OWC ThunderBlade: Data Backup Dream Machine

Of the many joys a DIT has on-set, waiting for a file transfer is not one of them. After a long day of shooting when the crew starts wrapping, inevitably the DIT will be handed the final mag with 500GB to 1TB of footage to backup. More often than not he will still be there staring at the progress bar long after the rest of the crew has packed up and left. On a more run-and-gun day without a dedicated DIT, like our stock video shoots, there may be 3-4 of these mags to backup once we make it back to the hotel. Nothing is worse than having to stay up all night, waiting for one card to finish so you can start the next one. Enter OWC’s ThunderBlade. It’s a compact NVMe SSD RAID enclosure with enough bandwidth to handle multiple large file transfers simultaneously.

THUNDERBLADE OVERVIEW

The thin, passively cooled enclosure is well-designed. An all-aluminum chassis covers the x4 internal NVMe SSDs. Each is connected (both top and bottom) to the chassis via thermal pads, making the entire case an excellent heat sink. These SSDs get hot, but the passive cooling performed perfectly, never reaching more than warm to the touch throughout our testing.

*Note: our tests were done in a temperature controlled studio. Since the heat sink chassis is the only method of cooling, using this device in a hot environment could produce different results. Having a separate power brick helps keep that heat down, but also adds to the bulkiness of the setup. The somewhat large power supply is not a deal breaker, but definitely worth mentioning.

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THE TECHNOLOGY

The Thunderbolt 3 connection provides plenty of bandwidth for those SSDs. While eGPU and other graphic oriented Thunderbolt devices can utilize the full 40Gbps, this is the first storage device we’ve tested that comes close to actually using all of that glorious bandwidth. If your data backup workflow does not often require much bandwidth, the second port can be used to daisy chain to other devices (Including another ThunderBlade, which can be combined into a single RAID volume) 

NVMe Benefits

NVMe SSD’s have made huge improvements in transfer speeds over existing flash memory protocols. A simple Google search will reveal thousands of people showing off insane benchmark speeds with popular external NVMe SSD’s. When SSD’s originally hit the market they were still operating through existing SATA protocols used by standard disk drives. Despite having considerably faster hardware specs than spinning disk drives, the SSD’s still had to run through a SATA controller on the way to the CPU. All connections running through a SATA controller share a single PCIe lane, whereas NVMe drives can (depending on motherboard specs) completely bypass the SATA controller and run straight to the CPU over x4 PCIe lanes. In our particular case the SSD’s are connected via a Thunderbolt 3 connections, meaning the data will run though the TB3 controller with negligible latency before hitting the PCIe lanes directly to the CPU. Another benefit of NVMe over previous protocols like SATA (still held back by AHCI) is the command queueing. AHCI was not designed for the bandwidth of flash-based storage, it can only handle a single command at a time with 32 pending commands. No matter how “fast” the SSD hardware was, SATA controllers could never process more than 1 command at a time, creating a serious bottleneck. NVMe was purpose-built for flash storage and can theoretically handle 64,000 queues simultaneously, each with its own 64,000 commands… That’s a serious upgrade.

*You can read up on NVMe I/O commands and queues from the official spec sheet (page 7): Non-Volatile Memory Express White Sheet


DO I NEED A RAID ENCLOSURE?

A common reaction to this product is concern that it offers little improvement over a single NVMe SDD. In a way, they are right to feel so. If your workflow is only transferring a single memory card to the ThunderBlade, treating it as a normal external hard drive, you will never come close to utilizing its potential. In truth, if all you want is a fast and portable drive for single card dumps you should just stick with one of the popular NVMe drives from companies like SanDisk, G-Tech, Angelbird, or Glyph. In our testing, transferring a single 512GB RED Mag with 450GB of RAW footage on it to the ThunderBlade in RAID 0 took 15min with the USB 3.1 Gen 2 RED Mag Reader. Transferring the same card to a single SanDisk NVMe SSD took the same amount of time, the obvious bottleneck being the card reader. So why bother with such an expensive device if nothing will ever make use of its potential? If nothing else, having 4 drives in a single RAID enclosure offers 2 large benefits:

  1. Security- The ThunderBlade comes with a free license of SoftRAID XT. This powerful software allows the user to configure the 4 drives into RAID 0, 1, 1+0, 5, and 10. We prefer RAID 5 as it provides the best of both worlds; 6TB of usable space, super fast write speeds, and room for 1 of those SSD’s to have a catastrophic failure without loosing our data. It is also important to note SSD’s provide outstanding durability and show a substantially lower failure rate than HDD’s. You are more likely to have data loss due to human error than you are to loose an SSD in the array. Thus we usually opt for speed, and quickly transfer to a second (and physically separate) storage device overnight. We detailed backing up media in a 3-part series called Protecting Your Digital Ass(ests). Be sure to check those posts for more info on RAID choice, checksums, and general practices.

  2. Volume Size- Where else can you find an 8TB NVMe SSD? There are several other companies making portable RAID solutions with 2 SSDs for a total of 4TB, but 4 NVMe drive RAID enclosures are very rare and are much more bulky with active cooling. If we are going to use this as a backup device, we want a bigger volume size in a travel-friendly package. So in times when you need the volume size, create a ridiculously fast 8TB RAID 0 array. Want more peace of mind? RAID 5 keep the speed high, and allow 1 SSD to fail.

