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Transcript: Digital Production Buzz – August 6, 2015

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Larry Jordan: Mike Mihalik is a computer industry veteran working with digital storage systems for the creative, media and entertainment industries. He was previously the Vice President of Engineering and Operations at LaCie, where he worked for more than 20 years. Mike has created award winning products for both LaCie and Seagate for both Microsoft Windows and Apple Macintosh computers. Hello, Mike. Welcome.

Mike Horton: Hello?

Larry Jordan: We are seeing you but not hearing you, so hang on a second, let’s see if we can get that to work.

Mike Mihalik: No, that’s my problem.

Larry Jordan: Ah, got it.

Mike Horton: Oh, nice try, Mike.

Larry Jordan: Let’s try this again now that our audio guy can recover from his heart attack. Hello, Mike, good to have you with us.

Mike Mihalik: Hi, Larry, how are you?

Larry Jordan: Oh, we’re doing much better now that we get to hear your voice. Mike, you’ve been in this industry for a long time. Before we talk about the future, tell us about your background and some of the companies you’ve worked with.

Mike Mihalik: Real simple. Techtronics set me up for everything I know and then LaCie for about 20 years and then Seagate for the last three.

Larry Jordan: What is it that got you interested in storage in the first place?

Mike Mihalik: I’m a vast consumer of storage.

Mike Horton: As we all are.

Larry Jordan: But did that start in college or did it start sooner? I’ve been a consumer of storage for years and years, but that doesn’t necessarily make me an engineer.

Mike Mihalik: I’ve always worked with computers and I had some of the first hard drives way back in the ‘70s when they were a bit expensive, I think a 20 megabyte hard drive was over $1,000, my first one, and the way I got into the storage industry was I got tired of testing measurement and wanted to get into something that was a little bit more…

Mike Mihalik: So I left Techtronics, took a little bit of a sabbatical and one of the people I worked with at Techtronics had started a company called Cameraman Labs, I don’t know if you remember that, but it was when you put hard disks in a card and plugged into PECs and also the PC clone business, and he had called me one day asking about some references of people that had worked with me, and after he talked to me he said, “Instead of hiring those guys, why don’t I just hire you?”

Mike Mihalik: Those guys are still friends of mine, so they didn’t hold it against me. Anyway, I came in to fix problems with some storage products that Cameraman Labs and LaCie had and I guess the rest is history.

Larry Jordan: Which gets me to at the time you left LaCie, what were your responsibilities?

Mike Mihalik: I worked on super secret projects with Apple, HP, Microsoft and Intel.

Larry Jordan: Aside from the super secret projects, when you were doing general stuff, were you in development, helping develop the storage? Give me a clue.

Mike Mihalik: What I have concentrated on in more recent memory is what’s going to be the next storage interface, what’s going to be the next thing that we need to worry about, not so much commodity products but bleeding edge kinds of things. When I started the business, it was SCSI but some of the early products in USB.

Mike Mihalik: I can remember going to Apple and showing them that USB was possible for something more than just keyboard and mouse. I can remember a vivid demo where I showed how to boot a Macintosh with a USB 1 drive. Real slow but it worked. They didn’t think it was possible but I knew the engineers in the driver group. They’d put a latent capability in and I showed them what was possible.

Mike Mihalik: Then we did the same thing with Firewire and ESATA and SATA products and more recently Thunderbolt. I dragged the company kicking and screaming into the Thunderbolt technology, as well as the latest USB 3 and we’re on the cusp of some radical changes in the industry right now.

Mike Horton: You said you had to drag the company into Thunderbolt? You had to talk them into it?

Mike Mihalik: Yes.

Mike Horton: Good Lord. There was so much good press on Thunderbolt.

Mike Horton: No, no, no, this is before there was press.

Larry Jordan: This is after it was announced.

Mike Horton: Well, if you read those underground papers about the stuff that is coming up, there was so much good talk about Thunderbolt.

Mike Mihalik: Yes, but it wasn’t called Thunderbolt, what was it called? Light Peak.

Mike Horton: Oh, Light Peak, that’s right.

Larry Jordan: That was the Intel name for it.

Mike Mihalik: Right. So anyway, as you know, sometimes these technologies, there might be rumors but you can’t really design a product on rumor, so I guess through some finagling and some clever resource allocation, we were able to go ahead and demonstrate a Thunderbolt product when it was actually announced.

Larry Jordan: I want to talk about this, because in every case the examples that you’ve been talking about – USB 1, USB 2, Firewire 400, Firewire 800, eSATA, SCSI – all of these are…

Mike Horton: That’s the history of storage.

Larry Jordan: …are interfaces. They’re not hard disks, so it sounds like you’ve been much more involved with the connection of storage to the computer than the storage itself.

Mike Mihalik: That’s correct, yes. LaCie wasn’t a hard drive company, we were using products from Hitachi and IBM and Western Digital and Seagate, as well as a few other companies that probably aren’t around any more, so the thing is those are products that a lot of different industry users, and there’s no way that a company like LaCie or anybody for that matter, the solid disk drive manufacturers, are going to create the next hard drive, so the challenge for a company like LaCie and the other companies that are doing that is how do you bring that capability to the user and make it easy to use?

Larry Jordan: One of the questions that I get asked a lot – and now I want to shift into the future – is media creators are trying to figure out if they want to work with USB 3 drives or Thunderbolt drives, and if they’re working with Thunderbolt, should they look at Thunderbolt 1 or Thunderbolt 2? I have an opinion on this but I want to find out if my opinion is correct. If you were to recommend for people who are doing audio and video work, what should they work with on Macintoshes – Thunderbolt or USB? Or does it not make a difference?

