Looking for small form-factor workstation - starting to think nMP may be only option!

Discussion in 'Mac Pro' started by johngwheeler, Jan 13, 2014.

  1. johngwheeler macrumors 6502

    Dec 30, 2010
    I come from a land down-under...
    For the last few months I've been investigatng "small form-factor" (SFF) computers for use as a development workstation / server. My key requirements are:

    1) Able to run at least a 6-core Intel CPU
    2) Quiet under load
    3) Small enough to sit on the desk just behind my monitors
    4) Light and small enough to take on an airplane as hand baggage.

    It's not been an easy task. The motherboard needs to have the LGA2011 socket to support the 6-core Intel i7 or Xeon E5 processors, and there are only a couple of the small mini-ITX boards that fit the bill (plus at least one non-standard board in the Shuttle SFF computer cases).

    Most of the PC-build forums advise against trying to use the high-TDP processors on mini-ITX boards inside small cases due to the thermal constraints. Additionally, the small boards only support 4-sticks of (non-ECC) RAM, which currently limits them to 32GB even though the processors support at least 64GB (i7 Ivy-Bridge E). So this points to using the larger micro-ATX boards.

    Then there is the size of the cases required for the micro-ATX boards. They all seem to have space for at least 3 or 4 3.5-inch disks & at least one optical drive. I just don't need these - I only need space for a couple of 2.5" SSDs. I know this has been a debate between defenders of the old Mac Pro, but all my bulk storage is on external disks or NAS, and I agree that masses of "in-chassis" storage is a bit old-school, and more suited to file servers.

    It seems that the massive towers are still very much alive in the workstation world.

    They do, however, have one big advantage: it can be much cheaper to build your own workstation with "similar" performance than buy a mac-pro. This has been argued about extensively, I know, and I am neither a fanboy nor a hater - I just want a good computer at a reasonable price. I was interested in this $3000 build - https://teksyndicate.com/videos/kill-your-mac-pro-build-better-3000-workstation-pc?page=1

    To be honest, I'd be happy with a 6-core i7 with 32GB RAM, a couple of SSDs (maybe in RAID 0), and any video card that can support 3 monitors (I'm not into gaming or video rendering, so don't need GPU grunt).

    I could build a pretty decent 6-core machine for $2000. Sure, it won't have PCIe SSD, Xeon CPU with ECC or fancy GPUs, but I don't really need these. I don't even need Mac OS - I'm OK working in Linux, or even Windows if necessary. However, this box would not meet at least two of requirements on size & weight.

    The trouble is no-one else seems to make what I want except Apple, and I'd have to pay twice as much for the privilege!

    Is anyone else in the same boat as me? I love the look of the nMP and I think it'd be great as a development workstation or server, but I'd be paying for those fancy GPUs and avant-garde design.

    Do I just have to admit that the nMP is unique and find the funds? Or can we expect other manufacturers to follow suit, and produce something similar?

    Oh the agony of decision!
  2. VirtualRain macrumors 603


    Aug 1, 2008
    Vancouver, BC
    So you're the one they talked to before designing the nMP?! :p

    Seriously, the nMP was built for you man!

    Although, without a doubt the nMP detractors will be here any minute to say you can get a quieter, smaller, more powerful computer from elsewhere for much less. (Or at least endorse your theory that you can build one yourself).

    Anyway, you seem like you know what you want... So I say go for it! :)
  3. Tanax macrumors 6502a

    Jun 15, 2011
    Stockholm, Sweden
    Considering PC manufacturers has been starting with AIO's that looks like the iMac, I think it's a safe bet that PC manufacturers will start making computer cases that looks or is at least similar to the nMP. However, if these computer cases will be for DIY computers or only made by some OEM (like HP or Dell), that's the real question..
  4. Gav Mack, Jan 14, 2014
    Last edited: Jan 14, 2014

    Gav Mack macrumors 68020

    Gav Mack

    Jun 15, 2008
    Sagittarius A*
    My first two cans are using the nMP are for exactly this purpose.

    The first is in Lagos right now, hex core d500 running 8.1 pro beautifully plonked on the MD clients desk hooked up to a pair of Dell u3014's. Far far quieter than the Dell precision i originally specced out for him and he is very happy indeed, won over totally in fact because he didn't want an Apple but I knew it would be perfect for him. It's been a client magnet as well too apparently some of them want one as it gets rather hot and sticky out there despite the AC (power cuts too so network runs on generator backup) and it runs so quiet nevertheless in comparison, he can Skype clients and his other offices using the webcam mic and speakers! He had a Sony z series laptop with thunderbolt dock which made a racket and has been retired without a blink. A retina 15 bootcamp is next on his list now he's convinced!

