On the New Mac Pro

Apple talked more about the new Mac Pro at it’s special event today, giving more details on when it will start shipping (December) and how much it will cost ($2999 for the base model). They also covered some additional hardware details that weren’t mentioned previously and I thought I would offer my 2 cents on the package.

Storage

There’s been a lot of complaints about the lack of expansion in the new Mac Pro, particularly when it comes to storage. With the current Mac Pro able to host up to 4 hard drives and 2 DVD drives, the single PCIe SSD slot in the new Mac Pro can be considered positively anemic. This has been the biggest issue in my eyes. Right now in my Mac Pro, I have an SSD for the OS and applications, a 3TB disk with my Home directory on it, and a 3TB disk for Time Machine. That kind of storage just won’t fit in a new Mac Pro, which only has a single PCIe SSD slot.

I believe Apple’s thought here is that big storage doesn’t necessarily belong internally on your Mac anymore. Your internal drives should be able to host the OS, applications, and recently used documents, and that’s about it. Any archival storage should be external, either on an external hard drive, on a file server, or in the cloud. Once you start thinking in this mindset, the lack of hard drive bays in the new Mac Pro start to make sense.

Personally, if I decide to buy one, I’ll probably start migrating my media to a file server I host here in a rack and see just how much space I need for other documents. I already moved my iTunes library a couple months back (300GB), and if I move my Aperture photo libraries over, that will reduce my local data footprint by another 700-800GB (depending on how many current photo projects I keep locally). That’s an easy terabyte of data that doesn’t need to be on my Mac, as long as it’s available over a quick network connection.

VMware virtual machines are a little tricky, because they can use a lot of small random accesses to the disk, and that can be really slow when done over a network connection with a relatively high latency. The virtual disks can grow to be quite large though (I have a CentOS virtual machine to run weather models that uses almost 200GB). I’ll have to do some testing to see how viable it would be to move these to the file server.

All this assumes that you want to go the network storage route. To me, this is an attractive option because a gigabit network is usually fast enough, and having all your noisy whirring hard drives in another room sounds… well… peaceful. If you really need a lot of fast local storage though, you’ll have to go the route of a Thunderbolt or USB 3 drive array. If you have big storage requirements right now, you most likely have one of these arrays already.

CPU/GPU Configurations

The new Mac Pro comes with a single socket Xeon CPU and dual socket AMD FirePro GPUs. This is reverse from the old Mac Pro, which had 2 CPU sockets and a single graphics card (in its standard configuration). The new Mac Pro certainly is being geared more toward video and scientific professionals that use the enhanced graphics power.

With 12 cores in a single Xeon, I don’t think the single socket CPU is a big issue. My current Mac Pro has 8 cores across 2 sockets, and other than when I’m compiling or doing video conversion, I have never come close to maxing all the cores out. Typical apps just aren’t there yet. You’re much better off having 4-6 faster cores than 8-12 slower cores. Fortunately, Apple gives you that option in the new Mac Pro. A lot of people have complained about paying for the extra GPU though. FirePro GPUs aren’t cheap, and a lot of people are wondering why there isn’t an option to just have a single GPU to save on cost.

I think the reason for this is the professional nature of the Mac Pro. The new design isn’t really user expandable when it comes to the graphics processors, so Apple decided to include as much GPU power as they thought would be reasonably desired by their pro customers. The new Mac Pro supports up to three 4K displays, or up to six Thunderbolt displays. A lot of professionals use dual displays, and it’s increasingly common to have three or more displays. With dual GPUs this isn’t a problem in the new Mac Pro, while if they just configured a single GPU the display limit would be comparable to the iMac. Personally, I have 2 graphics cards in my Mac Pro, and have used up to 3 displays. Currently I only use 2 displays though, so I could go either way on this issue. I do like the idea of having each display on it’s own GPU though, as that will just help everything feel snappier. This is especially true once 4K displays become standard on the desktop. That’s a lot of pixels to push, and the new Mac Pro is ready for it.

External Expansion

I’ve seen people comment on the lack of Firewire in the new Mac Pro. This, in my opinion, is a non-issue. Even Firewire 800 is starting to feel slow when compared to modern USB 3 or Thunderbolt storage. If you have a bunch of Firewire disks, then just buy a $30 dongle to plug into one of the Thunderbolt ports. Otherwise you should be upgrading to Thunderbolt or USB 3 drives. USB 3 enclosures are inexpensive and widely available.

Outside that, the ports are very similar to the old Mac Pro. One port I would have liked to see in the new Mac Pro was 10G ethernet. The cost per port of 10G is coming down rapidly, and with moving storage out onto the network, it would have been nice to have the extra bandwidth 10G ethernet offers. Apple introduced gigabit ethernet on Macs well before it was a common feature on desktop computers as a whole. Perhaps there will be a Thunderbolt solution to this feature gap sometime down the road.

