Apple's 2019 Mac Pro Defines the Modular Workstation

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Apple’s redesigned Mac Pro (Late 2019) defines what a modular workstation is. With a chassis that is based on flexibility and utility, Apple has done away with the cylindrical form factor of the 2013 Mac Pro and brought back the tower design that was used from 2006-2012. However, while the Mac Pro tower has returned, this new rendition is anything but ordinary. Apple built a system that can change as your needs do, giving users a great amount of control over the assembly and components of their final build, thanks to an aluminum housing that vertically lifts off to provide 360° access to the system’s interior. If there were a picture in the dictionary next to the term “workstation,” there would be a picture of the Mac Pro, because it has the power to tackle tasks including non-GPU intensive applications, video editing, 3D content creation, photo retouching, multi-GPU pro applications, GPU rendering, machine learning, particle simulations, and more.

There are two main components of the Mac Pro that place it in its own class of workstation. The first is Apple’s Afterburner, a PCIe x16 ProRes and ProRes RAW hardware accelerator card for Final Cut Pro X, QuickTime Player X, and supported third-party apps. Unique to the Mac Pro, Afterburner allows you to go straight from the camera to a timeline and work natively with 4K and 8K files, all without needing to transcode video or create proxy workflows. With a frame rate of 30 fps, the Afterburner card supports up to three streams of 8K ProRes RAW, up to 12 streams of 4K ProRes RAW, and up to 16 streams of 4K ProRes 422, meaning you can free up your CPU cores to enable even more creative effects and processing.

The second component, which is also unique to the Mac Pro, is the Mac Pro Expansion Module, or MPX Module. The MPX Module starts with a standard PCIe connector, with additional PCIe lanes added to integrate Thunderbolt™ and provide increased capabilities, thanks to its 500W of power. MPX Modules are installed into MPX slots, and the Mac Pro has two MPX slots, each of which can hold one MPX Module. The MPX Modules can be configured with one, two, or four GPUs, with four GPUs providing up to 56.8 teraflops and 128GB of HBM2 memory, plus the bandwidth to drive twelve 4K displays or six Pro Display XDRs. GPU options for the Mac Pro include a single AMD Radeon Pro 580X, a single or dual AMD Radeon Pro Vega II, and a single or dual AMD Radeon Pro Vega II Duo.

It’s also worth noting that all dual GPU setups are connected through the Infinity Fabric Link, which allows for data transfers between the cards at up to 84 GB/s.

While processor, memory, and storage are important, the Afterburner and MPX Modules make the Mac Pro stand out in a field that is heavily populated by systems with multi-core Xeon™ processors, large RAM loadouts, and high-capacity storage drives. However, its CPU, RAM, and storage components are nothing to scoff at. Apple offers five different Xeon™ W processors, starting with a 3.5 GHz Eight-Core, and moving steadily up the ladder to a 3.3 GHz 12-Core, 3.2 GHz 16-Core, 2.7 GHz 24-Core, and 2.5 GHz 28-Core. All models can be configured with up to 768GB of memory, with a 1.5TB option available for the 24- and 28-core systems. Also, all systems support 2933 MHz memory, except for the 8-core, which supports 2666 MHz memory. Storage-wise, the Mac Pro can be set up with 256GB, 1TB, 2TB, or 4TB of storage, with sequential reads of up to 2.6 GB/s and sequential writes of 2.7 GB/s. While the 256GB SSD comes as one module; all other SSD configurations come with the storage capacity evenly split between two modules. Storage is also encrypted by the Apple T2 Security Chip.

The Mac Pro is also defined by its flexible and high-speed I/O connectivity. All configurations have two 40 Gb/s Thunderbolt™ 3 ports, two 5 Gb/s USB 3.2 Gen 1 Type-A ports, and two 10Gb Ethernet ports within a pre-installed PCIe 3.0 x4 card, plus two additional Thunderbolt™ 3 ports on top of the chassis, bringing the total Thunderbolt™ 3 ports to four. If you opt for a configuration with a Radeon Pro Vega II or Radeon Pro Vega II Duo graphics card, they each have four Thunderbolt™ 3 ports, meaning that the Mac Pro can have eight total Thunderbolt™ 3 ports with a single GPU or twelve with dual GPUs. External connectivity is rounded out by HDMI 2.0, and the base-level Radeon Pro 580X gives you two HDMI 2.0 ports, while the Vega II and Vega II Duo provide one HDMI 2.0 port. Each GPU also contains DisplayPort connections that support the Mac Pro’s Thunderbolt™ 3 ports.

Internally, there are eight total PCIe slots. One is used for the half-length PCIe 3.0 x4 I/O card, leaving users with one dedicated PCIe 3.0 x16 slot and two dedicated PCIe 3.0 x8 single-wide slots. However, if you want the Afterburner card, that’s going to occupy the x16 slot. The remaining four slots can be used for either PCIe expansion or the MPX modules. If you opt for PCIe expansion, MPX bay 1 can support one full-length, double-wide PCIe 3.0 x16 card and one full-length, double-wide PCIe 3.0 x8 card, while MPX bay 2 can support two full-length, double-wide PCIe 3.0 x16 cards.

If you choose to use the MPX bays for MPX modules, PCIe availability will depend on your graphics card of choice, as well as if you select a GPU configuration that uses one or both MPX bays. The Radeon Pro 580X uses a half-height MPX module and fits in an MPX bay, but its smaller form factor enables PCIe slot 2 for additional expansion, and the second MPX bay is also available. Single Radeon Pro Vega II and Vega II Duo card configurations both occupy an entire MPX bay, leaving the second MPX bay empty, but dual card configurations with either of these GPUs will fully occupy both MPX bays.

Since the Mac Pro was unveiled, I’m not sure if other workstations still qualify as a workstation. This system will require a commitment of resources, but is something that will last for years to come. If it’s any indication of the Mac Pro’s longevity, my 2009 Mac Pro is still running smoothly. Over the years, I have upgraded its memory, swapped out the 3.5" drives for 2.5" SSDs, installed a USB 3.0 card in one of the PCIe slots, and made other upgrades, but this is why Apple has brought the Mac Pro back to its original modular, tower form factor. My 2009 Mac Pro has been running for ten years. Now that technology has advanced, you can expect the 2019 Mac Pro to run for at least a decade, if not longer.

Stop by the B&H "Mac Pro, Unleashed" Page to learn more about how the Mac Pro can help different types of creative workflows.

Do you feel the Mac Pro will take your work into the stratosphere? Feel free to share your comments below.

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