Aaron Bertrand

Justifying the new Mac Pro

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While I wait for my new workstation to arrive, I thought I would put together some facts and figures to help justify why I would order such a machine – when many people complain that the cost is just way too high for what you're getting. I don't think that it is, and that is not just the FanBoy in me talking.

The TL;DR Version

The new Mac Pro is fast, sexy, and packed with components and features that most PCs can't compete with on any level. And I can do all the same Windows and SQL Server work on it that I could do with a Dell, HP or Lenovo workstation. Even, in many cases, with those PCs ringing in at higher prices, which you may find hard to believe – if so, read on, or skip to the data.

The "I'm Not Busy Today" Version

Early in my career, I was a Dell guy. I found their workstations very customizable and easy to upgrade. Then I had two duds in a row. A $3,700 Precision Workstation whose motherboard lasted about a week after the 1-year warranty expired, and an XPS Workstation just shy of $6,000 with the same type of issues after 15 months. (A cheaper one died, too, but you get what you pay for. And there's also this story about the DOA Dell I bought my mom, and the horrible customer service that came with it. On the plus side, that story did have a decent ending.)

By late 2008, I'd had enough. After being very happy with a 17" MacBook Pro, I splurged on an eight-core Mac Pro (more info here). I filled the three remaining drive bays with large SATA disks, upgraded to 32 GB of RAM after-market (at a cost of about $1,000, vs. the $9,000 quoted by Apple at the time), added a second ATI Radeon HD 5870 video card (1 GB each), and two 30" Apple Cinema Displays. I later added a 240 GB SSD, converting it to my boot drive, and added several external SSDs (2.98 TB in total, across 5 drives).

It probably goes without saying that this machine has served me quite well – it's a powerful and reliable machine built with undeniable quality, and it has made me a Mac snob. But it's big. And heavy. And loud. And probably uses a ton of electricity. Moving to more internal SSD storage is cumbersome because the drive bays are all 3.5", and newer peripherals are a no-op because the machine doesn't support Thunderbolt or USB 3.0.

Enter the new Mac Pro. I've waited a long time for this model, and while I could probably continue using my existing machine for a few more years, this felt like time. So, after reading MacWorld's first impressions and their initial performance test results, I ordered my own:

mac_pro_a

The $300 upgrade to double the PCI-Express 3.0 (PCIe) storage was easy to justify – way too often I've felt the pain of having "only" a 256 GB boot drive (it has happened to both Nicole and myself in the past year). And note that this is no ordinary SSD upgrade – these drives have write speeds reported to be over 985 MB/s, and reads up to 920 MB/s.

I found it much harder to justify the CPU upgrade – $500 for 6-core, $2,000 for 8-core, and $3,500 for 12-core. While I'll be stepping down from 8 cores to 4, I'm not sure how often I used more than 4 cores simultaneously, except when running multiple VMs concurrently. Which I still plan to do, but I'm not concerned it will hurt, since very little of anything I do is CPU-bound.

And just like five years ago, Apple wants a crazy – less crazy, but still crazy – markup for memory. To switch from 12 GB to 64 GB is a $1,600 up-charge, but I found cheaper kits elsewhere (more details on this below).

Mac Pro as Worker Role

Okay, so the Mac Pro is pretty, but fabulously overpowered for what you probably think I do in an average day. How will I use this speedster to better accomplish my work, and why is the new Mac Pro better than replacing my old one with a Dell or HP machine of similar specs?

    More – and Bigger – VMs

    I tend to build and run a lot of virtual machines for various purposes, but today I am typically only ever running one at any given time. Having 64 GB of RAM (over my current 32 GB) will allow me to run more – I could easily run 10 VMs with 4GB allocated to each, or three 16 GB VMs, and still have plenty of memory left for the OS (of course, CPU is another issue). I can also boot natively into Windows Server using Boot Camp, giving Windows all of the hardware resources instead of the subset it gets through virtualization, and take advantage of Hyper-V there. This would allow me to configure and test features like Availability Groups (which require a domain and a significant slice of memory, making it difficult to do on a MacBook, even setting aside the complex networking hoops required to make it a reality).

