Surviving in a Post Mac Pro Era

As some of you may have seen this week, Apple has announced updates to the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air lines (if not, go check it out Apple’s site now…but only after you’ve read this blog!) Buried beneath all the glitz and glam was an update to the Mac Pro unit. Ok, it may well be the smallest ever update to an Apple line in its history, but technically speaking, the base models did have newer versions released.
Now this half-hearted upgrade had a number of users concerned that the days of the Mac Pro are numbered. I mean almost two years without an update, followed by a basic RAM and CPU speed update (but remaining on the older architecture CPU) sounds like a range being put out to pasture…
Since then, there has been some indication within Apple that ‘something more is coming’ in 2013. However, this little event led me to think; well what would I do if the Mac Pro was scrapped tomorrow? How would I look to provide solutions to our customers?
Well over the next few lines I’ve outlined my views and thoughts over what scenarios present themselves and what recommendations I would make.

Goodbye Mac Pro

Ok, we’ve just had a release from Apple announcing the end of production of the Mac Pro model and no replacement planned (déjà vu from Jan 2011). I need a replacement now, what should I do?
The first step is to work out what the requirement for the Mac Pro was in the first place. This can be broken down into two broad categories; client workstation use, and server use. Let’s look at these individually.

Client Workstation

The majority of users who operate a Mac Pro are after the fastest, most powerful and best machines. These are your graphic designers and your film editors as well as some image editing. The more grunt the better. What do these users do now?
If sheer power is your requirement, look no further than the iMac range, specifically the 27-Inch. These units, despite being lower powered than the Mac Pros still pack a good punch and still can handle most similar tasks that you’d throw at a Mac Pro, as well as being generally cheaper. These units would satisfy many an ex-Mac Pro user and, let’s be honest, there’s no other Mac OS X alternative.
The second largest group of Mac Pro users also fit into many of the ‘task-groups’ mentioned above. These are the users that require the Mac OS X applications, but also need the use of third party PCI cards to provide additional interfaces and functions. Same as the above, these users hands are tied to the 27-Inch iMac (not that it’s that bad a forced choice, not by a long shot). But how will you get those required cards to function with your new iMac? The answer is to make use of that nice new (and fast!) Thunderbolt port with a PCI breakout box. These boxes act much like an external Hard Drive caddy in that they provide a case to install PCI cards into. A quick Google search finds at least three manufacturers of such products: Magma, Sonnet and Village Instruments.
The last decent group of Mac Pro users is the ‘I have lots of money and want the best’ group. This is one I strive to be a part of but with little success (as is everyone I imagine!). The simplest is to again, pick the 27-Inch iMac and keep clicking the most expensive CTO (customise to order) options! For around £2,800 (GBP) you could get a 27-Inch LED-backlight screen, a 3.4 GHz Quad Core Intel Core i7 CPU, 16 GB of Apple RAM, a 2 TB Hard Drive and a 256 GB SSD finished off with a AMD Radeon HD 6970M 2GB Video Card. Look at all those big shiny numbers!


Ah Servers, this is where things can get a little complex. This area can be further broken down into two main groups of storage servers, and service servers.
As service providing servers are the simplest to discuss (in this scenario of course) I’ll start with those. I would consider a service server to be something that’ll run network services (DNS, DHCP etc), calendaring (Apple’s iCal and Address Book services) or directory services such as Open Directory for Managed preferences – see my earlier blog post. Essentially anything that would place reasonable load, but the actual storage requirements are low.
This one is nice an easy, get a Mac Mini Server. At Amsys we’d always recommend an upgrade to 8 GB (minimum) as a matter of course – as well as the investment in an external backup drive! Configuring this with a decent backup solution and perhaps mirrored Hard Drives should provide a workable replacement. If the load on the Mac Mini server proves too much, the options would be to try to run a load balancing system on each service between multiple units (e.g. using secondary DNS zones), or to split each service onto separate units (e.g. iCal server on one unit, DNS on a second unit).
What about a file server? This is going to depend on how much file data you have. SOHO (small office/home office) users will generally have a light usage of many things and could get away with just a single Mac Mini unit (see my post on server storage theory). If your requirements are beyond this there are still many other options, that scale up depending on requirements.
For those that just exceed the storage available with the use of a Mac Mini Server, the first step is the use of an external Hard Drive. This should be a minimum of FireWire 800 to ensure that the use of this external unit does not slow down access to files for end users. There are many, many types of these across the market so all I’d suggest is to stick with a named brand and do your customer review research before a purchase.
The next step up is the use of a similar technology referred to as DAS (Direct Attached Storage) or the slang of a ‘RAID box’. These units typically are formed of 2 or more Hard Drives housed in a larger external box. These can provide increased storage with optimisations for failure protection. There is also a large number of these units available and the same minimum of FireWire 800 applies, with the additional preferred ThunderBolt connection if possible. Typical Manufacturers of these units are Drobo, Promise with their Pegasus units and Sonnet.
Finally after this, is where there is a large gap. This used to be filled, not with the Mac Pro or Power Mac, but with the Xserve, and its cousin, the Xserve RAID. Let’s be honest, if you fit in this category, you probably already run a RAID system or even a SAN and easily are more experienced in this area then me!


Well that about wraps up my ramblings for this week. The way I see it is, the only two choices would be the 27-Inch iMac or a Mac Mini plus accessories. As with everything, your mileage may vary so make certain to do your research, and test your solutions before implementing them.
An apology of course if you feel any of my information is incorrect or has parts missing. In the world of I.T there is always more to learn, even without the fast developing pace of technology and computing.
In the same vein, what are your thoughts? Do you agree with me, or do you have alternative solutions that you want to shout about?
Go for it in the comments below and I’ll try to respond to as many as I can.