manager, visual effects

Q: How do you see Thunderbolt affecting the working environment for CS users in 2012?

Thunderbolt is a dramatic improvement for all creative professionals. Performance in any creative tool usually comes down to the trinity of performance criteria – CPU, RAM and disk. The GPU adds another whole dimension when applications are tuned for it (Mercury Playback in Premiere, etc). That said, if the trinity aren’t working in harmony, you aren’t leveraging the hardware you’ve bought. There have also been huge advances in RAM performance and capacity, and Moore’s Law has held steady in processor performance. Disk, however, is usually overlooked as just capacity and not speed. Mix all this with the general shift in the market to more mobile computing vs. workstation class, and you have a recipe for innovation that brings along something like Thunderbolt. Overall, as more CS users move to mobile computing, Thunderbolt provides the bandwidth to connect fast and large storage devices which can give them better than workstation class performance. With the ability to connect not just fast SSDs in small form factors, but also make mobile computing a first-class citizen on things like fiber SANs, etc, this will be a huge boost to editors as well as motion graphics and VFX artists.

Q: What about SSDs? Are they a cost-effective performance enhancement for CS users?

Yes. I can’t emphasize this enough, especially since I am responsible for After Effects at Adobe. Again referencing the trinity of performance, at this moment disk speed is the biggest barrier. You can have amazingly fast CPUs with many cores and a huge amount of fast RAM. Yet you have this connected to a drive that can provide at most 80 MB per second of read and write. The CPUs and RAM are starved because they can’t get the data fast enough. Many people complain their workstation is not providing the performance they are looking for, when they have perhaps eight cores. I first say, “Make sure you have 4 GB per core.” Then I say, “Make sure you have the fastest disk possible.” SSDs are currently the fastest disk.

Q: Do you have any configuration suggestions for SSD adoption? Should the CS programs themselves go on the SSD or a hard disk? What about the Adobe scratch disk?

I personally use a laptop with 2 SSD’s inside (I swapped out the optical bay on my MacBook Pro). Start-up times of the OS become amazingly fast on an SSD, irrespective of OS X or Windows 7. Also, having the OS on an SSD helps because every OS needs to swap (meaning it uses the disk in conjunction with your RAM). The faster the swap, the higher performance your RAM will be, making the whole system faster. The CS applications should be on the same drive as the OS. It’s just easier to manage. As for scratch and source media, I would recommend separate SSDs if possible (and affordable) from the OS and CS applications. This creates the optimum situation of leveraging all storage devices. Also, make sure any SSDs you purchase support TRIM. This is simply a mechanism the OS uses to make sure that your SSD is working at its peak performance will not degrade that performance over time. Both Windows 7 and OS X Lion support TRIM.

Q: Any other trends you see in the way CS users are adopting storage technology?

I think this is just the beginning. I am very excited to see if some of the innovation that is currently used on the cloud side – such as big storage at companies like Facebook and Google – makes its way into the mainstream. This could be as big a revolution in storage as SSDs were a year ago. It’s a very exciting time.

Apple

Richard Townhill, senior director of applications product marketing

Q: So what’s new with Thunderbolt?

RT: Blackmagic, AJA, and Matrox are all working on Thunderbolt devices – I think AJA started shipping the Io XT on Friday. That plus the drivers they have made available plus Final Cut Pro 10.0.3 will allow you to do broadcast monitoring, not just with your existing PCIe cards but also via Thunderbolt on an iMac or a MacBook Pro. I’ve been in this industry for a long time, and the mobile workflow that this enables amazes me. Now I can legitimately be on location, on set, or out in the field somewhere and I can do broadcast video monitoring in full quality from a laptop. Sometimes that really freaks me out – when I first started in this industry, doing that seemed like a dream.

Q: What about SSDs?

RT: We have SSD drives in our Macs right now, and some of the external peripheral manufacturers allow you to put SSDs in devices that are Thunderbolt connected. They’re complementary technologies.

Q: What other storage trends do you see affecting Final Cut Pro workflows in 2012?

RT: I don’t want to sound like a broken record about Thunderbolt, but I’ve got a Promise RAID sitting on the desk here connected via Thunderbolt to my Mac. We were prepping these systems before we came out [to demo the new version of Final Cut Pro X] and so we were cloning the RAIDs and copying the data from RAID to RAID via Thunderbolt. We actually ended up doing it several times because we couldn’t believe it had finished so quickly. You know, we thought, “That obviously failed, so let’s try it again.” It’s jaw-droppingly quick. We were copying such large quantities of media that we were all running around with grins on our faces like schoolboys. Copying over FireWire 800 is like carving into stone tablets compared to what Thunderbolt is offering. Thunderbolt also enables a connection between your laptops and your SAN. I would encourage you to take a look at Thunderbolt-to-fibre adapters, such as the Promise SANLink. That was also a revelation. We had MacBook Pros that normally would never have access to that type of storage, and we were able to tap into the SAN and deal with it at full frame rates. It was pretty incredible.

