mac pro

The New Mac Pro @ 8 months

Posted by mitch on August 03, 2014

I ordered my 2013 Mac Pro the day they went up for sale, even though I had an early morning flight that day. To recap, I bought a 6 core with D500, 1 TB SSD, and upgraded to 64 GB of OWC RAM. I upgraded my old 8 TB Areca RAID to 24 TB, bought an OWC Thunderbolt PCI chassis, and moved over my (old) Areca 1680x card. The OWC chassis is loud, so I also bought the 10 meter Thunderbolt cable and put the adapter box and disks in my office closet.

I had been running 3×30″ Apple displays with the cable mess that comes with the DisplayPort->DVI adapters, but recently switched out the Apple displays for my HP ZR30ws. Frankly, the HPs have a better picture, likely just due to crisper, more even lighting as a result of being 6 months old instead of 6 yrs old, but best of all, they require no adapters.

I sold my 2012 12-core Mac on Craigslist.

The highlights of the new Mac Pro are the lowered energy usage, the reclaimed physical space, and the huge reduction of cable mess. It’s disappointing going to 128 GB of RAM comes at a huge memory speed hit in the new box, but I can live with it (hoping that something better will be available by the time I need more than 64 GB).

The new Mac has only been off for about 2 days since I bought it, due to construction in my office. It’s been solid. I’m happy with the upgrade.

(I didn’t mention performance! It’s fast. The old box was fast, too. Is this one faster? Go look at my other post. I am spending most of my time crunching numbers in C++ on Linux this year, and it’s been great–especially with the 3.5 ghz single thread vs 2.4 ghz for the old 12-core–but 64 GB has been an issue for some of the calculations I am doing. But not a show stopper yet.)

The only downside that has bitten me is that there’s no locking mechanism for Thunderbolt cables–so if one falls out, and your home directory is on that Thunderbolt device (mine is), it’s very unfortunate. I’ve “solved” this with zip ties for now.

Mac Pro


Scribbles on the New Mac Pro

Posted by mitch on January 26, 2014

A significant number of folks have asked about my thoughts on the new Mac Pro… so here we go. I promise not to tell you the same nonsense you have already read everywhere else (lighted ports, etc.).

Some background: I bought an 8-core 2008 Mac Pro on the day they were available for pre-order. It was my main workstation for years, until September 2012, when the speed and RAM ceiling became painful enough to upgrade to the “2012” Mac Pro, a 12 core 2.4 GHz machine. Clock for clock, that upgrade yielded compute performance roughly double the 2008 Mac Pro.

I wasn’t sure what to expect with that upgrade, nor was I sure what to expect with the new 2013 Mac Pro. Because of price, I elected to try a 6-core machine with the D500 video, 1 TB flash, and 64 GB of OWC RAM.

I recently ran some performance tests to see how things are going with the types of computing I do. One test is a unit test of some code I am writing. The code talks to several VMs on a third Dell VMware ESXi box and spends most of its time in select() loops. There was almost no performance difference between the old and new Macs–about 3%, which isn’t surprising.

However, I have some code that runs on local disk and does heavier CPU work. One of the pieces of code shoves a lot of data through a commercial database package inside of a VM. The VM is configured with 8 cores and 16 GB of RAM on both machines. We’ll call this Test A.

Another test does extensive CPU calculations on a multi-gigabyte dataset. The dataset is read once, computations are done and correlated. This runs on native hardware and not inside of a VM. We’ll call this Test B.

old Mac Pro1 new Mac Pro2 Retina 13″ MacBook Pro3
Test A: 65.6 seconds 38.1 seconds N/A (not enough RAM)
Test B: 82.3 seconds 52.9 seconds 67.8 seconds

1 2012 Mac Pro, 12-core 2.4 GHz, 64 GB of RAM, OWC PCIe flash
2 2013 Mac Pro, 6-core 3.5 GHz, 64 GB of RAM, Apple flash
3 2013 Retina MacBook Pro 13″, 2-core 3 GHz i7, 8 GB of RAM, Apple flash

As you can see, the new Mac does the same work in about 40% less time. The CPU work here is in the range of 1-3 cores; it doesn’t scale up to use all the available cores. To keep the tests as fair as possible, the old Mac Pro is booting from a 4-SSD RAID 0+1 and the test data lived on a OWC PCIe flash card. None of these utilize the GPUs of the old or new Macs in any fashion, nor is the code particularly optimized one way or the other. I ran the tests 3 times per machine and flushed the buffer caches before each run.

