I wrote last month about the RAID configuration I set up for my Mac Pro in an attempt to increase system speed. That article included a table of data transfer rates that showed some improvement, but not as much or as consistently as I was hoping for. To go the next step I’ve done some research on what other options are available and I’m posting the results of that now.
First off, the website Mac Performance Guide is a tremendous resource of tips, testing and information. Lloyd Chambers runs the site, offers consulting services and is also a photographer. I highly recommend his site to anyone digging into the details of optimizing performance on Macintosh systems. Its new for me, as I’ve always relied on Bare Feats for performance data — the two sites together are a wonderful resource.
After CPU and RAM, the hard drive is a key element of increasing system speed, especially for data intensive uses such as digital photography. Image files are getting larger and larger as camera sensor sizes increase (I’m shooting with the 18 megapixel Canon 7D), workflow software such as Aperture and Lightroom demand a lot from your system, and the need for backup is critical to everyone who depends on their computer. There’s no need to remind anyone about the hardware needs of Photoshop.
The key to hard drive throughput is RAID 0 (Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks) — a configuration of multiple drives that allows data to be written to, or read from, all drives at the same time, speeding up throughput by a theoretical factor of two. Combining that with really fast devices, either SSD (Solid State Drives, using memory instead of rotating discs) or SATA (Serial Advanced Technology Attachment) drives is the way to high speed data transfer.
Chambers’ recommendation is a RAID 0 of SSDs as a boot drive and a RAID 0 of fast SATA drives for data storage and to not mix the two. That was the direction I was headed, but the boot drive RAID 0 I am using is made up of not so fast SATA drives. And my data drive is the same drive as the boot drive.
My solution is going to be a pair of OWC Mercury Extreme Pro 60GB SSDs as my boot drive and a pair of Western Digital Caviar Black 1TB SATA drives for my data. That arrangement will give me a 120GB boot drive and 2TBs of online storage; both are larger than I need so I’ll have room to grow and will also allow the system to use the “fast part” of the drives. This is only possible on Mac Pro systems due to their multiple internal SATA drive bays and is a significant reason (besides the separate display) to favor a Mac Pro over an iMac for demanding computing needs.
And I won’t forget the backups. For online backup I’m going with an OWC Mercury Elite-AL Dual drive enclosure interfaced via the NewerTech MAXPower 6G PCIe 2.0 eSATA controller card (another Mac Pro advantage — multiple PCI card slots). Two 500GB Seagate drives will be coming free from the internal bays and will be moved to this enclosure. That pair will become a RAID 0 1TB Time Machine drive and using eSATA will be much faster than FireWire 800. Offsite backup will remain my existing LaCie Rugged 320GB portable drive interface via FireWire 800. My “belt and suspenders” backup will stay with Backblaze cloud storage. Both the online and offsite backup capacities area a little small, compared to the boot and data volumes, but are the right size for my data now and can be upgraded as needed.
All that hardware should be here later this week, so look for a report after that on the real world performance of the system.
What would be next? The 8 core 2.8GHz Mac Pro I have now is plenty fast and is not yet really outclassed by the newer Mac Pros (but the 6 core system is tempting). I have 8GB of RAM now, which should be good enough, but a future upgrade will focus on adding more RAM (and probably fast enough RAM to salvage for a future Mac Pro upgrade). The NVIDIA GeForce 8800 GT that drives my 23” Cinema Display is the upgraded BTO card at the time my Mac Pro was new and is still pretty fast. The newer ATI Radeon HD video cards are faster still so may be an upgrade potential in the future.
If you are thinking about either upgrading your existing Mac, or considering buying a new one, I’d suggest reading the Mac Performance Guide as part of your decision making process.