Apple Thunderbolt Upgrade with Legacy Firewire Computers

I ran into quite a nasty little ‘gotcha’ experience with the upgrade path from Firewire to Thunderbolt last night that I think is worth sharing for anyone who might be considering purchasing a new Thunderbolt device and owns and uses legacy Mac computers with Firewire800 ports.

In my studio I am currently running an 8-core 2010 ‘Big Iron’ Mac Pro Server as my main photography editing and printing machine. It has 64 Gigabytes of RAM and is loaded up with a super quick OWC SSD Card as well as four internal hard drives in a RAID10 Array. Its a very quick machine and not really in need of an upgrade any time soon. I had also been running an external Drobo Pro with 8 x 1TB drives in it connected via Firewire800. The sole purpose of the Drobo was a daily back-up of the internal Mac Pro RAID10 Array. Its the old belt suspenders and a piece of string and this set-up has worked well now for years.

In preparation for a new Thunderbolt Mac Pro next year (which has no firewire800 ports) I purchased one of the new Promise Pegasus2 R4 Thunderbolt2 Disk Attached Storage (DAS) Chassis and loaded it up with 4 Western Digital Red Hard Drives in a RAID10.  I also purchased a Thunderbolt to Firewire 800 adapter from Apple to enable me to connect the new Promise DAS directly to the Mac Pro’s Firewire800 port. And that is where I hit a major roadblock.

As it turns out the Apple Thunderbolt to Firewire800 adapter is a one way adapter only. That is, you can connect it to the Thunderbolt port of a new Thunderbolt equipped Apple Mac and use it to connect to a legacy Firewire800 device (like a hard drive). However, you cannot connect a Thunderbolt device (such as the Promise Pegasus2 R4) to a Firewire800 Apple Mac with this adapter. It will not work. The reason it will not work is the adapter is designed to create a Thunderbolt port for a non-Thunderbolt equipped Firewire device. It cannot create a Firewire port for a Thunderbolt device and thats a very important distinction.

According to the description on Apple’s website:ThunderboltNow it does say ‘Connect your Thunderbolt equipped Mac to a Firewire device’. I just assumed (incorrectly) that you could therefore connect a Thunderbolt device to a Firewire equipped Mac; which is not the case. It is a fairly easy assumption to make as the text does not say it cannot be done and adapters usually work both ways.

This left me in some what of a quandary as I really did not want to shell out more than six thousand dollars for the new Mac Pro just yet. I simply wanted to bed in the new Thunderbolt storage array so that when I did upgrade to the new Mac Pro at some stage next year I was ready to go with Thunderbolt storage that was tested and bedded down. What to do?

The good news is that there is a solution; although it is not very elegant and does require you to own some sort of Thunderbolt equipped Mac in addition to your Firewire equipped Mac. Thankfully I have a new MacBook Pro that has several Thunderbolt ports that I use when travelling. Step one is to connect the Thunderbolt storage device (in my case the Promise Pegasus2 R4) to the Thunderbolt equipped Mac with a standard Thunderbolt cable. Step two is to connect the Thunderbolt equipped Mac to the Firewire equipped Mac and start the Firewire equipped Mac in ‘Target Disk Mode’. In order to do this you will need a Firewire 800 cable and a Firewire to Thunderbolt Adapter available from the Apple store. Once started in Target Disk Mode the Firewire800 equipped Mac Pro will then show up as a mounted disk on the Thunderbolt equipped Mac Pro and you can then copy the files from the Firewire equipped Mac Pro to the Thunderbolt Pegasus2 DAS. It is not the cleanest solution, but it works and it is quite fast (Firewire800 speed is the limitation).

6 thoughts on “Apple Thunderbolt Upgrade with Legacy Firewire Computers

  1. Maybe investing in a Mac Mini would be more elegant. I use one for my backups and it works well. Unlke a Drobo, your files are always usable on any Mac.


  2. i was in a similar situation with my audio interface. Turns out there isn’t even PCIe thunderbolt expansion cards for older mac pros. You simply cannot add TB at all because of the CPU/chipset in the older systems. Just cannot support it. 😦

    I ended up getting an iMac myself. It was a good decision for me. TB is wicked quick.


  3. You didn’t like my first comment?

    Edit – Jeff I never received a notification of your initial comment – apologies. Please feel free to resend.


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