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2013 Apple Mac Pro: Thoughts on a Switchover from Existing Tower

Apple’s 2013 Mac Pro

What does it entail to switch from a 2010 Mac Pro to the new 2013 Mac Pro? For someone with significant hardware investments.

I’ll be switching over (I have to for MPG and I do want the speed), but I don’t look forward to all the expense and downtime involved.

This will be the most complicated and expensive switch-over in all of Mac history for me. I’ll likely do it in stages: critical items at first, then adding secondary items once I’m sure of hardware choices, while keeping an existing Mac Pro “mule” around to mitigate the loss of functionality in the short term.

The potential software glitches with OS X 10.9 'Mavericks' could be another factor in addition to hardware changes (OS changes, driver compatibility, etc): the perfect storm of simultaneous hardware and software changes. Smooth sailing with some luck but maybe some rough patches too.

The easy stuff

Memory and graphics card are easy: the new model needs new memory and the graphics are built in, as is ethernet and USB3 and Thunderbolt.

Keyboard and mouse and Mini DisplayPort displays ought to just continue to work.

USB3 card reader for digital camera cards will be a nice speedup, but it uses a port.

===> No issues.

Memory

OWC 8GB DDR3 1333 MHz memory module

I currently use 80GB memory in my 2010 12-core Mac Pro.

Without (very expensive) 32GB memory modules, it appears that the 2013 Mac Pro is limited to 64GB memory. This is partly mitigated by the new memory compression technology and by high-speed virtual memory swapping off an ultra-fast SSD, but huge Photoshop files will still suffer to some degree. Certain types of computational applications (not me) might or might not be OK.

So I don’t know how this limitation will pan out.

Displays

NEC PA301W 30" wide-gamut display
Click to read review

I have two 30-inch displays; one is a newer one with a Mini DisplayPort (no issue there I presume), but the other has only dual-link DVI-D. So this could be an issue.

The graphics cards do not appear to offer a dual-link DVI-D port, which is a problem for one of my 30-inch displays; I am loathe to run a 30-inch display through an adapter (cost, display glitches, jumble of cables).

===> loss of functionality; no clean solution for 30-inch display.

Specialty PCIe cards

I don’t have any true specialty cards like custom graphics conversion and acquisition cards, but some video and audio users will have to find suitable PCIe enclosures, such as the OWC Mercury Helios.

SSDs

OWC Mercury Accelsior PCIe SSD card

I have a big investment in high capacity and fast solid state drives (2.5" SATA models as well as three PCIe SSDs). None of these can be used inside the new model:

  • The SATA SSDs will require purchase of cases like the OWC Mercury Elite Pro Mini. Problem is, there are only four USB3 ports (total), and at least two will be used for other things, which leaves only two ports. Four USB3 ports is a bad joke for a pro system.
  • Or the multi-bay Promise Pegasus J4.
  • The PCIe SSDs have no PCIe “home” in the new Mac Pro; this means the purchase of at least one external case like the OWC Mercury Helios.

===> significant expense, a lot more bulk and cables, a mess.

Internal drives

I have four internal 4TB hard drives which need homes. These can go into single cases like the OWC Mercury Elite Pro, but there aren’t enough USB3 ports (at most two free ports given my needs):

  • Ignoring cable mess and expense, a USB3 “splitter” hub is a bad idea for connecting multiple drives; if nothing else bandwidth become an issue if more than one drive. So presumably this means a Thunderbolt to USB3 box.
  • Another option is eSATA, but this implies yet another external PCIe case in order to support a PCIe card, OR it means a Thunderbolt to eSATA device.
  • Individual cases would need to be connected to eSATA or USB3, both of which also need break-out solutions.
  • Yet another option is a multi-bay Thunderbolt enclosure which allows fast swapping of drives (push in / pop out). Finding a whisper quiet high quality but not too expensive model (available empty without drives) might be harder than it seems. This is not a “gimme”, at least not yet (unclear how noise the Areca Thunderbolt RAID box is, but probably quite a bit louder than existing Mac Pro).

===> significant to substantial expense, potentially a huge rat’s nest of cables unless a “big box” (and possibly noisy) solution is used.

External and backup drives

Numerous external drives, some bare, some in cases need homes.

  • Temporary connect via USB3 OK for single drives, ideally a Thunderbolt to USB3 device. But this requires putting the bare drives into cases.
  • Legacy support from eSATA vendors, such as Thunderbolt to eSATA adapters.
  • Alternative: keep my current 6-core Mac Pro and use it as a backup mule over the network or via cloning from the main machine.
  • A 4-bay Thunderbolt enclosure which accepts bare drives (push in and eject). Do these exist yet with requisite quality?

===> substantial expense, a lot more bulk and cables, a mess.

Conclusions

None of this can happen easy or fast; solving these issues is going to take careful planning and no small amount of money. I’m not the only one in this boat.

The need for “breakout boxes” to solve even the most basic need makes me grumpy. This reality is practically a guarantee of overall higher power consumption, more noise, a mess of power and data cables, and since there are more devices each of which can fail, lower reliability.

In summary:

  • Which hardware to abandon. Likely not worth it to bother housing anything but the high-grade items (SSDs, 4TB hard drives).
  • Quality Thunderbolt to USB3 hub.
  • No good options for 30" dual-link DVI-D display (adapter possible but potential glitches).
  • How to house PCIe SSD cards without having a stack of single-card boxes.
  • Whether to keep one prior-model Mac Pro as a backup mule or similar.

In short, this will be a changeover vastly more complex and expensive than any prior model transition, offering no fast and easy swap-and-go for me.

How Apple could help

Apple could mitigate the headaches by offering three break-out box products, ideally Thunderbolt 2 for the drive and PCIe boxes:

  • An Thunderbolt to 8-port USB3 box.
  • Thunderbolt box accepting four or six 3.5" hard drives.
  • Thunderbolt box accepting four 2.5" hard drives or SSDs.
  • Thunderbolt to PCIe box with three slots.

All built to Apple quality standards. But it seems unlikely for Apple to addres this sort of market. We will have to wait for an ecosystem to develop with third parties that spans the cost and quality gamut.


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