The Great Migration: From Mac Pro Tower to Mac Pro Tube
COW Library : What Computer Should I Buy? : Helmut Kobler : The Great Migration: From Mac Pro Tower to Mac Pro Tube
I'm one of those die-hard Mac tower users who didn't know what to think about Apple's new Mac Pro, with its utter lack of expansion card slots and drive bays.
Personally, I loved how I could stuff so much gear into my 2009, 8-core Nehalem Mac Pro (and before that, a 4-core Mac Pro, and before that a couple of G5 PowerMacs). In the 5 years I've had the Nehalem, I've always had every expansion card slot filled – a SAS card for RAID and LTO tape backup, a broadcast monitoring card, a high-speed P2 reader card, H.264 acceleration card, eSATA card, USB 3 card, you name it. And I stuffed the drive bays to the gills as well, running 5 drives in all thanks to hiding a bonus drive in one of the Pro's DVD bays. So much gear, all in a single case with few cables and minimal footprint!
Then Apple announced the new Mac Pro with all expansion handled via a few Thunderbolt 2 ports, and I briefly saw my life flash before my eyes. How would I use all my existing stuff? How much would it cost to replace the stuff I couldn't carry over to the new machine? How would my workspace look with all sorts of new crap lying around?
I definitely experienced a few moments of heightened pulse and clammy palms, but I have to say that it passed fairly quickly. In the end, despite wanting to give Apple a good, swift kick on more than a few occasions lately, I generally trust its instincts on hardware design. It has a good sense of timing, knowing when to retire the old way of doing things for a new approach. So I ordered my new Mac Pro as soon as I could (a 6 core stock config), and started figuring out what gear I could keep, and what new gear I'd have to buy.
And that's what this article is about. I tried out a lot of products, and want to share some experiences and thoughts with other Tower users who are making the same Great Migration that I am. I'll focus on three main video-related components – RAID/LTO storage, Broadcast Monitoring, and Additional Hard Drive Storage and then I'll let you know how it's all worked out after more than a month of regular use.
RAID AND LTO OPTIONS
Option #1: Migrate Existing RAID card to a Thunderbolt Chassis
It turns out that my trusty R380 card is one of those incredibly rare cards that can't work with a Thunderbolt expansion chassis! Who knew! Personally, I thought any PCIe card would work, but after an hour of troubleshooting, some internet research resolved the mystery.
OWC Mercury Helios
Had I owned a slightly later-gen card, like ATTO's R680 card or a number of RAID cards from the likes of Areca, the OWC chassis should have worked, but I still wasn't thrilled with the chassis. It's small and easy to get working, but its fan noise is pretty annoying – ie, it's easily audible over my old my Mac Pro, my new Mac Pro, and my DX800 raid combined. It seems a shame that designers put a lot of effort into making big, expensive hardware relatively quiet, but all that effort is thrown out the window by a $349 box.
Still, Thunderbolt cables are getting longer and cheaper (OWC itself offers a variety, including a 10 foot cable for under $50), so you can minimize noise by putting the Helios chassis far away. But if you're at all sensitive to fan noise, you still won't be happy.
ATTO's ThunderStream SC3808D
Option #2: ATTO's ThunderStream SC3808D
The ThunderStream has no power button – it's always on and its fan gently purrs even when it's not connected to a computer (that's a little weird, though ATTO says it's normal behavior). When you start or wake up your computer, the ThunderStream revs up its fan a bit more, and makes your SAS peripherals available to your Mac.
Once I installed the latest driver and RAID manager from the ATTO web site, the ThunderStream would generally mount my DX800 RAID when I turned it on, and remount the RAID if I woke the Mac from sleep while the RAID was online. Occasionally, things wouldn't work quite so automatically – I'd turn the DX800 on, but it wouldn't mount by itself, so I'd have to launch ATTO's RAID manager app to manually get the RAID online. But that occasional hiccup also happened on my old Mac Pro with the R380 card, so it was something I was used to.
Speedwise, I clocked RAID/Thunderstream combo doing reads of around 635MB/s and writes of 552 MB/s in BlackMagic's Disk Speed Test app, which was respectful. As for working with my LTO drive, the ThunderStream had no problem copying data to/from the RAID and LTO, as I had always done with the R380 card.