    Essentially, this all comes down to the amount of memory supported – my laptop only has 16 GB, and I could not find a cheaper alternative to the Mac Pro – with similar specs to the the base model – that supported 64 GB of memory (more on this later). Currently I am performing a lot of testing of various SQL Server 2014 features, such as In-Memory OLTP ("Hekaton"). I will be very honest with you: testing some of this functionality in a meaningful way is quite difficult when your VM is limited to 8 or 12 GB of RAM.

    Autonomous Testing

    In a lot of cases I need to conduct regression, functionality or performance testing – either of our software, or of SQL Server features for posts on this blog. I could probably live without a workstation at all, but it would be tedious to schedule exclusive time on any of our test systems, as well as isolate my testing from any other network or SAN activity. Plus, the fact that I live in Rhode Island and our data centers are in North Carolina means that my testing hinges on the reliability of my broadband connection + VPN.

    This doesn't help justify the Mac Pro specifically; it just reinforces that it is beneficial to have a workstation locally that is capable of at least some high-end workloads.

    Storage

    It is going to be very easy to migrate my existing external storage (about 3 TB of SSD) and just plug it in. The four external SSDs I currently swap out, depending on which VMs I'm using or which sets of ISOs I'm accessing, are now going to be connected via one Thunderbolt cable and exposed to the new machine as JBOD ("just a bunch of disks"), thanks to the Promise Pegasus J4. I've already configured this unit using Disk Utility, making the four drives work together as a concatenated disk set, and it is literally ready to plug in when the new machine gets here:

    Promise Pegasus J4 spec

    Now, I can't plug this bad boy into my current Mac Pro, since it doesn't support Thunderbolt. And the Mac Pro was finally the catalyst to do something like this for my existing external storage – I didn't find it worthwhile to invest in more FireWire or USB 3.0 enclosures when I knew, deep down, that I'd eventually have a desktop with Thunderbolt support. I'm okay with throwing away my FireWire-based enclosures because, with this Thunderbolt device, there will be no more juggling, connecting, disconnecting, and re-connecting of various external drives, and on some days this can really affect productivity.

    Switching to a PC would mean finding slots for FireWire cards or adapters in order to keep using those enclosures, and most likely abandoning the Thunderbolt idea altogether (see WikiPedia for the short list of desktop computers that support this interface).

    Existing Software

    As a primarily Mac OS guy for several years now, I have accrued quite a library of software that I use daily – from Balsamiq Mockups to Parallels to VMWare Fusion to Tweetbot to Keynote to Photoshop CS6. Some of these titles aren't even available for Windows, and some are but at a substantial replacement cost. So this is one (admittedly self-chosen) barrier that would add additional costs in migrating to a PC. And I can't forget to mention my library of VMs that also wouldn't be transferrable.

    Existing Hardware

    Switching to a PC would be uncomfortable at best in terms of surrounding hardware and peripherals. For one, and probably most importantly, I don't know how my Apple Cinema Displays would connect to a PC – I would have to make sure it had a video card that supported dual-link DVI. I've long abandoned the use of a mouse, opting for the Magic TrackPad (which has the same gestures as my laptop, allowing for a more consistent experience and seamless transitions) – I have heard nothing but problems about getting the drivers for this thing to work with a variety of PC models. My FireWire-based iSight camera – which I use for every online meeting – would be garbage, too. Moving to a PC would mean sacrificing some of my established experience and spending money on replacements.

    Longevity

    My current Mac Pro has lasted over five years without a single issue – only a few elective upgrades. I am fairly confident I won't be needing a workstation refresh for another five years (though, since the CPU supports 256 GB of memory, maybe when 64 GB chips are abundant and affordable, I'll be budgeting for a RAM upgrade). I have far less confidence in the life expectancy of any Dell, HP or Lenovo desktop you could throw at me, and as I discuss further on, I have no interest in cobbling together a machine that I hope can last as long, either.

