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What is the New Mac Pro


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I found myself wanting to say a lot about the new Mac Pro reveal on Monday and twitter just wasn’t cutting it, so I’m going to post some of my thoughts here. I was amazed at the technology, but also initially a little upset (but not surprised) at the lack of the ability to upgrade this “Pro” desktop computer. It looks like Apple isn’t interested in making rack mountable equipment anymore, either. They got out of the server market a few years ago and with this announcement I think they’ve put to rest anybody’s dreams of a traditional computer form factor coming out of an Apple Designer. Once this new Mac Pro is released, Apple will officially be only a maker of computing appliances. They hope this design will stand the test of time for the next 10 years and I think I can see how they’re thinking.

NO “PRO” REALLY WANTS TO OPEN THEIR COMPUTER.

Let me preface by saying that I know my way around a computer. I’ve been tinkering with and building PCs as long as I can remember. My parents bought me a desktop when I was a teenager and within a month of owning that thing I cracked it open to install a graphics card and later a sound card. My current workstation is a custom build and just recently I had to crack it open to replace the motherboard. But you see that’s just it. With this custom build, I had to call the motherboard manufacturer and request a replacement. Then I had to spend a couple of hours pulling all the expansion cards out, unplugging all 6 hard drives, and swapping the RAM and CPU over to the replacement board. I did so successfully without any issues and had the system back up and running pretty quickly, but that’s because I’ve had years of practice at this sort of thing.

Now even though I knew what I was doing, I didn’t really WANT to do it. On top of having to wait a couple of weeks for the RMA, I was in the middle of a music video project and the whole thing was on hold while I waited to get my system back up and running. Luckily I was working with a very understanding client with no real deadline, but still I was not able to finish work while my main workstation was down.

I know if I would’ve had a Mac Pro or Dell/HP Workstation I could’ve had the system back up and running faster, but that’s not really the point. If you rely on devices that mean having to crack the case on your main workstation, you’re opening yourself up to a world of other possible problems if something doesn’t go right. And more often than not that means 3rd party peripherals that Apple/Dell/HP don’t support anyway, but it could also mean a faulty mainboard or somebody installed something wrong. Expanding through a single Thunderbolt chain eliminates this risk.

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BUT THERE AREN’T THAT MANY THUNDERBOLT DEVICES!

You should end that sentence with “YET!” Thunderbolt is the future. Apple is building a Pro Desktop for the future. Apple has the market position to push manufacturers to use it and Intel is going to be pushing Thunderbolt 2.0 pretty hard. Why? 20Gbps. That’s a LOT of throughput. I’ve helped design some big compute clusters and most of them use QDR Infiniband, which is 40Gbps. At that speed you’re essentially throwing the bottleneck of Firewire/USB out the window. Your system can now communicate with external peripherals as fast as most devices that sit in a PCIe slot. Graphics cards (GPUs) are an obvious exception, but they’re including 2 of the most powerful workstation class GPUs commercially available in the box.

This means your RAID drives (Drobo, GTech), audio/video I/O devices (BlackMagic, AJA), and anything else you can think up will be an external device communicating back at speeds equivalent today’s internal PCIe cards. Multiple 4K displays will be easy and there’s enough bandwidth there to support even higher resolutions.

WHAT IF I WANT MORE POWER?

One of the biggest reasons people like being able to crack open a case is to upgrade things like RAM, CPUs, etc. The current Mac Pro makes it easy to open up and add things like hard drives and memory, so why the big change on the new Mac Pro? You will most certainly be able to upgrade the RAM (as shown on the memory section on Apple’s Website, but it looks like it’s going to be next to impossible to upgrade anything else.

I think Thunderbolt 2.0 will be coming to our rescue yet again here. Massive supercomputers are made up of hundreds or thousands of compute nodes interconnected with high speed connectors that are not that dissimilar from Thunderbolt. Once there is software available to create a cluster of Thunderbolt connected Mac Pros, you have the ability to utilize the resources of all of them at once. You can do this today with render farms, but I think it’s not out of the question to think you could operate multiple Mac Pros as one big computer. Especially once all your data is centralized on a SAN or NAS somewhere through a Thunderbolt link, your desktops just become compute nodes.

Imagine if you work in a post facility with multiple Mac Pros connected via Thunderbolt. You can have one user per machine during the day and then easily combine all that GPU & CPU horsepower at night for bigger rendering jobs (or to mine some BitCoins if you’re into that kind of thing). I know this is possible today, but only over Ethernet. When you have 20Gbps links between your compute and storage, and each machine has dual GPUs, you’re creating a literal supercomputer. And when a new Mac Pro comes out with better specs, you don’t have to get rid of your old one – it just continues to operate as a less powerful compute node.

And then there’s always this idea: Mac Pro Expansion Solution using current Mac Pro.

BUT I STILL WON’T BUY ONE

After saying all that, you may think I’m going to buy it on day one. I’m not. But mainly for the same reasons I never bought the old Mac Pro. It will be ridiculously expensive for what it is. The big number they touted was 7 Teraflops. Oh really?! Teraflops sounds awesome and it has SEVEN of them so it must be good! Let’s dissect that a bit…

A single nVidia Titan GPU (the best consumer GPU available today) is rated at about 4500 Gigaflops (so, 4.5 Teraflops). The rest of the nVidia 700 series that was just released is pretty close to that, which means you could run 2 GTX 780s in SLI and get close to 8 Teraflops of GPU horsepower. And you can do that in a consumer system today for under $2k. I can all but guarantee you the Mac Pro will start at AT LEAST $2k and at that price will probably only be a single GPU. To get a dual Xeon, dual FirePro system, you can expect to spend well over $3k.

So while I agree it is an amazing feat of engineering that has an impressive list of specs, I’ll pass on it. I’m still independent and also not bought into the Apple machine, so I just can’t bring myself to pay hard earned money for a machine because it has an impressive brand name and marketing behind it. It’s still a computer with processors, memory, hard drives and a GPU and by the time it comes out I could have something that’s more powerful for less money.