If anything gave me pause, it was the ThunderStream's lack of a Thunderbolt 2 connection (largely for future proofing, since I doubt my DX800 would be able to take advantage of TB2 speeds) combined with its $1295 price point. But other than buying a brand-new RAID, the ThunderStream was the best option I found for preserving my DX800 RAID in a Thunderbolt world. Getting LTO6 support from the same box was a nice bonus.
One more note: ATTO also sells a Thunderbolt box with SAS connections, but without RAID functionality. It's the ThunderLink SH 1068, and it's a good option for connecting a non-RAID SAS device like HP's LTO drive to a new Mac Pro. At $895, the ThunderLink isn't exactly cheap, but by the time you buy a PCIe SAS card like ATTO's H680 ($395), and then a separate Thunderbolt chassis, you're in the same general ballpark anyway.
I don't like the idea of spending money unnecessarily, and my 12 TB DX800 is still going strong, but a new Thunderbolt-native RAID is intriguing for a couple of reasons. First, newer 8-drive RAIDs are shipping with giant capacities up to 32TB at a price around $4500. That's pretty reasonable! Secondly, Thunderbolt native RAIDs are really easy to work with. They don't need any drivers, their controllers are built into the RAID enclosure which keeps their footprints small, and they can automatically turn themselves on/off whenever you startup/wake/shutdown/sleep your computer. So I found two native Thunderbolt RAIDs to put through their paces....
Maxx Digital ThunderRAID
Maxx Digital ThunderRAID.
The only hitch with the ThunderRAID is that it doesn't take advantage of the Mac Pro's Thunderbolt 2 speeds. For a Thunderbolt 1 device, it's definitely fast, with read speeds around 548 MB/s and writes of 585 MB/s in a RAID 6 config. But I wondered how much faster a Thunderbolt 2 RAID might be, and as my Mac Pro shipped, so did the industry's first Thunderbolt 2 RAID...
Promise Technology Pegasus2 R8.
So speed was impressive, and the Pegasus was respectably quiet when attached to my 10-foot Thunderbolt cable. Operation was also very smooth – just not quite as smooth as with the ThunderRAID when it came to waking and sleeping behavior. For instance, on a few occasions, I would wake my Mac from sleep and the Finder would warn me that the Pegasus had not been ejected properly before sleep, even though you're not required to eject it beforehand (despite the message, the Pegasus did mount automatically, and seemed perfectly fine). Also, one one occasion, I woke the Mac Pro, and the Pegasus2 didn't mount at all, forcing me to restart the Mac before it came online again. Overall, these sleep-related quirks were very rare, occurring only a few times in more than a hundred wake/sleep cycles. They're the kind of thing that most people may never notice, and or be squelched with a firmware update. But to be fair, I never had a single issue with the ThunderRAID in the same circumstances.
The Pegasus should definitely get credit for keeping costs down – at $3599, a 24TB model is about $400 cheaper than the equivalent ThunderRAID, and the most affordable 24TB RAID I've ever seen. On the other hand, the Pegasus' 32TB model is only $100 cheaper than the ThunderRAID equivalent, and it ships with slower, 5900 rpm drives instead of the usual 7200 rpm models. The Pegasus also gets a 2 year warranty instead of the ThunderRAID's 3 years, and you can't order the RAID with enterprise drives, in case you want to pay extra for a little more peace of mind. Finally, as I write this in February 2014, a Thunderbolt 2 version of the ThunderRAID is due within a month, so that may level the playing field between the units, speed-wise.
The fact is, after using both native RAIDs for weeks, I came away feeling that you can't go wrong with either of these units, and I wondered if now was the time to bite the bullet and get an extra-spacious RAID that worked so well with the new Mac Pro.
ADDITIONAL HARD DRIVE STORAGE
That meant investing in yet another drive enclosure for the new Mac Pro – something that could handle multiple hard drives but without hardware RAID functionality. In that vein, I found a few choices, such as a new 4 bay enclosure from Other World Computing, and a new 3 bay enclosure from CalDigit. But 3 and even 4 drives felt a little limiting (I had stuffed 5 drives into my old Mac Pro) so I was relieved to come across LaCie's 5big Thunderbolt enclosure, which gives you 10 TB spread over 5 drives for $999 (there's also a 20tb version for $1999).
I like the LaCie because it can find something useful to do with all 5 of its drives: in my case, that would be two drives in a RAID 0 for fast access to iTunes and photo libraries, then another two drives in a RAID 1 to backup client footage before it goes to LTO tape, and finally a single drive for Time Machine.