    The next is a more tricky 7x64 EFI install hex core with 1tb SSD, no sign of ship date yet...
  5. wheelhot macrumors 68020

    Nov 23, 2007
    Sounds like the nMP is designed just for you! No.4 is what made me not to get a rMBP as the nMP form factor allows me to "carry" the nMP back and forth from work to home almost daily (and it being 5kg is a steal!)


    Interesting clients you have and I'm looking forward to hear the Win7 HexCore setup, It'll be interesting to know what will future bootcamp updates affect if you managed to install Win 7
  6. Radiating macrumors 65816

    Dec 29, 2011
    It's always amusing me when people start trying to build cheaper versions of products that are an excellent value from Apple, and then start nickel and dimming everything, and saying you don't need certain features.

    Ok you're going to build a $2000 computer in the same form factor as a $3000 Mac Pro.

    Great! You just saved $1000. Amazing! Now what do you think is going to happen in a few years when you need another computer to replace the one you have? Just sell the parts and buy a new one right?

    Great! Your $2000 DIY computer depreciates 50% per generation based on historical figures. So that's $1000. In the same time period the Mac Pro depreciates 20%, which has been consistent for 3 generations.

    What this means is that you could buy the $5,000 Mac Pro, and you would break even with your $2000 DIY computer long term, or get the $3,000 one and it would cost half as much long term, and that doesn't take into account all the time it takes to put together the computer, possible warranty and troubleshooting time wasted, having to buy multiple components as overhead due to things not fitting correctly or working correctly (I've built small form factor PC's before and my last one required me to purchase 3 power supplies until I found one that routed the cables just how I wanted, and dozens of sets of cables to connect drives fans etc, and 4 CPU coolers until I found one that was silent, 3 $100 PSU's, 14 cables and 4 CPU coolers and thermal paste add up, and for the items I could return postage and restocking fees add up even more).

    If you're concerned with spending the least amount of money then there is no scenario where you save money long term going DIY in your situation. If you cannot afford the difference then you still save money even if you borrow the difference at a ridiculous 50% interest rate per year.

    The DIY is never the cheaper option.
  7. Gav Mack, Jan 14, 2014
    Last edited: Jan 14, 2014

    Gav Mack macrumors 68020

    Gav Mack

    Jun 15, 2008
    Sagittarius A*
    The md has hinted about taking the wife and kids along to see him and install a can myself in his São Paulo office during the World Cup which would be far more interesting :)

    This 7 install think I will have to have win 8 and 7 sp1 x64 efi and bc support usb media handy, do the os switch post bca restart and plug the bca support usb stick after the first setup reboot. Mate who packages msi and installs together for work is going through the nMP bootcamp XML installer scripts and packages over the following week or two to check for anything 8 only out of the ordinary. Worst case scenario as far as I can tell will be a broken or missing bootcamp control panel with no hotkey support, a price that can be paid for working!

    Unless there's a major bug, or also with the AHCI mbr mod done for windows within OSX I never normally update bootcamp at all in windows or via apple software update..
  8. johngwheeler thread starter macrumors 6502

    Dec 30, 2010
    I come from a land down-under...
  9. Beta Particle macrumors 6502a

    Jun 25, 2012
    Building a quiet small form-factor PC should not be too difficult—just buy Noctua hardware and check reviews of other components like the graphics card. (TechPowerUp does great noise testing)
    But youʼre right that there are basically no small form-factor LGA2011 boards available if you need a 6-core CPU—only that old Shuttle system. (and thatʼs not one I would really recommend)
    When people think “workstation” most donʼt expect that to be a “portable” system.

    And even if you only needed a 4-core CPU where there are plenty of m-ITX boards available, those only have one PCIe slot for graphics.
    What you gain in flexibility with PC hardware, you lose in size.

    There are no standardized “thermal core” designs, and everything needs to fit into a PCIe slot, so any graphics card you buy needs to come with its own cooling solution, which is typically a dual-slot cooler of some design.

    Appleʼs re-imagining of how the components fit together is extremely space efficient, and you cannot do that without custom hardware.
    It also avoids the problem that a lot of small form-factor cases have, which is limited airflow. Cramming two GPUs and a CPU into a small box does not allow for great airflow in most cases.
    The GPU fans and CPU fans are working in different orientations rather than all airflow coming in through the bottom of the case and going out the top.

