Does Thunderbolt Signal the Potential End to the Mac Pro?

March 17th, 2011

Not so long ago, some people ragged on The Night Owl because they misunderstood my statements that the Mac Pro might be an endangered species in the near future. My point was not that it would happen this year, or the next, but that the future might be bleak for its continuation several years from now. That fine point of distinction was lost to some.

But it’s clear to me that Apple’s product development path is clearly designed to bring workstation-class power and performance to less expensive gear. The new Thunderbolt connection port, as far as I’m concerned, is clearly the harbinger of major changes that won’t take long to manifest themselves.

Consider the major advantages of a Mac Pro. One is the more powerful Intel Xeon processor, the ability to install high-end graphic cards for 3D and CAD design, and those expansion ports for RAID cards and other peripherals that are essential tools for many content creators. I know that, in the past, I always bought the top-of-the-line Mac, or something quite close, and that choice was first made in the late 1980s.

But it wasn’t just the desire to cut expenses that made me switch to a 27-inch iMac with Intel i7 quad-core processor a little more than a year ago. The arrival of desktop-class multicore processors means that you can come awfully close to the power of a Mac Pro for a much lower price. Indeed, I was able to sell a 30-inch display plus a 2008 Mac Pro, buy the iMac with a faster processor and memory upgrade, and still get $300 in change to pay some bills. And I don’t think I’m alone in making this move. I expect that sales of the Mac Pro are far from being the shining light of Apple’s Mac product lineup.

Apple’s biggest move yet to equalize your access to a powerful personal computer came with the Early 2011 MacBook Pro family. Two models are available with quad-core Intel i 7 processors, from the Sandy Bridge family, which deliver benchmarks very close to a Mac Pro. More important, however, is the arrival of Thunderbolt, which means you have an external PCI Express connection port that can support up to six daisy chained peripherals, not to mention an external display.

Sure, it’ll be a while before Thunderbolt comes into its own. Accessory makers are just starting to gear up with gigantic hard drives, RAID configurations, and other products that’ll benefit from Thunderbolt. Imagine a MacBook Pro, a portable computer that’s easily transported between work and home, which can be easily connected via a single cable to a desktop configuration with an external display and powerful peripherals for whatever work you plan to do.

I would expect to see Thunderbolt included in the next iMac upgrade, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a future Mac mini refresh had it too. Apple is famous (or infamous) for leveraging parts across as many product lines as possible to keep production costs down. With millions of Macs outfitted with Thunderbolt ports — and Windows PC boxes will ultimately have them too — you can expect a rich selection of high-speed peripherals to connect to that port.

Some have suggested that a future iPad might also sport Thunderbolt connectivity, but I rather that’s overkill. At least for now, but it’s inevitable that more and more of the functions of a desktop computer will pass on to tablets. After all, the iPad 2 sports a level of computing power that you might have expected from a traditional Mac or PC not so many years ago.

As far as the Mac Pro is concerned, I’m looking at the long picture here. Much of how Apple handles that product depends on demand. If it still offers features that a sufficient customer base of content creators and power users crave, it won’t disappear anytime soon. At some point in time, though, as other products continue to assume the Mac Pro’s functions, more or less, that situation will change.

Remember that the Xserve was discontinued, not because it wasn’t any good, but because demand was not sufficient to justify development. Apple doesn’t have a romantic attachment to products that have outlived their usefulness. Even the Power Mac G4 Cube, clearly a pet product for Steve Jobs, got axed because they couldn’t find  a way to continue to sell them.

Remember that Apple won’t stop building the Mac Pro simply out of piqué or disdain for professional customers. It’s all about sales, and you are the people who will determine its future, now and in the years to come. More to the point, if other Macs can deliver the performance and flexibility you need, maybe it won’t matter.

Now I expect some of the folks who misquoted my previous columns on the subject will now flex their fingers to do it yet again. But make no mistake about it! I don’t see the Mac Pro disappearing immediately. The end of the tower computer will take time to happen. It’s also possible that future iMacs will add a tiny bit of extra internal expandability, such as the ability to easily install an extra drive, to compensate.

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11 Responses to “Does Thunderbolt Signal the Potential End to the Mac Pro?”

  1. Kaleberg says:

    Thunderbolt may also expedite the death of the workstation Mac by making it easier to cluster MacMinis and other Macs for heavy duty processing. Apple has been making a serious software investment in APIs, compilers and drivers to make it easier to use multiple processors and graphics processors for heavy weight computing. With Thunderbolt, it may be possible to do production grade rendering and serious scientific computing by putting a bunch of quad (or oct or hex) core MacMinis on a shelf with a fiber optic cable connecting them. (Maybe I’m predicting TCP/IP over Thunderbolt.) For people doing weather forecasting or analyzing data from the Large Hadron Collider, other vendors may fill the gaps with their own processor farms, designed to be scalable to thousands of processors, using the LLVM compiler to prepare the code, the Grand Central API to distribute it, and Thunderbolt data transfer to distribute data and collect results.

  2. Peter says:

    I like the inclusion of Thunderbolt on the new MBPs especially when I see more third-party storage solutions being released. As for it being the reason the Mac Pro might be discontinued, I disagree. The thunderbolt interface isn’t everything, it’s just a fast pipe for certain functions. The Core i7’s are nice CPUs but the base model Mac Pro already has a similar chip and I don’t believe Apple will try and pack more than one of these into an iMac. The iMac is also limited to internal components so everything will end up being connected externally, something that’s not really something Apple designs for. Remember, simplicity of form is Apple’s direction, not the typical PC with cables running to all sorts of boxes all over the room.