Mike Mihalik: I don’t think it makes too much of a difference. What really is most important is what works and what works reliably well. Let me just run through the pros and cons of each one. USB 3 will do the job if you have the right computer and you have the right OS and you have the right drive and if you have the right protocol inside.

Mike Mihalik: It’s more than just the connector. There’s a wide range of USB 3 products on the market today, but the real question is which ones will work and which ones won’t? There’s no real easy way to do unless you get into the rocket scientist mode and look at something called UASP, which is basically a SCSI protocol over USB and that gives the best performance.

Mike Mihalik: The layman way of looking at that is if you find a product, a hard drive product for example, that can go over 100 megabytes per second, it’s a good one. If you find an SSD USB 3 product that does over 300 megabytes per second, it’s a good one. If any of the reviews or benchmarks show performance less than that, you will like have problems. 

Mike Mihalik: Thunderbolt, on the other hand, is guaranteed bandwidth and it’s a much tighter specification. If someone wants to make a Thunderbolt product, they can’t just design it, they have to get it actually certified by a consortium of independent test labs, Intel and Apple to make sure that it works correctly and only when that certification is granted can it actually be sold in the marketplace. USB 3 doesn’t have that same sort of control and that’s probably one of the main limitations of USB 3 – you don’t know what you’re getting until after the fact. With Thunderbolt, you’re getting some guarantee of interoperability and some guarantee that if you plug it in, it’s going to work.

Larry Jordan: There are three different versions of Thunderbolt – Thunderbolt 1 and Thunderbolt and the announced Thunderbolt 3, which is not yet released. From a storage point of view, does it really make a difference which of these Thunderbolts we’re working with? And if so, at what point? In other words, how many disks in the RAID do we need for us to really pay attention to the different protocols?

Mike Mihalik: In the simplest sense, Thunderbolt 1 or 2 works for any single hard drive. The hard drive itself is too slow and never really taxes the interface, so from that standpoint via one hard drive. If you look at a modern hard drive today it’s 100 to 200 megabytes per second for a single drive. If you stripe them together in a RAID 0, you might get 300 to 350, so Thunderbolt 1 is more than adequate for that. If you wanted to take advantage of the Thunderbolt 2 speeds, it has the peak capability of something like 1300 or 1400 megabytes per second.

Larry Jordan: Thunderbolt 2?

Mike Mihalik: Thunderbolt 2.

Larry Jordan: Ok, just making sure I hear correctly.

Mike Mihalik: Right, so Thunderbolt 2 can go that fast and the question is how many drives does it take to get up to that speed, striped together or RAIDed together? Let’s see. One of the last projects we worked on, we had something called the Eight Big. It’s a 1U rack that has eight 200 megabyte per second drives in it and it can easily deliver 1.1, 1.2 megabytes per second, but it’s still not using the full capability of Thunderbolt 2. To get that, you need some special SSDs.

Larry Jordan: With SSDs, can I get faster than, say, 1300 megabytes a second? Or is 1300 really the limit of Thunderbolt 2?

Mike Mihalik: 1375 is the limit of Thunderbolt 2 in the current implementations.

Larry Jordan: Now, let’s shift completely into the future. What should we expect in the near term in terms of interfaces and storage technology?

Mike Mihalik: USB 3.1 you’ve heard bandied about over the last six months. It had a nice rollout over the last six months, but no real product shipping. There’s a bit of confusion. There’s a USB 3.1 Gen 1 and a USB 3.1 Gen 2. I don’t create the names, I only recite them. USB 3.1 Gen 1 is basically USB 3 with the opportunity for a different connector, the type C connector.

Mike Mihalik: Apple is shipping the new really sexy Mac Book that does that, but the performance is no better than a USB 3 drive. USB 3.1 Gen 2 is this new ten gigabit per second interface and that’s the same speed as Thunderbolt 1, so for most single drive solutions, whether it’s an SSD or a hard drive, the new USB 3.1 offers a little bit of room for improvement, but only if you use two or more drives in a striped configuration.

Mike Mihalik: What’s more interesting about what’s on the horizon, USB 3.1 introduced a new connector called the Type C connector and that’s where things get exciting. It basically combines a single reversible connector that’s rugged and reliable. The only thing it’s lacking is a locking capability, there’s no way to lock the connector into the plug when you connect it so some of the video people aren’t going to be too happy about that.

Mike Mihalik: But in essence what you have is a connector that’s more robust. It’s learned from ten years of problems to basically come up with a high speed connector that’s not only good for Thunderbolt 1, Thunderbolt 2 and the new USB 3.1, but it has better power handling capabilities and for what was announced when Thunderbolt 3 actually ships, up to a 40 gigabit per second interface capability.

Larry Jordan: Mmm. Now, you’re speaking at the Flash conference some time in the next day or two. What are you talking on? What’s your subject?

Mike Mihalik: I’m actually the moderator, so I get to ask the hard questions of all of my panel members. I think what we have is America’s President of Blackmagic Design; Larry O’Connor, who’s the founder and President of OWC, Steve Eisen, who you’ll be talking to later today; and another gentleman, Steve Feldstein. We’re all going to talk about what storage is being useful today and I’m going to interject with what’s missing and maybe I can help fill in the blanks.

Larry Jordan: We are going to look forward to a report on that and we’ll bring you back to give us a detailed story of what is missing, but for people who want to learn more about what you’re thinking and what you’re up to, where can they go on the web?

Mike Mihalik: They can just contact me via email. I’m not equipped with a website that has any useful information, it only has dog pictures on it, so send me an email –

Larry Jordan: Mike, thank you so much for joining us. I look forward to chatting with you again in the future.

Mike Horton: Thanks Mike.

Mike Mihalik: All right, thanks.

Larry Jordan: Bye bye.

Mike Mihalik: Thank you. Bye bye.

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