    A good solution to this is water cooling, where everything does get cooled by a single large radiator—but few small form factor cases are designed with this in mind.

    Realistically, this is about as small as you are going to get with reasonably powerful hardware.
    Thatʼs MSIʼs new Z87 m-ITX motherboard and compact GTX760, and while I canʼt find exact dimensions, itʼs going to be about ≈170x200x120mm—which is huge compared to the ≈170x170x250mm size of the Mac Pro, considering the level of hardware in both.

    And youʼre also correct in saying that PC towers are still designed with 3.5″ hard drives in mind, as well as 5.25″ bays which can be used for optical drives, displays, card readers etc.
    There are two problems there:

    1. Thunderbolt adoption is really low on PC, so buying something like one of Promiseʼs RAID enclosures is not really an option.
    That said, a Mac Pro plus one of those enclosures is basically the size of a PC tower—larger than a small-to-medium m-ATX case with a pair of high-end GPUs and internal drive bays, and it has to sit on your desk.
    Itʼs also extremely expensive, and does not let you pick the drives being used.
    And itʼs a louder solution—having the drives inside a PC tower on the floor is quieter than a Mac Pro and Promise solution sitting on your desk.

    2. Networked storage is slow. Unless youʼre using 10gig ethernet, accessing networked storage is significantly slower than a SATA connected internal drive.​

    If you are basically looking to build your own Mac Pro, rather than build a high-end computer to meet a different set of requirements (e.g. size is not a factor, you need internal expansion or optical drives, you need more CPU or GPU power than the Mac Pro provides, the Mac Pro is too expensive etc.) then I think you are better served by buying a Mac Pro. There are some use cases where it makes a lot of sense.

    Personally, I think itʼs ridiculous to give up desk space to the computer and bring that noise up to ear level. (while it might be “silent” at idle, the fan does spin up under load)
    I have 20TB of internal storage, an SSD, and a pair of Blu-ray drives in my system. If I had spare SATA ports, I would probably add another two Blu-ray drives.
    I have a pair of Nvidia GPUs, because AMDʼs do not meet my requirements.
    I have an overclocked Haswell CPU because single-threaded performance still matters a lot to my work, and few applications I have scale beyond four cores.
    Itʼs all stored in a huge tower because itʼs located at the other side of the building and size is not an issue. (neither is noise, though it is extremely quiet)

    The Mac Pro is not “excellent value”—it might have been when people still thought that the D700s were equivalent to Firepro W9000 cards (“$6000 in GPUs for $1000!”) or before they were aware of that $1000+ mark-up on the CPUs compared to the prices directly from Intel.
    Few PC owners throw out the old system and completely replace it these days. The whole point is that if you need faster graphics performance, you just swap out the GPU rather than the entire system. (as Apple would like you to do)
    If Apple actually keeps the Mac Pro up to date, I think this may change. Historically Apple has been very slow in updating the Mac Pros, which is why they may have seemed to hold their value for longer.
    Itʼs also been so long now that many pros have moved from Macs to PCʼs where the hardware is updated on a more regular basis, and realized that they donʼt need to spend so much on a Mac Pro now.

    Personally, I have not had nearly as much luck selling old Mac hardware as people claim on these forums. The only hardware Iʼve sold which has actually held any value has been the iPads.
    I was losing about 2/3 of the cost on MacBook Pros when I was updating them on a yearly basis - far worse than your “20%”.

    Base-spec hardware seems to hold its value reasonably well, but not the high-end systems. People just see “15″ MacBook Pro” not “15″ MacBook Pro with $1500 in upgrades”
    But this assumes you throw out the entire computer and buy something new. The whole point of a PC is that itʼs modular.
    Building a PC takes less than an hour. I have never had so much downtime as I have with Apple hardware. Maybe they treat Mac Pro customers differently from the ones buying iMacs, MacBook Pros, and MacBooks, but AppleCareʼs quality of service, and the time it took them for repairs, is what pushed me back onto PCʼs again, where I can just walk into any PC store and buy the part I need and fit it within the hour.
    If you actually check the measurements and research the products before you buy them, that should not be a problem.

