Configuring Mac Pro storage for price and performance

The Mac Pro is a powerful computer with excellent I/O capability. Here's how to make the most of it - for the least money.

Many Mac Pro buyers will be buying on the corporate credit card so money is not a concern. But if you are a small business cost could be important. The key advantage of the Mac Pro's Thunderbolt expandability is that you can invest in costly options - 4k displays, big storage arrays, PCIe enclosures - that you'll be able to use with the next gen Mac Pro.

Graphics RAM
The Mac Pro is flexible but there are a couple of decisions to make before you buy. First is how much graphics RAM – VRAM – you need, which depends on the graphics cards you select. In my experience more VRAM is always gets the longest useful life out of a system as graphics requirements keep rising.

Second, you need to decide how much internal SSD capacity you need. No vendors have reverse-engineered Apple's PCIe SSD interface and given the small size of the Mac Pro market it may be a while before they do, if ever.

For most users the 256 GB SSD for booting and productivity apps will be sufficient. Apple charges top dollar for its SSDs and you can take the hundreds of dollars saved and apply them to a larger storage array.

The Apple SSD is fast – one benchmark clocked it near 1 GB per second – but you need to compare the cost of added internal capacity versus the cost of a high-performance storage array. For the $800 additional cost (+tax) of the 1TB SSD you can upgrade a Promise array from 4 drives to 6 - 50% more bandwidth - and get over 3TB more capacity. For pro users that's a better long-term choice.

Main memory
You can get DRAM from Apple or 3rd parties. An Apple warranty applies to DRAM you buy with the system, which may be handy if there's a problem. But hard errors are rare and I've never had a DIMM failure.

Apple charges $1300 to add 64GB of DRAM to the quad-core unit, but Data Memory Systems - to name but one - offers the upgrade for $780. They also offer advance replacements, a lifetime warranty, free shipping and possibly no sales tax.

One caveat: 16GB DIMMs must be registered DIMMs - R-DIMMs - and cannot be mixed with unregistered DIMMs. If you want more than 32GB, you have to go to 64GB all at once.

External storage
Another way to save money on storage is to buy non-Apple branded storage elsewhere. Apple does not warranty non-Apple products - even when you buy them from Apple - so there's no reason to buy from Apple.

For example, the Promise Thunderbolt 2 arrays come in 4, 6 and 8 drive versions for $1499, $2299 and $4599 respectively from Apple. The 32TB, 8 drive version can be had for $4225 online, with no tax. Look around and get the 1st gen Promise Thunderbolt array - I've been pleased with the 4 drive model I bought 2 years ago - and you'll still have plenty of performance for 2k video at an even greater savings.

But other vendors, such as LaCie, WD, Drobo and G-Tech, also offer arrays. For maximum price/performance use RAID0 - which has no redundancy so backup! - on a "dumb" array like the LaCie 5big Thunderbolt. If that makes you nervous then go for RAID5 or, better yet, RAID6.

The lowest cost storage is on USB 3.0 disks, so use those to backup your system drive as well as critical files. They're fast and cheap, so don't skimp.

The Storage Bits take
These tips you can save 10%-20% on a new Mac Pro system. And give you a system where much of the value is preserved when you upgrade in three years.

If you do attach significant Thunderbolt storage and want to move it out of your office, look into the new fiber optic cables. These eliminate ground loops, a leading cause of intermittent problems in distributed systems, as well as offering much longer runs than copper.

It is the connectivity of the new Mac Pro that distinguishes it from most workstation PCs. Take good advantage of that and you'll maximize your returns and protect your investment for years to come.

Comments welcome, as always. Pros: how do you configure storage on high-end systems?