Thunderbolt and USB 3.0 Storage

by Rick Stephens


Attaching storage to today's Macs

  Apple 'simplified' our lives and switched to Thunderbolt and USB 3 ports on all our computers. Now what?

  I have conversations with photographers and videographers every day, and the common topic always comes down to the same 2 questions: "How do I hook up the storage I already have and how should I hook up new storage moving forward?" And in each case there are some great solutions available, but those answers need to be tailored to that users current equipment and future equipment needs. The short of this is, there is no single solution that solves everyone's needs. However, there are loads of quality solutions, so bear with me a bit and we'll try to get the lay of the land.

  To start with, let's talk about the two buses Apple chose for the entire line up of Mac computers: USB 3 and Thunderbolt.

First up, USB 3.0

  Not to beat a dead horse, but Apple did a poor job either by the implementation of USB 3, or just by choosing to go with USB 3 in the first place. Most multi-drive USB 3 storage is flaky when run on a Mac. Spontaneous dismounts, spontaneous data corruption and spontaneous combustion of the user's temper all go with trying to hook up multiple drive devices on USB 3. While there are workarounds and methods to make it marginally useable, that really isn't as satisfying as something that just works like it's supposed to. Even with all those negatives, many single drive enclosures and chipsets work really well on USB 3. If I have advice here it would be to limit what you attach via USB 3, a couple single drive units is great. A few of the high end RAIDs that have USB 3 connection seem to work well. But make sure whatever you get has gotten passing grades on the 'works with Mac USB 3' tests before trusting your data to it. And make certain you know the rules to operate it as USB 3 buses behave differently than you might be used to with other buses like Firewire or eSATA.


  There's lots of options here, and more coming out every day even with the stranglehold Intel has placed on development. But we need to carefully fit these solutions to your particular needs. The following covers how to connect existing storage and how to get the best bang for the buck with the new native Thunderbolt stuff. This is a wide enough field with enough variables that anytime you feel the need to search out answers that fit your particular needs, just give us call. We'll gladly spend the time fitting a solution to your setup.

Hooking up existing storage


  Still one of the best external storage buses is eSATA. It is speedy, simple and most predictable. The only issue here is that Thunderbolt moves our PCIe slots outside the computer, so we have to use a Thunderbolt to PCIe adapter to plug in an eSATA card. Works like it is supposed to though, which means a lot.

  Using a PCIe card in a Thunderbolt expansion chassis may appear to be more complex, but know that the PCIe expansion adapter and eSATA card operates identically to a native Thunderbolt enclosure where all the connections are inside. Thunderbolt is just PCIe over a wire. And whether the Thunderbolt chip and the SATA chipset are inside the enclosure as in native Thunderbolt enclosures, or outside the enclosure in an expansion box, the chain of the connection is still the same. To the computer they are identical.

  Choosing the right Thunderbolt to PCI adapter is key - there are a number of options from the little SATA GO adapter on up to single and multi slot full size PCIe card models like the Akitio Thunder2 and Sonnet SEII. The choice needs to be based on what else you are attaching. The Echo PCIExpress34 model only has a single Thunderbolt port, we call single port Thunderbolt devices 'dead enders' since they terminate a Thunderbolt port and you can only have one dead ender per Thunderbolt port. Keep that in mind so you don't run out of ports before you run out of needs. Most full size Thunderbolt to PCIe expansion boxes have a pair of chainable Thunderbolt ports. They may be the better solution if your Mac is running out of ports.


  Many SAS Hardware RAID cards and storage enclosures can run exactly the same when the RAID card is placed into a Thunderbolt PCIe Expansion box. This is the killer way to have huge numbers of hard drives attached to Thunderbolt with Enterprise RAID arrays. Even if you don't have the existing storage system, this is the method we would recommend to attach a new server class RAID system to a Thunderbolt Mac.

Single Drive Thunderbolt or USB 3 enclosures

  In my opinion the high cost of Thunderbolt development puts a premium cost on one and two drive Thunderbolt storage. Performance is no better on Thunderbolt than on USB 3 so I tend to stick with the far less expensive USB 3 over Thunderbolt.

  Burly 1 and 2 bay enclosures of any bus type are most easily and cost effectively adapted to USB 3.0 if they are the only externals needing to be brought over to your new Mac. They'll work perfectly. But if you have multiple external eSATA or Firewire enclosures that can be modified then we'll want to make them eSATA and attach through a Thunderbolt PCIe expansion box and an eSATA host card for best cost effectiveness.

