Mac Pro & alternatives to Thunderbolt
Note: I’ve updated this post to reflect information received about alternative technologies.
When I purchased my 12 core Mac Pro in 2010 I knew it wouldn’t be the hottest machine for long, it’s just the way technology goes. My policy with hardware has always been to buy the best I can and make it last rather than buying cheaper and more often.
Now half way through it’s expected life cycle of three years my Mac is still very well specced compared to the latest models, it has 48GB’s of Ram and 12 CPU cores running at 2.93Ghz.
All four of my Mac Pro’s internal drive slots are in use. It’s fitted with two Apple 512GB SSD drives, a 1TB WD Cavair-Black drive and a more recent 2TB WD Cavair-Black drive. I also use an external drobo S connected via firewire 800.
Here’s a quick rundown of how I use those drives and the average read speeds they provide. Interestingly the 2TB Western Digital drive which I added last week is a full 55 MB/s faster than the 18 month old 1TB version that came with the Mac.
512GB SSD 1: Mac OSX Boot drive and apps etc (210 MB/s)
512GB SSD 2: Video scratch disk (210 MB/s)
2TB HD: Work files (135 MB/s)
1TB HD: My stuff, Music, photo’s etc (70 MB/s)
Drobo S - FW 800: Footage archive (26 MB/s)
If you’re interested in finding out the speed of your drives then there’s a great little app from Black Magic which is available free on the app store.
My drobo S is fitted with 5 2TB drives and stores all of my footage and working files for projects that are not currently in production. The drobo isn’t fast enough to use as a working drive so if I need to open footage for a project that’s stored on it then the files are first moved back on to my working drives inside the mac. This workflow has been working well for the last 18 months but having to keep moving files from the drobo to the SSD scratch drive and back is inefiicient, data transfers at around 40 MB/s so a project with 200GB of media can mean waiting for a few hours for it to transfer, not ideal at all.
With my Drobo almost full though I need to invest in more storage. with 4TB drives now becoming available I could simply replace the 2TB drives in the drobo and double the storage but with it’s slow speeds I’d prefer to invest in something faster. Ideally I’d like to find an external RAID solution that’s fast enough to work from directly without the need to use the scratch disk yet still offers redundancy protection against drive failure.
The introduction of Thunderbolt has changed the landscape when it comes to external storage, at least at a consumer level. A product like the 12TB Promise Pegasus R6 connects with a single Thunderbolt cable, has 12TB of drive space and most importantly can deliver that footage at around 500 MB/s, much faster than any internal drive including an SSD. Like any RAID system the actual available drive space would be less than the full 12TB capacity, probably around 10TB. The R6 would rush you around £1800 in the UK and $2,145 in the US. That works out at £150 or $178 a Terabyte.
But there’s a problem, and a it’s a big one! The Mac Pro doesn’t have Thunderbolt, and there’s no PCIe cards that add thunderbolt. If I want to use Thunderbolt I need to swap my Mac Pro for an iMac or MacBook Pro and that’s not something I want to do, more on that later.
So what are the other options for the Mac Pro? I could go the eSata route but I’ve tried a Sonnet eSata card with my Drobo S and found it to be unreliable, the connectors for eSata are horrible as they pull out really easily with the slightest knock. USB 3 is another option, adding a USB PCIe card would provide a faster throughput than Firewire and there are USB 3 drive arrays but it’s still going to be very slow compared to Thunderbolt.
A much better solution for the Mac Pro is to install an SAS Raid controller card along with an external drive array. This approach will yield speeds that exceed Thunderbolt with access speeds of 700 – 900 MB’s a second. The Enhance-Tech E800MS (Proavio EditBox 8) shown above along with an Areca SAS PCIe card and 8 3TB Hitachi drives retail for around £2,750 as a complete kit. That’s obviously a full grand more that the Pegasus but it provides 24TB of storage at faster speeds than Thunderbolt. In this instance it works out at £114 a terabyte, so it’s cheaper per TB than the Thunderbolt solution.
Even though SAS is faster and cheaper per TB with larger arrays the thing I do like about Thunderbolt is that it’s become a fast standard interface allowing suitable devices to be used on most apple computers. Having a Thunderbolt based laptop means that you can then also use things like the Lacie Little Big Disk for super fast data handling on the road and then offload that to an array once back in the studio, as long as you don’t use a Mac Pro of course!
So why not just switch to a MacBook or an iMac? The truth is that even the latest greatest MacBooks and iMacs can’t touch my 2010 12 core Mac Pro for pure rendering grunt and performance in Adobe Premiere, mostly because it’s fitted with an nvidia Quadro 4000 graphics card. The fact it has 12 cores and 48GB of RAM play a part too. The following is based on tests between a retina MacBook Pro and an 8 Core Mac Pro…
The 2012 Retina MacBook Pro’s GeForce GT 650M rendered a collection of five GPU accelerated video effects an average of 21% faster than the Mac Pro with Radeon HD 5870. On the other hand, the Mac Pro with Quadro 4000 rendered the same five effects an average of 27% faster than the Retina MacBook Pro with GeForce GT 650M. You could say the Retina MacBook Pro was in the middle of the “pack.”
After looking into all these options I’ve decided to invest in a 24TB HD SAS package. The combination of and SAS PCIe card and an external drive enclosure should offer better performance than Thunderbolt and allow me to stick with my Mac Pro until it’s due for replacement in another couple of years.
Once I get everything set up I’ll post about my experiences and add some performance results.
Update: I’ve posted about installing the new kit