Avid

Adam Green, senior director, post and pro segment, strategy and planning
Jim Frantzreb, senior market segment manager, media enterprise

Q: How do you see Thunderbolt affecting the working environment for your users? Are you expecting significant adoption of Thunderbolt in 2012?

AG: Thunderbolt is a very compelling technology and we’re looking at it very closely. We know the market loves mobile, and with Media Composer and Symphony being uncoupled in some respects from hardware, the opening up of Media Composer and Symphony to Open IO partners has really taken off, and our users are loving it. As you’re probably aware, the Open IO partners have jumped on board with Thunderbolt – AJA, Matrox, UltraStudio 3D, and MOTU. You look at all these products and hook them up to a MacBook Air or MacBook Pro and you’ve got dual-link 4:4:4 RGB capture directly to Symphony or Media Composer on some of these boxes. That’s huge.

Q: What about SSDs? Are they a cost-effective performance enhancement? And do you have any configuration suggestions?

AG: Uncompressed 4:4:4 RGB capture is an amazing feat on a laptop. Now what are you going to capture it to? If you capture it internally to SSD drives, for 10 times the price of a 7200-RPM drive, you’ll get some amazing performance. G-Tech and La Cie and Promise offer great Thunderbolt storage products. Some users have SSDs in a RAID 0 configuration, which is really fast but not the smartest thing in respect to redundancy. But it’s amazing what you can do with such a small package.

JF: SSD is something we’ve been following for a long time [from an R&D perspective]. I think it’s fair to say that at this point we do see some potential applications [in Avid products]. We see an opportunity or two there, but I don’t know if we will see anything this year. The difficulty is media file size. If you’re using it as a cache type of system, or for small blocks, it might make more sense now. But that’s not the world we typically live in.

Q: Can you point to some trends in storage that will affect the way your users work in 2012?

JF: We deal with a lot of different types of customers, so something may resonate for someone and not someone else. We’re tying to present a solution to satisfy the broadest number of applications. Scalability is important. In our ISIS 5000, introduced last year, we preserved linear scalability in bandwidth, which is a signature of the ISIS. What does it mean in the production environment from a business standpoint? It’s very predictable. If I have X number of drives, with a certain number of GB, I will have a certain amount of incremental performance. It means I can predict my business. It’s a certainty, and people like that.

AG: The ISIS is purpose-built for Media Composer, it works with Final Cut, and we’re investigating other NLEs that we might want to put on the compatibility grid. But the biggest differentiator is true collaboration. Some storage vendors that have collaboration end up creating collaboration instead of having it built into the application and the storage – they’re offering centralized storage, not true collaborative storage.

JF: Sometimes people who haven’t worked in an ISIS or Unity environment just don’t know that. You’re either locking at the volume level or the file level. If you’re looking at volume-level locking, there’s a whole collection of media that no one else can access unless you make a copy. With file-level locking, anyone can access the media simultaneously – unless you need the exact same file, in which case you’ll be invited to open a read-only copy, but that rarely happens. The implications of that are you can scale a workgroup and the possibilities of the workgroup. You can imagine a production environment where you’re working on multiple episodes in parallel, maybe leveraging common content across episodes. Someone finishes episode one, you’re in the middle of two, and previs is happening for three, and they all need to access the same content. You’re starting to gain an almost exponential gain in prductivity, not just with editors accessing the media, but when you bring in asset-management tools like Interplay and other tools that assistant producers and loggers can use. Then you get a true collaborative power that comes from the combination of shared storage and production asset management tools.

AG: There are SANs from [Quantum] StorNext, Nexsan, and a couple of others that are file-level locking. Users can have simultaneous access to a file, whether it’s a media file or a project. The difference is, you’re typically talking about multiple people having access to read media. The true collaboration comes in when multiple editing stations can read the same project. If you do that on a Stornext or Nexsan, which are file-locking SANs that allow you to read the same project on multiple platforms, the last person to save wins, and everyone else’s information gets blown away. You can’t, by design, open the same project on other NLEs and have everyone working collaboratively. On Media Composer and Symphony, when you open the same project, people see all the bins and sequences and when somebody updates a bin, it’s updated across the board. That’s the smart metadata that’s included when ISIS storage products are bundled with Avid NLEs.

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