New Native Thunderbolt Storage

  There is everything from single drive units up to hundreds of drives in RAIDs. Most 1 drive Thunderbolt storage has minimal cooling and external power supplies limiting them to part time use. I also found the premium costs for development of Thunderbolt products makes the 1 and 2 drive units less cost effective than Thunderbolt enclosures that hold more drives.

  We spend a lot of time testing as many new storage and connection offerings as we can lay our hands on. Looking for the gems and the lemons. We've found some standout products to offer and they all work as they are supposed to. One thing you can say about the stringent approval process that Intel forces developers to go through, most products work like they advertise. The Intel product development process doesn't account for mechanical build quality or device longevity, and especially not repair and support availability. At MacGurus, those are very much near and dear to our hearts. So that is also included in MacGurus testing procedures. We won't carry products that don't work like they're supposed to, aren't mechanically sound enough to last for years, and don't have world class support from the manufacturer/developer.

JBOD Thunderbolt (useful for databases in the 1-8TB range)

  MacGurus carries the excellent 4 drive Akitio Thunder2 Quad enclosure. It is perfect as a native Thunderbolt JBOD storage system. Each drive is independent, the enclosure needs no driver software installed and has a small footprint. Good choice if you are just needing to attach some drives for data or system backups. Comes wit drive trays that can fit speedy SSDs as needed. And is bootable, so you can keep a current backup of your boot drive. And performance capability with its Thunderbolt2 connection is up around 1280 MB/sec - that's FAST.

Thunderbolt RAID Enclosures (perfect for the 4 to 30 TB database)

  The finest built storage I have ever had the pleasure to test and use are the Areca Thunderbolt RAID units - the 8 Drive 8050T2 RAID and the 4 Drive 5026 RAID. Built like a luxury car, everything has a fit and finish that gives me both great satisfaction and an appreciation of the craftsmen at Areca. The RAID controllers are extraordinarily reliable and fast. MacGurus used the Areca controllers in the BurlyRAID for many years, so we have a lot of experience with their people and products. I like these so much that I bought a 4 drive unit for my own 2013 MacPro. It's populated with 3 x 2TB drives giving me a 4TB RAID5 backed up to a single 4TB non-RAID drive in the 4th drive bay. The best of all worlds for a smallish database. Alternative setups in this one 4 drive enclosure can be expanded to 6TB volume using 3 x 3TB drives with a 6TB backup drive. For larger capacities we recommend the 8 drive 8050 in similar configurations based on individual capacity needs. And to go even larger we may recommend a pair of 8 bay units with one a backup of the other.

Large Media Server Class Storage (24 to 500TB and up)

  For Enterprise class media server storage the best solution is the tried and true Areca PCIe Hardware RAID SAS card running iStoragePro expansion enclosures. With these we can build large capacity systems in the 24 TB to multi-hundred TB ranges with great speed and amazing Enterprise class reliability. To attach to Thunderbolt we just place the PCIe RAID cards in a Thunderbolt to PCIe expansion chassis like the excellent 2 slot Sonnet SEII or cost efficient single slot Akitio Thunder2. This works just like it did when directly installed in older MacPro PCIe slots and can attach to any Mac with a Thunderbolt port.

  The iStoragePro SAS expander technology chassis that we offer are state of the art storage for the user needing big fast protected Enterprise class media storage. We can configure either a server system for you or set you up with workstation storage that will carry you into the foreseeable future. These can all be connected through Thunderbolt PCIe Expansion chassis chosen to meet the needs. These start with 8 drive systems expandable progressively up to 256 drive systems, all off one RAID card. This is the way to set up the highest quality storage for one to many workstations.

10 Gigabit Ethernet

  10GE is the real deal! How about 600+ MB/sec actual bandwidth between the computer hosting your media RAID and workstations located off somewhere else in the building? 10GE is awesome fast and we have lots of ways to connect to any of your existing and future computers. Best part is, it's all done over dirt cheap Cat6e cables. Check out some of the coolest products ever on our 10GE page.


  We at MacGurus look forward to assisting you in finding the perfect fit for your needs. Every users tasks are unique to them, so the solutions we offer will be personal. We look forward to providing individual care. You can contact me pretty much any weekday. I'm here to help you figure out what is best for your needs....~Rick

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