Power Consumption and Noise

This alone is a good reason to upgrade from a current Mac Pro. The new Mac Pro will only use around 45W of power at idle, which isn’t much more than a Mac Mini and is about half of the idle power consumption of the latest iMacs (granted, the LCD in the iMac uses a lot of that). My 2009 Mac Pro uses about 200W of power at idle. Assuming you keep your Mac Pro on all the time, and are billed a conservative $0.08 per kilowatt hour, you can save about $100/year just by upgrading. That takes some of the sting out of the initial upgrade cost for sure.

Using less energy means needing less cooling. The new Mac Pro only has a single fan in it, and it’s reportedly very quiet. Typically the unit only makes about 12dB of noise, compared to around 25dB in the current Mac Pro. With perceived volume doubling for every 3dB increase, the new Mac Pro is about 16 times quieter than the old one. Surely the lack of a spinning HD helps here as well.

Overall

Overall the new Mac Pro is a slick new package, but you already knew that. It isn’t for everybody, but it fits the needs of the professional customer pretty well moving forward. Personally, I haven’t decided if I will buy one yet. My Mac Pro is almost 5 years old at this point, and while it still does a good job as a development machine, I’m starting to feel its age. However, I haven’t decided whether I will replace it with a new Mac Pro, the latest iMac, or even a Retina MacBook Pro in a form of docked configuration. There are benefits and drawbacks to each configuration, so I’m going to wait until I can get my hands on each machine and take them for a spin.

5 Responses to “On the New Mac Pro”

  1. Bob Piatek Says:

    10G Ethernet is available in PCIe expansion cards but then you need to factor the cost of a Thunderbolt expansion chassis. There is also a stand-alone Thunderbolt to 10Ge available:

    http://www.attotech.com/products/category.php?id=15&catid=16

    You can get it for ~$800. That might seem expensive but the first 10G to PCIe card I bought from Myricom four years ago cost me $900. Now it is ~$300.

    I can only hope that Thunderbolt catches on so we can see peripheral prices come down.

  2. mike Says:

    Didn’t know about that adapter. Nice to see there are some options here. The direct Thunderbolt adapter is ideal, but you’re right in that it’s pretty expensive. Though it looks like it has 2 ports which is impressive.

    I still have yet to add a 10G ethernet switch to my network, but Netgear has some that cost about $150/port. The PCIe cards are definitely coming down in price, and would work great in my Linux file server.

    For now I have link aggregation set up with 2 ports each on the file server and my Mac Pro, so theoretically I can get 2Gbps of bandwidth between them. That’s far from the real case though. The way this particular link aggregation implementation is done, a single TCP connection can only use a single ethernet interface, so you have to have more than one TCP connection to go beyond 1Gbps. That doesn’t happen in a file sharing connection unless you are using multiple mount points.

  3. Lane Roathe Says:

    You might look into upgrading the CPUs in your current Mac Pro; I’ve done that with my ’08 Pro (from 1.8 to 3.2) and it make a big difference (faster, lower power use and runs cooler).

    Of course the new Pro’s offer quite a bit that is compelling, but you might be able to put off a large expenditure for a couple years upgrading your current system. (I’m basically wanting to wait until the cost of TB accessories come down, as well as being able to save up to make the purchase in cash vs. financing a new Pro).

    Of course, if a new pro makes your work more efficient, productive, etc. then that may pay for the purchase and justify getting one now :)

    Nice blog, enjoyed reading the articles.

    -l

    OH, and thanks for XRG, I have it as a startup item since I find using it so helpful.

  4. mike Says:

    Lane: Glad you are finding XRG useful. :-)

    I did look into the option of upgrading my current Mac Pro. There is a lot of documentation online about how to replace the CPUs, which seems pretty straightforward (though easier with the 2010 model or later). The problem is that even older Xeon CPUs on eBay are pretty expensive. Once you replace the CPUs with high end units, buy a modern GPU, and get a bigger SSD in there, you’re up to around $2k in costs. And you’re still using a computer where most of the components have 5+ years of wear on them (I run my Mac Pro 24/7 too). At that price point, a new iMac would probably be the best option.

    I decided it wouldn’t be worth it to go that route, but I can understand it might make sense for a lot of other current Mac Pro users depending on where you are starting from and how much performance you are looking for.

    After reviewing all the options out there, a couple of weeks ago I ended up ordering a new Mac pro with 6 core CPU, 16GB of RAM, 512GB SSD, and D300 GPUs. For storage, I picked up a diskless Pegasus2 R4 and I’m planning to put 3TB drives in that and run it in a RAID 5. I think this setup should last the next 5 years for my use. We shall see. Once the new system arrives, I’ll be selling my 2009 model. That should definitely cover a big chunk of the expense of the new one as well.

  5. *Coder Blog » Blog Archive » Pegasus2 Impressions Says:

    [...] I mentioned in a previous post, I had considered using my local file server as a large storage pool.  After trying it out for the [...]

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