Does the Mac feel faster day to day? Maybe. In applications like Aperture, where I have 30,000 photos, scrolling and manipulation “seems” a heck of a lot better. (For reference, the old Mac has the Sapphire 3 GB 7950 Mac card. I don’t have an original Radeon 5770 to test with, having sold it.)

The cable mess behind the new Mac is the same as the old Mac. In fact, it’s really Apple’s active DVI adapters for my old Apple monitors that contribute to most of the cable mess. Once the Apple monitors start to die, that mess will go away, but until then I see little reason to upgrade.

The physical space of the new Mac pro is a significant advantage. The old Pro uses 4 sq ft of floor space w/ its external disk array. The new Pro by itself actually consumes a footprint smaller than a Mac Mini (see photo at end of this post)!

The fan is quiet, even under heavy CPU load. The top surface seems to range from 110 F — 130 F; the old Mac has a surface exhaust range from 95 — 99 F at the time I measured it. So it’s hotter to the touch, and indeed the sides of the chassis range from 91 F at the very bottom to about 96 F on average. For reference, the top of my closed Retina MacBook at the time I’m writing this is about 90 F and the metal surface of the 30″ Cinema display runs around 88 F to 90 F in my measurements (all measured with an IR non-contact thermometer).

Because there is no “front” of the new Mac Pro, you can turn it at any angle that reduces cable mess without feeling like you’ve got it out of alignment with, say, the edge of a desk. This turns out to be useful if you’re a bit particular about such things.

On storage expansion, there’s been a lot of concern about the lack of putting drives into the new Pro. Frankly, I ran my 2008 machine without any internal disks for years, instead using an Areca 1680x SAS RAID. I’m glad to see this change. There’s lots of consumer-level RAIDs out there under $1000, but I’ve given up on using them–performance is poor and integrity is often questionable.

I am backing up to a pair of 18 TB Thunderbolt Pegasus systems connected to a Mini in my basement, and bought an Areca ARC-8050 Thunderbolt RAID 8-Bay enclosure and put in 24 TB of disks for the new Pro. Sadly, while it’s fine in a closet or basement, it turns out to be too loud to sit on a desk, so I bit the bullet and ordered a 10 meter Thunderbolt cable. I haven’t received the cable yet, so I haven’t moved my data off my Areca SAS RAID in my old Pro yet. But once that is done, I expect to stop using the old 8 TB SAS RAID and just use the new RAID. These are expensive storage options, but the cheap stuff is even more expensive when it fails.

So, should you buy the new Mac Pro?

I don’t know.

For me, buying this Pro was never about upgrading from my old Pro, but rather upgrading my second workstation–a maxed out 2012 Mac Mini that struggled to drive 30″ displays and crashed regularly while doing so (it’s stable with smaller displays, but in the sample size of four or five Minis I’ve had over the years, none of them could reliably drive a 30″–Apple should really not pretend that they can). In the tests above, I’ve ignored the 900 MHz clock difference, but clearly that contributes to the performance for these kinds of tests.

What about price? This new Mac Pro ran me about $6100 with tax, shipping, and the OWC RAM upgrade. The old Mac Pro cost about $6300 for the system, PCIe flash, SSDs, brackets, video card upgrade, and OWC RAM upgrade. (The disk systems are essential to either Mac as a main workstation, but also about the same price as each other.) I don’t view the new Mac Pro as materially different in price. Pretty much every main workstation I’ve had in the last 12 yrs has run into the low five-figures. In the grand scheme of things, it’s still cheaper than, say, premium kitchen appliances, though perhaps it doesn’t last as long! On the other hand, I’m not good enough at cooking that my kitchen appliances are tools that enable income. If I wasn’t using my Macs to make money, I doubt I’d be buying such costly machines.

