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.

B&H sell a similar complete Proavio Editbox 8 kit with card and drives for $5,152. Proavio is the trading name for the same kit in the US. UK prices are taken from Rentaraid.co.uk.

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.”

Quote from barefeats.com

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

 

 

 

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  1. I had this same dilemma, I waited until wwdc to announce the new mac pro and I was going to go with that, However, they didn’t announce anything new and it kind of felt as if us professional editors were left in the dust. Instead, I went with a SSD iMac I7 that has 3.4 GHz with 32 mbs of ram. Take into consideration, this is a freelance machine for my home use. At work I have a mac pro with 64 gbs of ram, multiple drives (raid, esata, fiber channel, and drobo backup) and it’s not nearly as snappy and quick as my home ssd iMac. Personally, I am pretty happy I went this route. I got a solid monitor out of the deal, and premier pro cs6 is very quick and efficient. Fast enough to handle everything from h264 to 5k red footage. I also, felt that if I got popular enough and apple came out with another mac pro. I would have an easier time selling this iMac and getting some of my money back. Anyways, thanks for the article.

  2. I’m also unconvinced by cheap eSATA solutions, and I write as the owner of a RocketRAID 2314 setup. It’s awful. Just about works for single drive connections (eSATA G-Drive is reliable so far), but anything involving port multipliers is flaky, even without using the software RAID features. It can work fine for months, then one day nothing mounts and you have to prat around replugging drives, swapping them with internals, and generally futzing about. Ghastly.

    Now, I hear good things about the Areca cards, I’m told mini-SAS is a much more robust connection system than eSATA, and the Rentaraid folks are charming and know their onions (I bought my RocketRAID elsewhere, before I came across Rentaraid). I’m also led to believe that Caldigit stuff in general is solid.

    However, pretty much all the options out there make the Pegasus RAID look like great value. Which is frustrating for those of us for whom an iMac is, at best, not a step forwards in performance.

    Heigh-ho. Roll on next-generation Thunderbolt, external GPUs, and modular desktop Macs. Or rainbow-farting unicorns. Or whatever comes next. :-)

    • Pascal
    • July 26th, 2012 1:55pm

    I was in the same situation a year ago. I was tired waiting for thunderbolt devices and there was (and is still) no solution for the MacPro.

    So I decided to go the eSATA way and I didn’t regret it until today. I had no single issue with this setup.

    I have a Sonnet Tempo eSATA E4P PCI Card in my MacPro and I use a G-SPEED Q 4TB Drive (which gives me 210/MB read speed) for my video and photo files which is enough for me.

    • Hi Pascal. I got the similar E2P and whilst I was using it with a G-Raid mine functioned well too, other than the connectors being a little unreliable. It wasn’t until I tried using it with my Drobo S that I found it to be unreliable. Thanks for commenting though, it’s good to hear what works for others too.

        • Pascal
        • July 26th, 2012 9:47pm

        Hi Paul. I never had issues with the connectors but I haven’t touched them since the installation. Once everything is installed, I rarely move my equipment in the the office but I can imagine that the eSATA connector is not very reliable. I don’t understand, why they built such crappy stuff. Why not using a mechanism like BNC or XLR connectors?

        I went for the G-SPEED because they say explicitly, that their products are built for video, photo and audio professionals and the reviews I read where quite good. And I like their design too. I have now bought my third G-TECH drive and everything works like a charm.

        What was the reason for you to switch from a G-Raid to a Drobo?

        • I too like the build of the G-Tech gear, very Mac like. The G-Raid offered RAID 0 and as a result was pretty quick but I needed something with redundancy as well as speed and a lot more storage space. The Drobo S seemed to fit the bill better so I went with that but the marketing claims of 600 MB/s are highly mislaying, I’m lucky to get 35 MB/s using FW800.

  3. Thank you. Very helpful!

    • simon
    • May 14th, 2013 8:22pm

    Hi Paul,

    Great blog.
    Do you know if there is an Expresscard/34 equivalent to the Areca SAS PCIe card?
    This would be ideal.
    I haven’t seen one.

    • SAUTIER
    • September 7th, 2013 2:00pm

    Hi nice article.I had the same problem.But computer world us changing.
    Now imac and macpro 2013 everything is closed and no evolutive.

    Today for photoshop AND ligthroom an imac i7 with 32go ram is enough, with thunderbolt
    You can chained owc accelsior as working disk with 700mb/sec AND a promise R6 who is the fastest raid 5 solution.mini sas is good solution for old macpro who
    will be béat by the new very expensive 2013 macpro.the future annouced
    20gigabits thunderbolt who Will be à good standard IN few year.

    Renouveling by affordable imac connect with EIZO or nec screen is
    For me the BEST solution AND you CAN change faster your computer
    Every 2 or three year with an Apple care.

    BEST regards
    Phil

  4. I’m astonished that Apple haven’t dome something to create an add-on version of Thunderbolt or Thunderbolt 2 – say using two PCIe slots – if they did this they’d not only make those of us with MacPros one generation old or more very happy but such a thing would be a huge success in the add-on hardware market generally.
    As for not wanting to upgrade in terms of raw CPU power, well it would be silly frankly – I think this tells the story:

    http://www.shadoworld.co.uk/UF5/Benchmark/Benchmark%20results.htm

  5. Wondering if something like this would work in a Mac Pro

    http://h30094.www3.hp.com/product.aspx?sku=10778991&mfg_part=F3F43AA&pagemode=ca

    Says it’s meant for HP machines, but you may never know.

  6. Hi Paul, yes an interesting blog post, as like you I was starting my head, trying to find a solution for my 2010 Mac Pro 8 core.
    I didn’t want to go down the USB3 route as I considered and already had a small ESATA set up with a Lacie SATA2 express card in my macbook pro.
    Thus I settled on an SSD Raid 0 set up, this has 2 x Samsung 1GB 850EVO drives raided together and as long as I maintain the back up with an external 3.5 disk, I feel that I’m getting the media covered. Note with Yosemite I had to get a RAIDROCKET 644L after they stopped supporting the 2314.

    With the SSD’s I’m getting read and write speeds on average 650MB/s (wit the BM disk speed test) thats fast, I’m now almost 100% on FCPX 10.2 and have noticed a better work flow, however I still get dropped frames on between 5-7 picture playback off the timeline, so although its a fast data system there will always be a bottle neck somewhere else?!
    Anyway great blog keep up the good work

    • Thanks for your comment Bob. yes those annoying frame drops are especially annoying when you know the system isn’t being taxed.

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