2021: Thunderbolt Shared Storage Report

It’s 2021 and what is the state of Thunderbolt Shared Storage?

Thunderbolt Shared Storage is a RAID which you connect to with Thunderbolt (and Ethernet) which can be shared with other workstations. It’s a Thunderbolt SAN. Shared by Thunderbolt.

I’ve long been a fan of Apple’s Xsan and other SAN products that use Fibre Channel (or iSCSI) to connect clients to super fast block storage. It acts like a fast direct attached RAID but you can share it with others. The sharing part is crucial to collaborative workflows. We used XSAN when I was in VFX and I now use XSAN for post production workflows. Editors like to edit, have large video files, and often work in teams. All those camera files aren’t getting any smaller. So you need a lot of storage that can be shared by a team of editors, colourists, motion graphic artists, producers, etc

What you don’t often want is a complicated network infrastructure or a server room with fibre channel switches and fibre channel RAIDs and assorted other equipment. You don’t want that. You’d have to call me and pay me to set up your storage, backup and archive workflow. While it is always recommended to work with a trusted contractor it can be expensive. For small teams a shared Thunderbolt storage SAN can be quick to set up, doesn’t take much room and can easily connect 4-8 editors. Thunderbolt 3 passive copper cables extend up to 2m but optical Thunderbolt cables are available up to 60m.

I want to review one such example of shared Thunderbolt storage that stands out, the Symply Workspace. It’s a RAID, but it’s a SAN too. It is storage you plug into with Thunderbolt, but with an extra ethernet cable you make it a SAN. Inside the storage it has Quantum StorNext which runs most of the world’s expensive enterprise SANs, but it’s in the Symply Workspace and it works with Apple’s Xsan client software (included free with macOS since macOS Lion 10.7 !!). So basically, it is enterprise storage in a Thunderbolt box. One more thing, add a 5 seat license to a simple but powerful media asset management (MAM) tool axle.ai to organize your assets, add keywords and access from anywhere. Almost too good to be true, so I had to test it and see.

I received a Symply Workspace to test with. I like testing storage. My clients always need more storage. I keep telling them to not fill it up, but they do. That’s why we have LTO, nearline and cloud archive with Archiware P5 but that’s another story. For now, let’s test this storage: how easy is it to setup, how awesome is it to edit with, and what is a MAM good for anyway? Let’s find out.

It starts with a box. You open the box. You take the drives out of the box. Two trays of drives. Then there’s the RAID itself. Put the drives in the RAID. No screwdriver or tools necessary, just slide and click. Next step read all documentation online, ha ha, just kidding, don’t read anything keep going. Ok, kidding a bit. There’s an info card in the box with a website link to help explain the setup. But I didn’t read it all, uh, I know Xsan, I can do this, ok, what’s the link? now back to building.

The tricky part is plugging in a few cables, which will be improved in the shipping production version with stenciled labels of where to plug in what. There’s three cables after the power cable. One Thunderbolt to a Mac, that’s easy. One ethernet to your local network, no problem. And lastly one more ethernet to your new SAN production network (aka metadata). Ok, what’s that? Add a 5-port switch and plug in all clients and the storage to this network for SAN private metadata. It really is a SAN. Like Apple’s Xsan or Quantum StorNext, you need a data pipe (40GbE Thunderbolt 3 in this case) to transfer the data, and a metadata network, to talk about the data (1GbE ethernet to our extra switch). The public network will be used to talk to Axle MAM or for re-sharing out the volume to non-Thunderbolt connected Macs.

Once the Symply Workspace is wired up and powered on you’ll be able to reach the unit via a local bonjour name in your web browser (http://symplyworkspace.local:8088) and from there a simple web interface allows you to monitor the status of the unit, download drivers to configure a Mac or Windows client, restart or shutdown, contact support or start troubleshooting if needed. It’s a great tool to do the few things you need to.

So with everyone working remotely how do we connect to our shared storage? I’m glad you asked. There are a lot of good options. My favourite is Tailscale a mesh VPN (based on the open source Wireguard project) which you would install on a locally connected Mac then you can remote in and share a screen or the storage. There’s also the Axle 5-seat license included with the Symply Workspace which can scan your storage, make proxies and serve it all via a website which can also be accessed from anywhere.

To be continued…

Update: Added a clarification that there is an included 5 seat license to Axle media asset management in the Symply Workspace

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