While I am not a video editor, and just do some 3d modeling for fun as part of furniture design or remodeling projects, I feel this machine is warranted for my use in heavy CPU work and/or a desire for a lot of monitors. I’m not in the target GPU-compute market (yet?), but I do want a big workspace. There’s no other Mac that offers this (I get headaches from the glossy displays Apple offers, though the smaller laptops screens are ok).

So now on my desk, I have a pair of Pros, each driving a set 3×30″ displays, which matches the work I am doing right now. I haven’t had a video lock up for 12 days and counting, which has proven a huge time saver and frustration reducer, so I’m happy that I jumped on this earlier than later.

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The New Mac Pro

Posted by mitch on June 11, 2013

I am very excited about the new Mac Pro.

We don’t know the price yet. We don’t have full specifications. It’s not clear this form factor will ever support dual CPU packages or 8 DIMM slots (it seems it might only have 4 sockets). The total price for four 32 GB DIMMs currently runs about $10,000 from B&H. Happily, four 16 GB DIMMs is a lot less—around $1,200. 64 GB of RAM is sufficient for me for now, but I am looking to see a 128 GB option for around $1,200 within two years of owning the machine based on how my need for memory has grown in the past.

Apple does claim an I/O throughput on flash to be around 1250 MB/s, which is better than my RAID 1+0 four disk SATA SSD RAID in my Mac Pro and faster than my first-generation PCIe Accelsior OWC card.

Apple mentions up to 2×6 GB of dedicated video RAM, which significantly beats the 1-3 GB cards we’ve had on the market until now. I also am excited at the prospect of 30″ displays at 3840 x 2160. My three Apple 30″ displays are starting to show their age in terms of the backlight wear—it takes longer and longer for them to come to full brightness. I bought a Dell 30″ for my other desk, and I had to buy a calibrator to get acceptable color out of it. So I am hopeful Apple will ship a matte 30″ 4K display… (this seems rather unlikely).

Only four USB ports is a shame, but not the end of the world. Hopefully the USB 3 hub issues with Macs will be resolved soon.

And then there are the PCI slots. My Mac Pro currently has a 7950 video card in one slot, an Areca 1680x, an eSATA card that I quit using, and the PCIe Accelsior. Frankly, the new Mac Pro meets my PCI expansion needs—external chasses are cheap if I ever really need slots (just $980 for a 3 slot Magma; and Apple mentions expansion chasses are supported). What makes this possible is that Thunderbolt RAIDs are just as fast as Areca SAS configurations and generally require a lot less monkeying around. I have two Promise 18 TB Thunderbolt RAIDs connected to a Mac Mini in my basement for Time Machine backups and they have been fantastic.

So I imagine my 2013 Mac Pro will look like the following configuration:

  • Mac Pro with 8 or 12 cores, depending on price and clock options
  • 64 GB of RAM
  • 512 GB — 1 TB flash storage for boot
  • Thunderbolt ports 1-3 — with DisplayPort adapters for existing displays
  • Thunderbolt port 4 — 12-24 TB Thunderbolt RAID for home directory. I’d love to see a 12×2.5″ SSD RAID 1+0 when 1 TB SSDs get under the $400 price point.
  • 3 USB ports connected to hubs
  • 1 USB port connected to external hard disk for cloning boot drive to
  • Hopefully the audio out line has an optical connection like the AirPort Express and other optical products.

I think this will fit my needs pretty well, as long as a 128 GB RAM upgrade is cheap enough down the line. 256 GB would have been a lot nicer.

And best of all, this configuration will free up at least 4 sq ft of floor space where my Mac Pro and SAS chassis sit. If the computer is quiet enough to sit on the desk, then both the Mac Pro and the Thunderbolt RAID only take up about 1.5 sq ft of room, which would be a tremendous improvement in my office where space is a premium.

Update: I take issue with the complainers who say that the new Mac Pro will lead to a big cable mess. For me, I expect it will be about the same, but take up less floor space:

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