OWC ThunderBlade

OWC ThunderBlade
When I edit, speed matters. With resolution, bit depth and bit rate increasing every year (or so it seems), accessing the stored footage requires more and more speed.

The usual solution offered up is to put everything on solid state drives—SSDs. Of course, that solution bumps up the price per terabyte pretty quickly. It’s like telling a DP just to use an 8k camera and monitor for everything. A possibility for sure, but it comes at a price.

Prices are coming down, however, and more and more SSDs are a viable option. But not all solid-state storage is created equal. Just look at read and write speeds and you’ll see that some SSDs are screaming fast and others, while better than a single spinning disk, are less impressive.

I recently had a one-week opportunity to test drive one of the SSDs that lives in the fast lane, the OWC ThunderBlade. I thought it would be useful to tell you about the experience.

Unpacking

The OWC ThunderBlade is shipped in a hard-shell case along with a power supply and Thunderbolt 3 cable. Since the drive is all about speed, the Thunderbolt 3 cable is 1.6 feet (0.5m) long, the maximum length for a passive cable that can deliver 40 Gbps speed.

But why the hard-shell case? The OWC ThunderBlade, with its covering of metal fins, seems like a rugged design that can handle abuse. But the design is all about heat dissipation. That’s not to say the unit is delicate; I certainly didn’t treat it any differently than a regular hard drive.

Why does it need to get rid of heat? Like all SSDs, the SSDs inside the OWC ThunderBlade generate a lot of heat—although these second-generation SSDs don’t generate as much heat. The metal housing pulls that heat away. That means no fan. That means it fits nicely into an edit suite.

Next-Generation SSDs

Since I’m talking about what’s inside, I should mention there are four M.2 NVMe SSDs in the unit. M.2 is a new form factor/interface for expansion cards and NVMe is the next generation controller for SSDs.

To simplify this a bit, you can think of previous generation SSDs as operating like solid-state disk drives. The legacy instructions weren’t able to take advantage of writing to the storage media like writing to memory. That changes with NVMe and M.2. That’s one of the reasons the OWC ThunderBlade is so fast.

Setup

Now back to setup. The OWC ThunderBlade has two Thunderbolt 3 connections so it can daisy chain up to six devices, as is standard in the Thunderbolt 3 spec. For best results, slower devices like Thunderbolt 2 devices should be placed at the end of the chain.

I mentioned that the OWC ThunderBlade has 4 M.2 modules in it. So, it really is a disk array. OWC ships a license for OWC’s SoftRAID application. I installed this before I connected the unit.

Once I connected the drive, I used the SoftRAID application to set up the array. The unit comes set up as RAID 0 (maximum speed, no redundancy) and formatted for Mac. I was testing it with a MacBook Pro, so I left it at RAID 0 but ran the validation tool, which is what I do with any RAID.

Optimization

At this point, you could just start running with the OWC ThunderBlade. I opted to take some time to look through the SoftRAID application. Besides using it to create a RAID that has redundancy, there were two things that popped out at me.

First, there was a selection to optimize the volume for various uses. Typically, when setting up an array, you need to set the stripe size. Think of stripe size as the smallest chunk of data that’s stored on an array. Usually, this setting is either not available or available as a list of options measured in kBs. Not that helpful.

With SoftRAID, it translates that setting into English. Are you mainly doing video? Audio? Photographs? Simply select one of those options to optimize the stripe size for the kind of work you are doing.

OWC ThunderBlade
Setting RAID striping isn’t usually this easy.

In case you’re curious, running an audio application like ProTools ends up storing lots and lots of small files, so you need a small stripe. Video usually uses lots of very large files, so you need the largest stripe. If you use the video optimization for audio, you end up wasting a lot of space when you write small files.

Need more explanation? The help function in SoftRAID is extensive and searchable.

Early Warning

The other thing I noticed is the email notification capability. SSDs are electronic devices, and electronic devices can fail. But array systems can be configured to monitor operations and give early notices when there are problems. The SoftRAID can email you any warnings.

OWC ThunderBlade
SoftRAID constantly monitors the OWC ThunderBlade in the background.

Note: The SoftRAID application is in beta for Windows. In the meantime, there’s a separate tool for Windows setup.

Operation

When powered up, the OWC ThunderBlade has a group of LEDs on the front that indicate operation. A solid blue shows the unit is connected; a glowing white indicates the computer it’s connected to is either asleep or hibernating. During data reading and writing four LEDs can operate independently—showing the four M.2 modules being accessed.

A bright LED can be a bit distracting in my somewhat dark edit suite. The OWC ThunderBlade has an ambient light sensor to control the LED brightness. It worked well and was a pleasant surprise.

When I first fired up the OWC ThunderBlade, I tried simply copying files from a folder but forgot how fast the OWC ThunderBlade is. By the time I let go of the mouse the files were copied (a portent of things to come).

Performance

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about setup and the SoftRAID application, but what about the speed? The unit I trialed was a 2 TB configuration and I configured it as RAID 0, optimized for video.

Blackmagic disk speed test showed easy 4K performance.

I used the usual video tools available from AJA and Blackmagic. Reading and writing 4K UHD files with ProRes 4444 codec on the AJA test gave me over 1700 MBs for writes and nearly 2000 MBs for reads. The Blackmagic test was similar.

OWC ThunderBlade
The system test from AJA shows read/write performance with ProRes 4444 4K UHD files.

Note: I’m told that the 8 TB unit has faster read/write speeds, but I can only confirm what I was able to test. OWC also promotes combining two ThunderBlades into a single RAID to bring speeds into the 3000 MBs range.

The Week is Over

As I box up the OWC ThunderBlade I can say I was impressed with the performance. I tried using it as the main project drive, cache drive and preview and proxy storage. I could feel its impact on each type of use.

The setup was easy, but I could easily “lift the hood” and make changes, just as I might want to if I worked on high-performance cars (except I know nothing about cars). But most of all, the OWC ThunderBlade delivered on speed.

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