    I would argue that a lot of people looking into PCʼs are not necessarily doing it to save money (though Iʼm sure a lot of people are) but for the flexibility in hardware choices that you have rather than the limitations of the new Mac Pro design where everything is designed around external expansion.
  10. Radiating, Jan 14, 2014
    Last edited: Jan 14, 2014

    Radiating macrumors 65816

    Dec 29, 2011
    Each Firepro D700, has a 384 bit bus and 6GB of ram, as well as EDC support, which is AMD's software ECC. AMD hasn't supported ECC memory in any of their workstation cards released during the majority of the Mac Pro's development cycle. So I really don't see how the Mac Pro's video cards are gaming cards. You cannot find a gaming card with those features. Sure it's slightly less powerful than a W9000, but it's basically half way between a W7000 and a W9000. It's better than $2000 worth of GPU.

    You do realize that by keeping the system difficult to upgrade that Apple improves it's resale value right? Your old video card is worth way more if it's proprietary. That's a good thing. I want Apple to keep things exclusive it saves it's customers money.

    Good luck swapping just one thing on your obsolete motherboard when LGA 1150/2011 are discontinued, along with PCIE 3.0 in late 2015.

    Again what matters is depreciation not initial cost.

    That sounds about right for MacBook Pros, but if you play your cards right you can easily get loyalty education or corporate discounts.

    I have actually made a small PROFIT upgrading my 3 MacBook's every generation. I make $7-$70.

    You have a point, the base system holds it's value best, but what I usually do is purchase last year's top level system, or this year's mid level system and with slight discounts I usually break even make a small loss or make a small profit. Buying this year's high end system is a bad move though. I think a 6 core 32gb D700 512gb would be the highest spec system that would hold it's value well.

    I have received excellent service from Apple, my local store guarantees repairs within 7 days, or they replace my computer, and they provide me with a loaner computer (14 days return policy new model). I have my OS backed up to a high speed drive and can restore in 5 minutes so I have literally 15 minutes of down time.

    I personally don't care about expansion. I know exactly the performance I need and I want the lowest possible cost of ownership, and highest reliability and least amount of BS.

    Apple answers all these needs in a premium ultra small portable package. Remember Apple exists as a company that makes computing simple. I've spent decades building and buying top of the line PC hardware and it has been a nightmare of unreliability and BS. If I can lower costs, and lower BS in the high performance segment, then I have everything I need.
  11. Beta Particle macrumors 6502a

    Jun 25, 2012
    I thought benchmarks were putting it on-par with the W7000s due to it being underclocked. Still, it doesn't matter what you're comparing it to, the point is that it's not $6000 in graphics cards for $1000 as people initially thought when proclaiming that the Mac Pro was such a bargain.
    The other side of that argument is that you're paying stupid money for old hardware - like the $450 Radeon 5870 Apple are still selling, rather than buying a faster off-the-shelf 7750 for $99.

    And it seems unlikely that Apple are even going to sell after-market GPUs for the new Mac Pros.
    Intel typically keeps desktop sockets around for two cycles and then replaces them. LGA2011 has been around since... 2011, and will still be used for the Haswell EP update.

    PCIe is backwards compatible, and cards do not need anything like full PCIe bandwidth. Except in very rare circumstances, there's basically no difference between using PCIe 2.0 or 3.0 with modern graphics cards. (16x PCIe 2.0 = 8x PCIe 3.0)

    So you might need to replace the motherboard if you are changing the CPU, but nothing else. And the motherboard is not an expensive part now that everything is built into the CPU/Chipset now.
    You're assuming that you can sell them for only a 20% loss. That seems extremely unrealistic to me, and it also depends how long you intend on keeping the hardware around.
    Only if you don't have Intel or Apple decide that 6 cores now becomes the base spec rather than quad cores. I lost a lot the year Apple moved from dual-core to quad-core as standard in the MacBook Pros.
    Well that's the polar opposite of my experiences. Apple would absolutely not loan out hardware, and repair times often went on far longer than 7 days. If I did not chase them up on it, it seemed like no progress was made on the repairs. With standard PC parts, I can source them anywhere and fit them myself.

    If my GPU dies and I need a replacement, I don't have to wait for the store to get new stock of the exact same custom part - I can buy any GPU they have in stock and can continue to get work done that day while the faulty card is replaced.
    As I said in my post, there are some use cases where the Mac Pro makes a lot of sense, and it sounds like it might suit your needs quite well.
    Many of the design choices they have made put it in a very niche market though. Other than someone really wanting to use OS X (which is not a reason that justifies it cost, in my opinion) or needing to carry their workstation around with them, Final Cut seems to be the main thing that justifies buying a Mac Pro right now.
    PC hardware is no more or less reliable than Apple's hardware, and Windows has been perfectly stable for a long time now.

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