All of these things add up quite easily, at least for me, to one conclusion: I can do my work now on my current Mac Pro, and I will be able to continue doing my work with minimal interruption on my new Mac Pro as well. Switching to a PC would be a very painful experience indeed, and I hope I have demonstrated (both here and in this post I mentioned earlier, from 2009) that a SQL Server professional can use Apple hardware without missing a beat and without ever needing to think about the fact that it is not "Windows first by default." The truth is that you can make Mac hardware as Windows as you want it to be.

Upgradeability

When the Mac Pro was first announced, there was a lot of moaning and groaning about how Apple has killed expandability. I get that many of us want to tinker and upgrade parts at will, I just don't think it's that much of an issue for this specific machine (more below). People also complained that the machine – while small – will be a monstrosity once they've added all their peripherals and have all kinds of wires poking out of the back. For me, I already have this scenario even with the larger 2008 Mac Pro, and the space this will free up will make it very easy to reorganize and compensate.

Here's my take on the core components, and the impact that I think Apple's design choices will (or will not) have:

    Memory

    The RAM is dead simple to procure elsewhere and upgrade yourself. Thankfully, Apple stuck with standard memory chips, and did not opt to solder the RAM onto the logic board as they have done with several other models in recent years. While the faster 1866 MHz memory is a little tougher to find, and no 32 GB chips have appeared yet, I found 4 x 16 GB kits elsewhere for about half of Apple's price – $773.90 from B & H Photo, $879.98 from Crucial direct, or $879.99 from Other World Computing (OWC). In addition to not paying $1,600, you also aren't slapped with the insult of sales tax that Apple is obliged to demand (of course I would never suggest that you don't claim your tax-free purchases on your tax return – but even if you do, the amount will still be less). Beware of after-market pricing though; some are gouging even more than Apple (e.g. Memory4Less, ironically, $2,432.68 for the same 64 GB kit – and that's at a so-called "25% New Year Savings Discount").

    CPU

    In spite of many published assumptions to the contrary, the CPU is removable and upgradeable (details here, here, here, and here). However, the one socket is Ivy Bridge-EP, so you'd only be able to move up to a higher number of relatively equivalent cores later, not to an entirely new chipset like Haswell. In the MacRumors piece, OWC successfully replaced the E5-1650 V2 (6 cores, 3.5-3.9 GHz, 12 MB cache) with the E5-2667 V2 (8 cores, 3.3-4.0 GHz, 25 MB cache). Currently this may not seem like a fantastic deal, as the 2667 has an MSRP just over $2,000 – though the Apple upgrade from 6 to 8 cores (likely the E5-1680 V2, with the same cores and cache, but lower clock speed of 3.0-3.9 GHz) is $1,500, and you don't get to keep, sell or re-purpose the 6-core chip. Presumably you would only do this anyway when Ivy Bridge prices fall much further and/or when your warranty is up.

    Personally, I wouldn't risk it – just buy the processors you need now. It's not like CPU clock speeds are on the verge of smashing the 4.0 GHz barrier anyway, or there are significant core count increases coming soon, and I think the process of swapping out this specific CPU in this specific machine a year or two down the road is going to be a lot more complex than you might expect. That all said, I don't remember ever wanting or needing to replace the CPUs in a workstation – usually you can't jump chipsets, and by the time you can justify that change, there are probably plenty of other things you could upgrade as well. In the Mac Pro space, this could be quite some time away.

    Storage

    The storage component is PCIe-based flash, and is going to be much tougher to upgrade initially. This is primarily because, in order to fit into the case, it is in a proprietary form factor – though I'm sure vendors like OWC are already developing units to capitalize on this. Still, this is why I opted for a slightly larger disk in the first place (and I have plenty of "fast enough" external SSD to last a while).

    Graphics

    For video, I can't envision ever needing more than the entry level D300 option. From all accounts I've seen, these cards are equivalent to the AMD FirePro W5000, a very capable card with a $599 MSRP each (street price a little over $400). For those who really need more graphics power than they can get from Apple (the high end D700 card is equivalent to the W9000, with an MSRP of $3,999), surely there will be Thunderbolt-capable PCI expansion cards they can sink money into – and like the storage gap, I'm sure the video card manufacturers will at some point be able to introduce compatible cards to the market.

