There's text book life, and then there's the real world. You know the difference? In text book life, things work according to instructions, training, and expectations within a controlled environment. But the real world is a messy place where manufacturers' products fail, repair instructions don't work, and advertised performance doesn't measure up.
As a group, IT professionals are largely pessimistic, and rightfully so. Software products rarely work as well as advertised. Hardware devices frequently disappoint. Occasionally, however, a product works as promised.
Thunderbolt is different
The Thunderbolt hardware specification, developed by Intel and popularized by Apple in 2011 (Thunderbolt ports are now included on every new Mac), marries PCIe and DisplayPort technologies, combines DC power and data transmission within a single cable, and connects up to six interconnected devices. What's really important, though, is that Thunderbolt is really, really fast.
Here's how Apple describes it. "Thunderbolt gives you two channels on the same connector with 10Gb/s of throughput in both directions. Ultrafast, ultraflexible Thunderbolt 2 pushes that to 20Gb/s. You can move data to and from peripherals up to 20 times faster than with USB 2."
It really works
Like many IT pros, I'm subjected to a ceaseless stream of new product innovations, vendor assurances, and supposed technology breakthroughs. The frequency has become tiresome: almost every day. Messages bearing such promises arrive in my inbox, via telephone, and even unsolicited in-person visits at my office. Over time, just as has occurred with so many technology professionals, I've learned to become wary and guarded.
Then I was stuck with the need to move large amounts of data repeatedly between several computers. Normally I transfer photos, video, documents, spreadsheets, PDFs, and application installation files using a USB-powered external hard disk, in part because the method is typically faster than completing the same task leveraging a gigabit network. Even though I was using new hardware, transfer times reported they would require more than eight hours to complete. Keep in mind the transfer process I was attempting was one way. I needed to transfer files from one computer to the external disk and then again from the external disk to another computer, then repeat the action.
I broke down and decided to purchase a Thunderbolt drive. Keep in mind the cost for a single Thunderbolt drive, at least in my mind, wasn't insignificant. The last USB 3.0 external hard disk I purchased stored multiple terabytes and cost approximately $79.00 (USD). The Thunderbolt disk I purchased from Apple stored only a single terabyte and cost $199.00 (USD).
But boy is it fast. Whereas the original USB-based file transfers I attempted required more than eight hours to complete, the Thunderbolt drive completed the task in 18 minutes.
I'll let that fact sink in.
As a result, in real life, I was able to perform tasks using Thunderbolt technology that completed some 20 times faster than when using USB. I'll let readers fight it out in the comments as to why the USB 3.0 drives I tried all reported requiring more than eight hours to complete the task, and after several hours were still busy chunking data — whereas, in my real-world experience (and ultimately, the only one that really counts), Thunderbolt completed the same task exponentially more quickly. I'm not interested in the seemingly Ford vs. Chevy minutiae of the USB 3.0 vs. Thunderbolt argument. I have a real business to operate and manage in the real world, and we don't operate within the controlled confines of a text book environment.
Clearly, Thunderbolt is faster. Way faster. As Mac offices, users, and administrators continue managing ever-increasing amounts of data, the adoption of a new input/output technology that actually works as advertised is a pleasant and welcome surprise. Whether challenged to transfer large video files, photo archives, art images, backup operations, or other large sets of data, Apple organizations will find Thunderbolt worth the investment.
Erik Eckel owns and operates two technology companies. As a managing partner with Louisville Geek, he works daily as an IT consultant to assist small businesses in overcoming technology challenges and maximizing IT investments. He is also president of Eckel Media Corp., a communications company specializing in public relations and technical authoring projects.