My new Mac Pro

MacPro

Like many, when I saw Apple unveil the new Mac Pro last year, I was surprised. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it certainly wasn’t some tiny little round thing. Thinking back, I’m not sure why I was surprised, it’s just like Apple to“disrupt” the stale big box concept of a desktop PC. I didn’t share the “it looks like a trashcan” thoughts expressed by some, heck anything can look like something else. It’s easy to disparage something by mentioning it sort of looks like some other thing that isn’t highly thought of. But it didn’t look like a workhorse desktop computer. How could anything that small be that powerful? And what about expansion? How could I put stuff in it?

But I couldn’t argue with the performance specs, and to me it looked sleek, modern, very high tech, and extremely well designed. The overall design implies a trust in the speed, reliability and flexibility of Thunderbolt, and so far I’ve had good luck with it. To me, it appears this confidence in ThunderBolt drove much of the design process when Apple decided to reinvent a desktop computer.

First a few thoughts regarding Thunderbolt, DisplayPort and Mini DisplayPort, because some have confused problems with Mac’s and displays using DisplayPort to believe it’s a Thunderbolt issue – concluding Thunderbolt is not very reliable.   Thunderbolt and DisplayPort are technologies, and while ThunderBolt includes DisplayPort, DisplayPort itself has nothing to do with Thunderbolt. Neither are Apple technologies – both can be used by any manufacturer.  Thunderbolt is an Intel technology, and is extremely promising.  It provides a very high speed interface connection that is extremely flexible.

Mini DisplayPort is an Apple designed connector which remaps the physically larger standard DisplayPort connector to a smaller compact connector. Intel partnered with Apple to utilize this connector with Thunderbolt when Intel decided to move from optical to copper wiring as the cabling of choice for Thunderbolt.  This connector is pretty important because it is small enough to fit modern laptops where the original DisplayPort is too large. Thunderbolt provides access to high speed peripherals at internal PCIe speeds, as well as legacy connectivity such as eSata, USB, Firewire and even ethernet.  Basically Thunderbolt can be converted to handle almost anything! All on one little wire! Which daisy chains to up to 5 other devices. All at the same time!

Unfortunately some display makers and others have had problems connecting to the ThunderBolt ports in Macs, but after some research it appears most DisplayPort to MiniDisplayPort cables are the underlying issue. These issues are not common and there are usually work arounds so it’s not like it just doesn’t work. For example in my case, using two monitors on my Mac Pro (my 2010 one, not my new one), when starting up or waking from sleep, neither display would activate.  Sort of a pain, the workaround was to turn off the NEC before starting it up, then when the login screen of my Apple display shows up, turn on the NEC.  But bottom line these issues are not related to Thunderbolt.

The new Mac Pro has Thunderbolt 2, which provides full duplex 20Gbit transfer speed  (can send data both ways simultaneously).  Basically Thunderbolt multiplexes PCIe and DisplayPort data into a single stream using a single cable.  Devices can then  demultiplex the stream and use the data intended for them.  Because the bandwidth is so large, almost everything a computer system needs to talk to it can talk to, from displays to hard drives, ethernet devices, usb and firewire.

2-24-11-intel-thunderbolt-600

While on the surface this sounds sort of like a “meh” experience, once you think about it, and especially after you see it in action you realize it’s  a big deal.  What it means is that Apple could move almost everything out of the main computer.  No need to design a computer to handle PCI cards (not many people need them anyway), and multiple internal drives.  The main reason to have extra drives internally was the lack of a reliable way to connect them externally at fast enough speeds – until Thunderbolt. But how many bays do you design in?  For many it’s far more than they ever need, for some it isn’t nearly enough (I have a total of 13 drives connected all the time).  As far as PCI expansion, hardly anyone needs it anymore, and if you are one of the few that do, Thunderbolt can handle that.  eSata PCI cards in my 2010 Mac Pro were flakey and unreliable.  I tried three different cards, and finally ended up just using the much slower FW800 because my eSata raids would always “disconnect”. My Thunderbolt to eSata convertor on the other hand has worked flawlessly.

By eliminating all that internal stuff  Apple could downsize many other internal components (for example the power supply doesn’t have to run 4 7200rpm drives anymore), and maximizing design, things start to get pretty small. The vertical design (be it a circle, triangle, square) allows convection to assist in cooling, so the fan works less.  Couple that to a very heat efficient thermal core and suddenly you have one of the most powerful personal computers ever made which is basically silent, only slightly warm and amazingly small.