These are great reasons to RAID your NVMe array, but the real reason we bought the ThunderBlade can be seen in our tests.

Your portable NVMe SSD is cool… but can it handle all this?

Your portable NVMe SSD is cool… but can it handle all this?

THE TEST - USE THAT BANDWIDTH!

SIMULTANEOUS FILE TRANSFERS

The obvious plus for a RAID solution is the speed, but if RAID 0 offered nothing over a single NVMe drive, what’s the point? Remember those late nights in the hotel waiting for data transfers we talked about about? While a single NVMe SSD can handle one file transfer like a champ, simultaneous transfers of multiple files will quickly bog down performance. Depending on the transfer software, multiple transfers will either be taken one at a time, or all at once with a serious dip in speed. With the overhead provided by the ThunderBlade, you can transfer all those cards simultaneously with very little speed loss.

MEDIA READERS

The ThunderBlade used one TB3 bus our full-spec Mac Mini 2018, while the Mag Mini Readers used the other bus. Currently we only have a single USB 3.1 Gen2 reader. The other 3 readers are either SATA when plugged into the G-Tech Shuttle XL (which connects to the computer via TB3) or USB 3.0 when plugged in directly. Hoping to see better performance out of the SATA, we opted to load 2 Mag Readers into the Shuttle XL and the last one into the Mac Mini’s USB 3 Type-A port. In the near future we hope to purchase two more USB 3.1 Gen2 readers for optimal results.

*Not to mention we don’t want to lug around the Shuttle XL on run-and-gun trips. Kind of defeats the purpose of the ThunderBlade’s small form factor.

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SOFTWARE

When it comes to secure data backup software, our current weapon of choice is Hedge. Not only does Hedge do a terrific job at simultaneous transfers, it also provides important checksum analysis/logs. For anyone seeking production insurance, this is a must. Even while generating checksums, Hedge is able to keep up with MacOS’s native “drag and drop” transfer rates. And when simultaneously transferring multiple Mags, it is considerably faster than native transfers. It is a very efficient software, perfect for this workflow.

This 458.9GB transfer from the Mag Reader to the ThunderBlade took 15min with the “drag and drop” system. Through the Hedge software, the same transfer also took 15min, but competed an XXH64 Hash with a log report at the same time. Security and speed… Boom baby!

This 458.9GB transfer from the Mag Reader to the ThunderBlade took 15min with the “drag and drop” system. Through the Hedge software, the same transfer also took 15min, but competed an XXH64 Hash with a log report at the same time. Security and speed… Boom baby!

This is the Hedge interface. Sources are on the left and destinations on the right. Here we are attempting to transfer 4 RED Mags to a single 2TB SanDisk Extreme Portable SSD. Transferring a single RED Mag of this size usually takes around 15min for the SanDisk, but notice the considerable drop in performance when tasked with multiple transfers at the same time. 15min suddenly becomes an hour. We had to abort this transfer as the drive became dangerously hot and the estimated transfer time continued to climb. The recommended use for a single NVMe drive like this is to transfer one Mag at a time.

This is the Hedge interface. Sources are on the left and destinations on the right. Here we are attempting to transfer 4 RED Mags to a single 2TB SanDisk Extreme Portable SSD. Transferring a single RED Mag of this size usually takes around 15min for the SanDisk, but notice the considerable drop in performance when tasked with multiple transfers at the same time. 15min suddenly becomes an hour. We had to abort this transfer as the drive became dangerously hot and the estimated transfer time continued to climb. The recommended use for a single NVMe drive like this is to transfer one Mag at a time.

THE RESULTS

Transferring a single RED Mag with 450GB of data to the ThunderBlade takes 15min. So how long did it take to transfer 3 of those Mags simultaneously…? 17 minutes.

With only a slight hit in speed, the ThunderBlade managed to write insane amounts of data even with 2 readers running on SATA 6/Gbps connections. That’s a combined 1.35TB of data securely transferred and checksums generated… in 17min!!!

*By the way, this test was performed with the SSD’s in a RAID 1+0 array (which means there is potential for a speed increase if we moved to RAID 0)

Note the estimated times on this bad boy. The largest drive obviously taking the longest at 17min. Also interesting to notes is the data rate. Mag 02 and Mag 03 were using the SATA III via the Shuttle XL and were hitting around 450MB/s while MAG 01 used the USB 3.1 Gen 2 reader at a rate of 520MB/s. We would like to revisit this test when we have two more USB 3.1 Gen 2 readers. I’m sure we can shave off another minute or two getting it down to the same 15min a single Mag takes.

Each Hedge transfer will automatically generate a log showing the details of the transfer. Here’s what it looks like:

Duration: 1026.7 seconds, or about 17 minutes

Conclusion

The ThunderBlade wasn’t designed for the consumer. The price tag makes that painfully obvious, but for the professional to whom time = money, this device is an excellent investment. Instead of spending an hour or two at night in the hotel staying up to swap Mags, we can now drop several Mags simultaneously in the same time a single Mag would take. If you are looking for a blazing fast NVMe RAID enclosure in this small a package, with a max of 8TB of usable data… there is nothing else on the market. It is a dream to work with.

Written by Chris Workman, Editor