Intel Thunderbolt: Why Not In The Data Center?
On 24 February Intel formally released Thunderbolt, previously codenamed LightPeak, a new data transfer interface that uses the mini DisplayPort connector and touted as “the fastest way to get data in and out of your PC and peripheral devices.” The new interface makes its debut in Apple’s new MacBook Pro, which Intel says will be the first among many major consumer brands rolling out support in the coming months. Notably absent from the press release was any mention of how Thunderbolt could be applied to servers and data intensive workloads in corporate datacenters. Saugatuck sees Thunderbolt technology as possibly, if not likely, useful and adaptable to data centers, with some caveats.
In current data centers Fiber and 10Gb Ethernet offer nearly competitive transfer rates to Thunderbolt, but with more serious limitations, such as fragile cabling and expensive additional hardware needed to interface fiber with existing servers. But because Thunderbolt is essentially a PCI Express layer cable, which provides benefits for adding peripherals directly onto motherboards it could provide a more cost effective connection to existing SANs. It could reduce future expenditure by allowing servers to bypass other layers of hardware while maintaining performance for large data transfers.
At 10gbps Thunderbolt is faster than the theoretical maximum sustained data rate of standard desktop hard drives. The average laptop user may not yet need the capabilities that Thunderbolt offers, but the data center could likely benefit in data transfer intensive areas such as file backup and video serving. We wonder whether any server and peripheral device manufacturers will start to incorporate the technology into their lineup. Historically, customer adoption of new server-device interfaces has been impeded by factors such as timing of existing equipment leases. Thus, even if Thunderbolt delivers substantial improvements in performance and/or substantial cost reductions in data center configurations, it will not be a dominant data center server-device interface before YE2013.