So that’s the theory.  Does it work?  The answer for me is a resounding YES.  It works extremely well.  If you have a Thunderbolt display (or even a DisplayPort display, which many are now) the computer can go pretty much anywhere. It looks cool, but in my case, it’s tucked behind one of my 30”displays.

IMG_1291my twin 30″ display setup
IMG_1289my new Mac Pro next to an Apple airport and label printer

I opted for a LaCie 10TB 5Big Thunderbolt as my main storage device,which contains 5 7200rpm 2GB drives.  This is basically an external SATA cabinet, the drives are connected to a SATA bus which connects to the main computer through Thunderbolt.  As far as the system is concerned it’s exactly the same as having them connected inside the computer … no speed or reliability loss.  This means I can set it up as a “soft” raid through Apple’s Disk Utility.  There are some advantages to hardware controlled raids, but also some nice advantages to a soft raid, especially in that you can partition up the drives and create virtual drives of various configurations from single disk to multi disk raid 0 or raid 1.  I normally create 3 partitions on each disk, starting with a small one of about 50GB which would be on the inside of the disk so slightly faster access.  Then a larger one which is most of the space, then another one about 250GB. I then set the 5 small ones as raid 0, so I end up with about 250GB’s striped together on the fastest part of the drives which I can use for a scratch drive with Photoshop or other tasks such as video which are temporary and which fast access helps speed things along.  The 5 large segments are  joined as a raid 0 and become my main drive, and when done includes my home folder (other than the home Library folder). (I use what are called symlinks in my home folder to the corresponding folders on this drive to get OS X to handle this.)  This gets all of the main data off the internal SSD, saving wear and tear on it.  The remaining 5 segments are set up as individual drives for various backups and temporary storage locations.

After setting that up, I cloned the internal startup SSD over to one of those individual segments, restarted using that,  reformatted the internal SSD and then partitioned it with a small 50GB partition separated from the rest of the 512GB storage.  I then clone  the original startup drive back to the larger partition of the SSD, set it as my startup disk, and again restart. (which takes a few seconds with this new Mac Pro). The small segment becomes my main scratch drive.  I’m not sure if I accomplish anything with this.  My thought is more about wearing out only part of the SSD memory by hitting it all the time, not really about getting more speed.  Although with 64gigs of RAM I’m not sure if Photoshop ever even hits the scratch disk.

I also have a 8GB and a 12GB hardware raid cabinet, both setup as Raid 5.  A raid 5 stripes the data across all of the drives except one, and it writes what is called parity to the last drive.  This means that if any of the drives fail, using the information from the remaining drives the data on the failed drive can be reconstructed.  The drive even still functions if one drive has failed and will continue to do so even while rebuilding the failed drive.  One of these raids backs up everything on my main drive, as well as contains some other stuff (like movies), and once a night this raid is automatically cloned to the other raid.  (everything I have is automatically cloned to backups each night).

What’s really cool is all these drives are sitting on the other end of my very long desk, and eventually I may move them even further away.  Active Thunderbolt cables that use fiber optics are now being made that are over 200 feet long.  This means I could put all these drives across the room if I wanted.  (although I can’t hear them where they are).

IMG_1290
My 31 TB’s of hard drives are sitting almost 10 feet from my chair.

As far as speed, the SSD of the new Mac Pro makes the Sata based SSD of my old Mac Pro look like FW 400.  To give you an idea, Photoshop launches in under 2 seconds. Everything is faster, and most things are much faster.  So while that doesn’t mean everything is instant, faster is nice … a video that would take an hour to render in Final Cut Pro now takes about 22 minutes.

Blackmagic_Design_Disk_Speed_Test
Black Magic Disk Speed Test, Internal SSD
DiskSpeedTest_big5 Black Magic Disk Speed Test, LacIe 5Big Raid

Not everyone needs this much power.  My old machine wasn’t bad, and even though it’s 4 years old, it’s still fast compared to most other Macs and PC’s.  But I’ve had an addiction to the latest and greatest since I bought my first computer back in 1981 (an Atari 400) so I couldn’t resist this new Mac Pro.  I do work with  larger files than most photographers, often stitching 5 to 10 80mp capture into a single image, all with multiple layers in Photoshop – at least that’s how I’m justifying it to myself 🙂

The new Mac Pro is obviously designed for video.  Admittedly not the home movie stuff I’ve been putting together from the archives of my kids growing up or the YouTube tutorials I do once in a while (although the  difference in doing that stuff is considerably and noticeably faster).  It’s more about high end stuff, like guys shooting raw video on RED cameras. I stumbled across this video which demonstrates how well it does that  … pretty cool.

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One Response to “My new Mac Pro”

  1. A convincing article…