It’s time. It’s time I took my 2008 MacPro out of regular use and start using my newer computer, a 2012 non-retina MacBook Pro. Why now? Well, I was onlining a series for MSNBC using Avid Symphony (in 64 bit mode) and working with some effects took longer than with my laptop. Rendering the show took longer on the tower than on the laptop. Some tasks were lagging on the tower, but not on the laptop. By the end of the series, I was finishing everything on the laptop.

Now, I do happen to have some things on the laptop that helped. The MacPro has a Kona 3 card, and I happen to have an AJA IoXT (and BMD Ultrastudio Mini Monitor) that connect to the laptop via Thunderbolt. So that part is covered. The IoXT has Thunderbolt loop through, so I am able to then connect a Thunderbolt to DVI adapter and have a second monitor. That leaves me with a Firewire 800 port and a USB 3 port for connecting hard drives (I use one USB port for a keyboard and mouse). I do happen to have an eSATA to USB drive adapter, so I can still connect drives via eSATA, but the speeds aren’t quite the same. Things have been going smoothly thus far with USB 3 and Firewire 800 drives. The onlines I just wrapped up all were on small 1TB USB3 bus powered drives.

But if I want to edit larger projects with lots of media, I’m going to have to be able to connect larger arrays to my system. My 4-bay eSATA bay…my CalDigit HDOne 8TB Tower (next to my tower in the above pic). And if I want RESOLVE to really crank out the renders, I’ll need to get a compatible graphics card. Unlike a MacPro that has extra slots to install such cards…eSATA, MiniSAS (HDOne) or secondary graphics card…my laptop can’t do that.  Nor can you do that with the Apple iMac, MacMini…or new MacPro Tower. Apple is betting everything on Thunderbolt…as you can see with the six Thunderbolt connectors on that new MacPro. So what are we to do now?

PCIe Thunderbolt bridges.

Because this transition happened slowly, there have been several companies that have come out with these bridges.  There’s the Magma ExpressBox 3T, mLogic mLink R, a couple options from Sonnet Tech and more.  (Sonnet just announced the first Thunderbolt 2 expansion chassis, with three slots. Perfect for the new MacPro, that is shipping with Thunderbolt 2 connectors) It turns out that a friend of mine happened to have a chassis that he was trying to offload. It was to be used in a DIT station he was going to build for a client, but never happened.  So he sold it to me for half price.

The one I bought is the Sonnet Echo Express Pro II…which is currently discontinued. But Sonnet makes an updated version of the Echo Express, and a few others (full list of supported PCIe cards found here).  What’s great about this, and the other options, is that they all have two Thunderbolt connectors. This means that you can connect your computer to the bridges, then possibly to a Thunderbolt RAID, an IO Device, a second computer monitor (if it’s Thunderbolt compatible) and so on.  I have one IO device that only has one Thunderbolt connector, so I can’t use it and an external monitor…unless I add a graphics card to the bridge. But the IoXT has loop through, the Sonnet has loop through, and then I connect to the DVI adapter…done.

I unpacked the Echo Express and read the instructions. Pretty simple…take off the cover, add the cards, put the cover back, add power, connect via Thunderbolt to my laptop.  No drivers needed…at least not for the bridge.  You still need to install the drivers for the cards you install…just like you would need to if you installed them into an older MacPro tower.

Now, when I installed the cards, I had an issue arise. The CalDigit FASTA4 card I installed…it’s a 4 port eSATA card…worked fine. My drive connected to it via eSATA showed up on my desktop. But the HDOne did not.  It lit up like it should, but nothing appeared on the desktop, nor in the Disk Utility software.

I emailed both CalDigit tech support and Sonnet Tech support, explaining the situation.  CalDigit was the first to respond asking for more details, and providing a different driver for me to install. This driver was for their HD PRO 2 tower. This one is called THUNDER EXPRESS…and makes their SAS cards compatible with Thunderbolt bridges.  Sonnet emailed next stating that the PCIe card makers need to write drivers that make them “Thunderbolt compliant.”  Makes sense…and is exactly what CalDigit did with their driver.  I installed it, and sure enough the HDOne mounted fine.  How did the eSATA one work right away? Well, I downloaded the latest driver from the site and apparently that one made the card  Thunderbolt compliant.

This might be true for all the bridge options. I do know that the mLogic one was designed with the Red Rocket specifically in mind, so the driver might not be needed for that. But since I don’t have either a Red Rocket or the mLogic…I can’t say for sure.  All I can say is that if you plan on upgrading to a newer computer that has Thunderbolt ports, and you want to bring over some of your devices that connected via PCIe…make sure that the company makes drivers for them to make them Thunderbolt compliant. Don’t get stuck, like I thought I did…when I bought the box, and the HDOne didn’t mount…I was pretty frustrated. I didn’t do my homework properly. Thank goodness for CalDigit being on top of things.

(yes yes, I still have that second monitor behind the laptop. I still need it on the tower, and it’s the best place to keep it for now)