You can get a lot more information about the parts and pieces that make up the new Mac Pro in this teardown by OWC.

Alternatives – some cheaper, some definitely not

There is a lot of talk out there that people can order or build an equally powerful PC for a fraction of the cost. So I thought I would take a look at a few of the usual go-to vendors for built-to-order or off-the-shelf workstations, and see how close I could come.

The following table shows the core specs for the Mac Pro, and then lists several alternatives that were configured to come as close as possible to the configuration I chose. The following legend shows how each cell compares to the baseline. Keep in mind that most of the comparisons are made based on perception, price, online reviews, etc. Sadly, I don't have access to any of these systems to perform performance comparisons to see exactly what you're getting for the price.

Legend Baseline Better Same or comparable Worse

 

Model CPU1 # Cores CPU Speed / Max Memory / Speed Storage Size Video1 # Cards Total
VRAM
Price2
Mac Pro E5-1620 v2 4 3.7 GHz 3.9 GHz 64 GB 1866 MHz PCIe 512 GB FirePro D3003 2 4 GB $4,072.904
Workstation-class alternatives (Intel Xeon E3/E5)
Dell T3600 E5-1660 6 3.3 GHz 3.9 GHz 64 GB 1600 MHz SSD 512 GB FirePro W5000 2 4 GB $4,937.54
Lenovo C30 E5-2643 4 3.3 GHz 3.5 GHz 64 GB 1600 MHz SSD 256 GB NVidia K2000 2 4 GB $8,804.00
AVADirect E3-1275 v3 4 3.5 GHz 3.9 GHz 32 GB 1600 MHz PCIe5 480 GB6 FirePro W600 2 4 GB $3,292.45
Boxx 3DBoxx 4925 E5-1620 v2 4 3.7 GHz 3.9 GHz 64 GB 1866 MHz SSD 480 GB FirePro W5000 2 4 GB $6,682.00
Boxx 3DBoxx 4120 E3-1275 v3 4 3.5 GHz 3.9 GHz 32 GB 1600 MHz SSD 480 GB FirePro W5000 1 2 GB $3,958.00
HP Z420 E5-1650 v2 6 3.5 GHz 3.9 GHz 64 GB 1600 MHz SSD 512 GB NVidia K4000 1 3 GB $4,830.00
Desktop-class alternatives (Intel Core i7)
Xidax X-8 Extreme i7-4820K 4 3.7 GHz 3.9 GHz 64 GB 2400 MHz SSD 480 GB NVidia GTX 770 2 4 GB $4,216.00
AlienWare Aurora i7-4930K 6 3.4 GHz 4.1 GHz7 32 GB 1600 MHz SSD 512 GB NVidia GTX 770 2 4 GB $3,749.00
AlienWare Aurora i7-4820K 4 3.7 GHz 3.9 GHz 32 GB 1600 MHz SSD 512 GB NVidia GTX 770 1 2 GB $2,699.00
Lenovo Erazer i7-3970X 6 3.5 GHz 4.0 GHz 32 GB 1600 MHz Hybrid 128 GB + 2 TB8 Radeon HD8950 1 3 GB $2,963.22
Lenovo m83 i7-4770K 4 3.5 GHz 3.9 GHz 32 GB 1600 MHz SSD 2 x 180 GB Radeon HD8570 2 4 GB $2,519.00
  1. Better/worse defined by retail price proximity to baseline (or feature set). For CPU, hover over the link to see essential specs in a tooltip, including MSRP.
  2. All prices are published retail prices (including any active, public discounts at the time of writing) and before any shipping or tax. These prices are subject to change and most likely will have by the time you've read this. You also may pay less if you are an educator or non-profit, depending on the vendor.
  3. The D300 isn't available commercially by that name, but other than the shape, it matches the specs of the W5000 (likewise, the D500 matches the W7000, and the D700 matches the W9000).
  4. Base $2,999 + $300 upgrade to 512 GB PCIe, with 64 GB memory from B & H Photo for $773.90 (vs. $1,600 direct).
  5. This was the only system with an option for PCIe storage; 925 MB/s write and 800 MB/s read. Not quite as good as the Mac Pro drive, but comparable.
  6. For these purposes, I am considering 480 GB and 512 GB as equivalent.
  7. This system ships with vendor-configured overclock.
  8. No pure SSD configuration option – while this is more storage, I've marked it as worse because most of it is slow.