There's no hardware RAID support built in, so I designate my RAID 0 or 1 drives in software using Apple's Disk Utility. But a software RAID takes up virtually no computing cycles these days, and I've run them for years without problems. The 5big also wakes and sleeps automatically with the Mac Pro, and it's practically silent. Finally, even though it's a Thunderbolt 1 device, there's no way a few drives configured in a RAID 0 and 1 could come close to saturating Thunderbolt's original 10Gbs throughput, making Thunderbolt 2 largely unnecessary.
So for about $1000, I managed to replicate my old Mac Pros internal hard drive bays, and picked up an extra 10TB of drives along the way.
On my old Mac Pro, I used Blackmagic's simple, reliable Decklink SDI card, but there was no point in trying to migrate that over to the new Mac since there are already two great, affordable Thunderbolt solutions: Aja's T-Tap ($295) and Blackmagic's UltraStudio Mini Monitor ($145).
Blackmagic Design's Mini Monitor and AJA's T-TAP
The two units share a lot in common. They're both tiny, and easily fit in the palm of your hand. They both have a single Thunderbolt 1 port, so you have to place them at the end of a daisy chain. They both have an SDI Out and HDMI Out port, so they work with any HD monitor at 10 bits with 4:2:2 subsampling, along with all major frame rates and 8 channels of embedded audio. Both units draw power from the Thunderbolt cable they're attached to, so you don't have to plug them into a wall. Finally, they both work with recent versions of major apps like Final Cut Pro X (and 7), Adobe Premiere/After Effects, Avid, and more.
But besides price, there are indeed a few differences between the two little guys:
At any rate, both the Mini Monitor and T-Tap are simple, affordable solutions that accomplish a single task well. And if you happen to need a few more bells and whistles beyond pure monitoring (tape digitization, 4K support, etc.), then you'll also find some other good Thunderbolt options from AJA and Blackmagic.
THE DUST SETTLES
As for the rest of my concerns about moving to all-external expansion, here are some other impressions after having my Mac Pro more than a month:
So yes, I'm absolutely at peace with the Mac Pro's exclusive use of Thunderbolt. No card slots and drive bays keeps the machine more affordable, which means Apple can sell more machines. That helps keep Pro hardware relevant to the company, and more likely to receive development resources down the road (hopefully, Apple will never go another 3.5 years without an appreciable update). And yet users who need to customize their machines with fancy add-ons actually get more options and flexibility to do that (graphics cards not included).
This makes the new Mac Pro simpler but richer, which seems like an impressive design feat and a good example of Apple at its best.
On the other hand, while Apple's hardware team has hit one out of the park, it feels like the overall Mac experience is being marred by Apple's sloppy, buggy software efforts. Lately, I struggle with Apple bugs on a daily basis. My skimmer stops working in Final Cut Pro X, forcing a relaunch. Renders hang in Compressor, forcing a restart. Music from iTunes won't sync to my iPhone. iCloud documents stop synching in Pages. Mavericks can't remember how I arrange the application windows on my three Thunderbolt displays. And while I'm at it, why does my iPhone keep resurrecting voicemails I've already deleted, forcing me to kill them 3 times before they're finally gone? (Not a Mac bug per se, but still an appalling example of poor quality control at Apple).
You can find most of these and other issues discussed on Apple's support forums, often in long threads full of users wasting their precious time on troubleshooting. And the bugs often linger a while – for instance, Final Cut's disappearing skimmer (which is fundamental to the FCP X experience) has been annoying me for years.
Of course, I haven't done a scientific survey, but after 15 years with the Mac, I think I can spot a trend. The fact is, Apple seems to be losing its attention to fine detail...to the small things that nonetheless form the glue of the Mac experience. Years ago, I could honestly say of an Apple product: "It Just Works." Now it's becoming: "It usually works." Or even: "It sometimes works."
Which brings us back to the new Mac Pro. I now have a fast, silent, tiny, expandable powerhouse on my desk, but my daily Mac experience is more frustrating than it's ever been, except perhaps during the last days of OS 9 and the early days of OS X. You won't hear about it from the general media and the Mac press treats Apple with kid gloves, but I hope some execs in Cupertino can still recognize that there's been a decline in the stability/reliability of Apple software, and that it's slowly spoiling even a great breakthrough like the Mac Pro.
About Helmut Kobler