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Summary:

Pocketable drives that carry not just your data, but your entire computer for use with any Mac you encounter are that much closer to a reality today, thanks to the discovery that Thunderbolt on new Macs supports booting from external storage.

thunderbolt-macbookpro

Pocketable drives that carry not just your data, but your entire computer for use with any Mac you encounter that much closer to a reality today, thanks to the discovery that Thunderbolt on new Macs supports booting from external storage.

Until today, it wasn’t clear whether users could boot from an OS X install on an external drive attached via the new high-speed Thunderbolt data transfer specification, as is possible using FireWire. AnandTech (via MacRumors) has already got a new Promise Pegasus 12 TB RAID system with Thunderbolt, however, and they’ve found that booting over Thunderbolt is indeed supported.

That means that you could run an entire OS X install, complete with your apps, files and preferences, on an external Thunderbolt drive, and then unplug said drive and take it with you wherever you can find another Thunderbolt-equipped Mac. In theory, working with an SSD drive attached via Thunderbolt should feel much faster than working with even a 7200 RPM HDD installed inside your MacBook, for example. Depending on how pricing of third-party external Thunderbolt drives goes, you might even see users buying the minimum onboard storage for Macs and just booting every time from a much speedier or more capacious desktop drive.

This will probably have the biggest impact for mobile workers and Macs in the enterprise. Employers could use Thunderbolt storage to make workstations hot-swappable, allowing them to shift around staff to different machines in different offices or departments as needed. Mobile workers might be enticed to use coworking temporary office facilities that rent Thunderbolt-equipped Macs by the hour, day or month instead of buying high-end gear that they only use sporadically.

Consider also that adding a RAID card and 8 TB of storage to a Mac Pro costs $1750 before tax using Apple’s customization options at the time of purchase. An external Promise Pegasus Thunderbolt RAID system boasting the same storage costs only $1500, and that price will likely drop as Thunderbolt costs drop and more competitors enter the market. Thunderbolt could help make professional-caliber rigs more affordable for prosumers and consumers.

If you thought $50 was expensive for a single cable, this feature alone makes it worthwhile in my opinion. What do you think?

  1. I don’t think is huge as much as a new niche that apple can carve out.

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  2. Any word on BootCamp boots from Thunderbolt drives?

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  3. This is a helpful analysis. The rental prices for most macs are too high to be worth it for most companies, so I doubt that will happen. However I do see the benefit of using things like iMacs and Thunderbolt setups, instead of the traditional Mac Pro’s and built in storage for certain users.

    I think the key in this is how reliable those External HD are. If they are more reliable than past RAID’s and external storage, I can see this happening.

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  4. A $50 cable is classic Apple deafness, as is the high price it costs peripheral makers to add a Thunderbolt port. Apple appears to have learned nothing from the FireWire embarrassment nor care about the “price gouging” rep they encourage when they offer $50 cables. Now we’ll have to buy both a Thunderbolt cable as well as a USB3 adapter to have access to cost-effective consumer storage solutions. As a 100% Mac user and someone who very much wants Thunderbolt to succeed, I’m deeply disappointed this keeps happening.

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    1. USB3 is going to be a given, no matter what ‘alternative’ anyone comes up with, including Firewire, Thunderbolt, and eSATA. Really Thunderbolt is more a competitor to eSATA, with the perks of Firewire (adequate power over data cable which can also boot, can daisy chain). The cables will become common and cheap enough to where their price doesn’t matter, and certainly won’t be a factor in its adoption.

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  5. “In theory, working with an SSD drive attached via Thunderbolt should feel much faster than working with even a 7200 RPM HDD installed inside your MacBook”

    An external SSD connected to your Mac via FW800 will “feel” much faster than an internal 2.5″ 7200RPM HDD as well.

    There are two main factors to disk performance: the maximum transfer speed and seek time (ie, latency). The FW800 bus will restrict your real-world transfer speed 75MB/sec or so, about the same as an internal 2.5″ HDD. However, for small file I/O operations, the FW800 SSD will still outperform the internal drive by a large margin.

    The bandwidth of FW800 will only limit the drive’s performance when reading or writing fairly large (hundreds of megabytes or more) files. Boot and app launch times on external FW800s will be nearly identical to those of an internal SSD.

    “Employers could use Thunderbolt storage to make workstations hot-swappable, allowing them to shift around staff to different machines in different offices or departments as needed”

    I’m not sure that it’s quite possible to carry around a portable OSX and boot from whichever Mac suits your fancy.

    Last time I tried this, it was with 10.5 and I got a bunch of logged errors about missing temperature sensors and things like that. Seemed as though the OSX installation was looking for hardware aspects of the machine it was initially installed on.

    Not sure if that would be the case with Snow Leopard/Lion. Maybe it would be flawless now. Also it’s possible something else was screwed up during my attempt; I had booted the “transplanted” OSX install for purposes of some quick data recovery and didn’t do a lot of investigation/experimentation/troubleshooting.

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  6. i love the ability to boot off ext hard drives – at the mo i set up an old mac mini to boot off a usb 2 ext device and it’s pretty usable – thunderbolt will make such things even better. Though i don’t understand why steve jobs does realise that tower macs with multiple hard drive compartments are neater than an imac with 4 ext drives dangling from it…

    re the price of the cable yeah it’s expensive but i thought that part of the thunderbolt tech lay in components in the wire itself.. making them more exp than normal wires.

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  7. Whats the big deal here. I use Carbon Copy Cloner or Super Duper to make bootable clones of my install and I can take them with me and boot from any other Mac. I can use a Firewire or USB drive for this.

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  8. Excellent, at the moment you can’t boot of USB on the new macbook pro, which makes it a pain for those of us who have replaced the DVD drive with an SSD.

    Hopefully this will allow me to install windows easier in future.

    The main problem I have with Thunderbolt is the fact that it shares the port with the mini display port. On my macbook pro, there is a useless (to me) firewire port sitting dormant next to it, and yet if I want to use an external monitor (I actually want to use 3, so I’ve got USB video cards for the other 2) I have to give up the thunderbolt port.

    Therefor it’s useless to me.

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    1. Thunderbolt daisy chains, like Firewire does. You can connect several devices to the Thunderbolt port, all at the same time, including the external monitor and hard drive. And, Thunderbolt carries enough current to run some hard drives without external power, no power cord needed.

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  9. Aside from the speed, this is not new. You can do the same thing with a USB or firewire drive. And it doesn’t cast $1500 to set up.

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  10. This article reads like it is your dreamy imagination. That or someone has a crush. I don’t think it is as big of a deal as you make it out to be

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