Five Questions: Small Tree CTO Steve Modica on Thunderbolt
Small Tree Communications is a technology company specializing in Mac networking. That makes them especially qualified as experts on the useful deployment of Thunderbolt products in the field since third-party hardware was first deployed last June. We asked CTO Steve Modica for a status report on the interface that was unilaterally adopted by Apple last year, including a look at how stable the drivers are and how it can (and can't) be used in content-creation workflows.
Q: It's been a little more than a year since Thunderbolt first showed up in products. From Small Tree's point of view, how stable is the technology?
A: Writing device drivers, the consequences of a mistake or problem with the hardware are generally a panic or a hang. There's not a lot of leeway. As an example, if we try to "touch" one of our cards after Thunderbolt has been unplugged, the machine will hang. Full stop. So drivers have to follow the rules carefully. Now that we've implemented hot plug and unplug support on all of our cards, I can say that Thunderbolt is extremely stable. We've gone through hundreds of plug/unplug cycles with traffic flowing and it behaves gracefully every time.
Q: At NAB, you had the new Thunderbolt-enabled PCIe chassis from Magma in your booth. What's your relationship with Magma like?
A: Magma is an engineering company like Small Tree. They pay a lot of attention to detail and make a great enterprise class product as a result. I’d recommend their products to people wanting to install multiple devices on the same system.
Q: What are some common ways Mac users are leveraging Thunderbolt with Small Tree products?
A: The most common use case is to put 10Gb Ethernet onto iMacs or Mac Book Pros. As Thunderbolt chassis become more common, I would expect to see it used in Xsan deployments where people need extra networks for metadata.
Q: To what extent does Thunderbolt allow notebook computers to compete with workstations in terms of functionality?
A: I don't think Thunderbolt on laptops is a replacement for larger, enterprise workstations. It certainly could morph into that over time, but for the present, Thunderbolt only offers a 4x PCIE connection. Even if you have two Thunderbolt connections (like on the newest Mac Book Pros), you still can't equal the expansion capability you have in a Mac Pro or larger generic Intel system. Our Titanium system has seven 8x PCIE slots.
Q: What's a common misconception about Thunderbolt and networking on the Mac?
A: People think that Thunderbolt might be a replacement for Ethernet. That's not really true. There are no Thunderbolt switches and the technology is not intended to be a switched network. I think we'll see the technology evolve over time and it's possible we'll see "shared" PCIE resources one day.