As you can see, only a few of these systems have any individual components that are better than the Mac Pro, and the two workstation-class systems that came out cheaper were only configurable to 32 GB of RAM (at least through the vendor; like the Mac Pro, you could potentially seek after-market memory, but you'd have to be sure 16 GB chips (and > 32 GB total) are supported by the processor and motherboard). All of the desktop-class systems came out cheaper, but aside from the Xidax X-8 (which not only offered 64 GB, but also even faster memory speeds, even though the CPU is not documented to support them), they all had some serious limitations – most notably the supported upper memory bound of 32 GB.

The AVADirect machine was the only one offering a configuration with PCIe storage. As with memory, you could go out and get your own PCIe storage cards, but they don't come cheap. The 410 GB Fusion-io ioFX has a lower write bandwidth (700 MB/s) and has an MSRP of $2,000 – but is on sale from at least one retailer for the low, low price of $1,550. You could also look at OWC's Mercury Accelsior_E2, 480 GB for $699 or OCZ's Revo X2 480 GB for $988.48 (reg. $1,600). The point is that if you need and/or want to get anywhere close to the Mac Pro's I/O performance from most of the machines above, you’re not getting it out of the box, and you're looking at a significant investment to add it after the fact.

Everything is a trade-off, of course. You may find that one of these configurations is a better value, even if certain components do not match the Mac Pro's, and you may be able to go tweak some of them to squeeze even a little more bang for your buck. I am absolutely not trying to suggest that you absolutely need the top end in every single hardware category, or that this machine is right for everyone.

Do-It-Yourself

For most of us, DIY just does not seem to be profitable anymore. Since you can't buy high-end components at slashed discounts due to vendor-level volumes, trying to build a machine from a handful of parts will quickly run up in cost. See these two stories for two different attempts at building one's own version of the Mac Pro, and going way over budget:

The New Apple Mac Pro is Here – But Can We Build it Better (and Cheaper) PC DIY Style?

Apple’s new ‘overpriced’ $10,000 Mac Pro is $2,000 cheaper than the equivalent Windows PC

Now, these guys were trying to match the performance of every single component, which not everyone needs. You can certainly skimp out on certain components where you don't need that kind of power (and AnandTech came to the same conclusion in their review). As examples: The Mac Pro is not available with a single video card; you're getting two, whether you need them or not. And you're getting PCIe storage even if "slow" SATA SSD is "fast enough" for you (which is true for most of us).

But even if the DIY does come out cheaper, there is still the time you spend sourcing the *right* components (pick the right motherboard, the right power supply, etc.) and putting it together. Then you have no warranty on the machine, just on the individual parts; and you are unlikely to get support from anyone in the community, either, because few if any will have your exact configuration. You may not need that, and that's great – there will always be the DIY market who would never buy a pre-built system from any of these vendors. They can probably save some money building their own box with OEM parts, but I'm way too old and stubborn for that Frankenstein game.

Conclusion

It's important to remember that, even in cases where the PC "equivalent" – whether DIY or vendor – is cheaper, there is a certain premium many of us are willing to pay for intangibles, whether real or perceived, such as:

  1. Coolness – the Mac Pro is a downright sexy conversation piece
  2. Apple reliability – if you haven't owned one, you might not appreciate this
  3. Small form factor – this thing is tiny and can be tucked anywhere
  4. Quiet and energy efficient – only one fan and Energy Star v6

There is nothing like (1) on the market today. None of the other vendor systems listed above have (2), (3) or (4); all of these workstations above are enclosed in massive towers with lots of heat sinks, fans and space. And I think you'd be hard-pressed to accomplish (3) or (4) in a DIY scenario.

With all that said, I am very happy with my choice of a Mac Pro. And given the delivery estimates, I don't think I'm alone. I just wish they offered an upgrade on patience. :-)