[ This article generated a lot of technical comments. Be sure to view the comments in this blog to learn more. ]
Updated: June 15, to reflect a variety of technical comments from readers.
On Monday, Apple gladdened the hearts of power users everywhere by providing a “sneak peek” at the new Mac Pro. Stylish, diminutive, and blindingly fast – at least according to the specs provided by Apple. Since that time, I’ve been thinking a lot about a system that is directly targeted to meet the performance needs of video editors, and other power users.
First, keep in mind that this was a “Sneak Peek” — a tantalizing glimpse of what is coming in the future, not a formal product launch. (This is similar to what Apple did a couple years ago when they provided an “advanced look” at Final Cut Pro X at the 2011 NAB SuperMeet.) Consequently, while this “peek” provided an overview, it was intentionally sparse in providing details. Partly, I suspect, because Apple wants to gather feedback from potential users before nailing down the final specs.
One of the key things I realized was that this system is envisioned to be highly configurable. Just as the current Mac Pro has a wide variety of options for RAM, GPU, storage, and connectivity, this unit is envisioned to be highly customizable as well.
If you think about it, the current Mac Pro is the most customizable system that Apple makes. Configuration is at the heart of the new Mac Pro as well. While I expect that there will be one physical unit, we will have a lot of choices about what goes into that unit.
This also means that we will see a variety of price points as well, depending upon how each system is configured. In this regard, the new Mac Pro is identical to the current Mac Pro.
THUNDERBOLT IS KEY
Also keep in mind that Apple views Thunderbolt as more than a fast way to move data to and from a hard disk. Apple considers Thunderbolt as a direct connection to the PCI bus of the computer, able to deliver up to 20 Gb/second of data. Think of Thunderbolt as a direct line connecting the PCI bus to the expansion chassis of your choice.
NOTE: According to a reader, Intel is claiming a throughput of Thunderbolt 2 of about 1.6 GB/second, which is still very fast.
For most people, a fast computer coupled with lots of RAM and a really fast storage system will be all they need. In fact, Philip Hodgetts has written that more than 80% of Mac Pro users don’t have any PCI cards in their system; aside from the graphics card. For those users, the new Mac Pro fits their needs for raw power, without adding tons of unneeded expansion slots.
NOTE: We used to think of PCIe card performance in terms of the number of “lanes” they used to connect to the motherboard. There were four, eight, and sixteen lane cards. The more lanes, the faster the potential communication speed between card and bus. With Thunderbolt, Apple is moving away from the concept of lanes, to straight data transfer speeds.
Thunderbolt 2 is fully-backward compatible with the original Thunderbolt. Thunderbolt devices can be connected by either copper or optical cables. Copper cables can be up to 3 meters in length (about 10 feet). Optical cables can extend up to 100 meters, for users that want to store their computers or RAIDs in a machine room for security, noise, or air conditioning reasons. Currently, optical cable lengths of 10, 20, and 30 meters are available on the market.
For users that need to expand the capabilities of their computer, for example DSP audio cards, video ingest and capture cards, mini-SAS or eSATA cards, more graphics cards, a very real question becomes “how many card slots should the computer hold?” Apple felt that picking any number of internal card slots would be limiting to some number of users. By moving all expansion cards outside the box, then connecting with the very high-speed Thunderbolt 2 data bus, Apple essentially provided a virtually unlimited number of card slots for users that need the maximum in expandability.
NOTE: As a sidelight, one Thunderbolt 2 connection provides sufficient data bandwidth to ingest uncompressed 4K images, or output video to a 4K video monitor, or support VGA, DVI, and DisplayPort computer monitors. Plus Apple put an HDMI port on the back of the Mac Pro just for good measure.
Already, ATTO and Sonnet, along with others are offering Thunderbolt to “X” converter boxes: mini-SAS, FibreChannel, eSATA, Ultra-SCSI. And vendors such as AJA, Blackmagic Design, and Matrox offer ingest and monitoring options connected via Thunderbolt.
The one missing piece is the lack of high-speed Thunderbolt-native RAID 5 storage systems, with the notable exception of Promise. There are plenty of two-drive RAID 0 and RAID 1 systems, but very, very few 5 to 10 drive RAID 5 systems, which we editors need the most. I’ve heard lots of rumors of what’s causing the problem. Without pointing fingers, I hope this bottleneck gets resolved quickly.
We also need to consider that this is a system and not focus on one single element. The new CPU is twice as fast as the current Mac Pro in floating point operations. Memory bandwidth has doubled and now supports four channels of communication between RAM and the CPU.
The big news, though, was the addition of multiple GPUs. Although the ATI FirePros were featured, I suspect other options will also be available as part of the customization options Apple offers at launch.
Now, things get interesting.
On Monday, Apple made a point to say that Final Cut Pro X would release a new version that supports the Mac Pro. That instantly made me think that all applications would need to be rewritten in order to run on the Mac Pro, which would make this new system a non-starter.
This is not the case.
Instead, think of the dual-GPUs in the Mac Pro as similar to when Apple released multi-processor CPUs. All applications would run on a multi-processor system, but until they were re-written to support multi-threading (which is the technical ability software uses to take advantage of more than one processor) the application would be limited to using only one processor. This was one of the big limitations of Final Cut Pro 7.
NOTE: In terms of Final Cut Pro X, multiple GPUs offer significant performance benefits for real-time effects playback, rendering, optical flow retiming, and exporting.
So, the Mac Pro will run all current Mac software. However, if the software wants to take advantage of the dual GPUs, it may need to be reconfigured to do so. This is not a small task for developers, but it isn’t impossible. This is what Apple was referring to when they said a new version of Final Cut Pro X would be released to support the Mac Pro.
NOTE: Once developers know they can count of dual GPUs, they can design new software from scratch to take advantage of it, the way that everyone writes software today to take advantage of multiple processors and multiple cores.
UPDATE: A reader points out: “When using OpenCL, no code modification is required (problem only for Dev’s which don’t use OpenCL). Some use CUDA-API (Nvidia) – and this requires re-coding.
UPDATE: Another reader points out that the next version of Adobe Premiere and After Effects already support Open CL.
And the performance results of optimizing for dual GPUs can be astounding. Grant Petty, CEO of Blackmagic Design, tweeted earlier this week that they have been testing Resolve 10 on the new Mac Pro and it “screams.”
Apple designed the Mac Pro as its most powerful and flexible desktop computer. They architected it to reflect where they see computers going for the next ten years. They provided a wealth of Thunderbolt ports – and converters – so that all legacy monitors, storage, and cards can be supported.
This has the potential to be an amazing piece of gear and I can’t wait to learn more at the launch.
As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.