    Mac Pros are still used by the heavy publications and presentations shops. Try rotating a 1GB Photoshop file on a laptop without taking a long break. Yes, this is done and having more power allows you to actually get work done. The same for the grunt work in processing video. Lots of CPUs and fast access to fast disks is a requirement. This can be done inside a Mac Pro without a lot of external devices.

    The Xserve was cancelled because it diverted from the current direction but also because 1U servers are a dime a dozen and not something IT managers like to replace on any schedule less than every 10 years. Yes, many people were screaming about the lose of Xserves but I wonder how many of them could have received any corporate money to replace them. As long as they still work, why replace them (sarcasm).

    As far as clustering minis together, the interconnection hasn’t been the problem, the number of CPUs and accessible memory has. The current clustering applications, like Pooch, are for scientific processing, not for making Final Cut Pro or similar applications run faster. Scientific computing using supercomputers is something Apple showed they could play in until IBM got upset with Virginia Tech’s 4th(?) place finish in the Top 500 and discovered they really had to get off their behinds and actually start creating a better computer. There’s no way Apple could compete in this sector without taking an A5 processor and cramming as many as they could onto one board. For those who don’t know, IBM’s supercomputers cram more than 30K CPUs into their system. I’m not against Apple trying but maybe coming out with a 1U server with 20-30 A5s (low-power, low-heat, so less expensive to operate) that actually work together using Grand Central might be a product more people would buy. Add the required dual power supplies and LOM with shared memory and multiple Thunderbolt ports to drive high-speed RAID systems and you’d have the next generation small business server running OSX server that might actually cause some Winblows shops to convert. (We can only hope)

  3. David says:

    You make a lot of good points. One of the most important features of the Mac Pro has always been its support for an internal RAID. A computer with Thunderbolt pretty much eliminates that advantage. The Mac Pro would retain the ability to drive multiple displays, but that could be solved with multiple Thunderbolt ports and a mini and/or iMac variant could have two Ethernet ports for anyone needing that feature.

    However, the kind of GPU typically found in an iMac is only adequate for one large display. Asking it to do OpenCL calculations, serious 3D work or drive additional cinema displays would result in an unsatisfactory experience. A super charged iMac with a powerful GPU is impossible because such video chips draw more power and generate more heat than the iMac can handle. Some video cards need more power than an entire 27″ iMac does.

    Apple will need to decide whether they want to lose all the high end graphics and modelling people, a small market but one with enormous margins on both hardware and software and historic loyalty to Apple.

  4. Keyword says:

    Apple is not sentimental about products and cares even less about historic loyalty. The only thing that would save the Mac Pro (maybe) might be fear of a hollywood backlash (although that didn’t help save the xserve).

    I don’t like where this is heading. I hate closed boxes.

  5. Peter says:

    I am a video editor living in Paris, France.
    I have edited for the last decade on several Mac workstations and Mac laptops, I myself have a MacBook Pro unibody 17″ to do client présentations and a MacPro workstation Quad core intel XEON for my Final Cut Pro edit suite.

    I think workstations might be replaced by laptops or other devices in the near future but for the moment my 1 year old Quad core MacPro workstation outperforms my unibody MacBook Pro with a large margin.

    Don’t forget that you can always put the latest very high end graphics card in a MacPro and a lot of ram.
    MacBooks are limited in ram and you can’t change the graphics cards when a more powerfull comes out.
    I can tell you that when you work with After Effects, Motion or 3D software the graphics card is far more important than processor power if you want to work quickly.

    Another issue is heat: when I work for a day on my MacBook Pro in After Effects or Final Cut Pro it runs very hot.
    A workstation can accuire the latest and the greatest high end processor and video card without running too hot.
    For me a MacPro is very important for long and extensive Full HD compositing and editing sessions.

    • @Peter, Clearly there will have to be power management and heat generation improvements to the Mac portables before more video editors like you are able to use them for extended sessions. I expect that’ll happen.


      • Sture says:

        @Gene Steinberg, … and the same improvements on workstations will push them to higher performance as well. Plus, Thunderbolt is only PCIe x4 (compared to x16 on internal slots). I don’t expect that ratio to decrease.

        • @Sture, That goes without saying. Thunderbolt will become faster as well. But over time, “consumer” Macs will meet the needs of a growing percentage of professional users to the degree that it will make no economic sense for Apple to continue to build a Mac Pro. As I suggested, this won’t happen for at least several years.


  6. Dave Laronde says:

    I’ve got an early 2008 Mac Pro with Xeon processors that still outperforms dare I say runs circles around my shiny new 2011 macbook pro with sandybridge processors when rendering 3D frames in Cinema 4D. When it comes to graphics and 3D animations, Macbook pros are still prosumer grade.

  7. Justin Carlson says:

    I see Thunderbolt as a new way of expansion breaking through the chassis walls. In the future, most of us will have portables with minimal processing power, super battery life, and a thin chassis. Mobility will always be a priority as we go to the cloud and become more connected, even in the home. However, when I get to work and want access to all my peripherals: TB backup, HD monitor, etc, I will plug Thunderbolt into my portable and take advantage of all my devices.

    But it doesn’t stop there. Since Thunderbolt is a PCIe I/O, I could have an “expansion box” amongst those peripherals that hosts a faster CPU, GPU, more RAM… all of which is modular and instantly recognized by my portable as additional components as if they were plugged into the motherboard.

    The potential to expand on portable devices is endless! The speeds aren’t quite there yet for Thunderbolt to do this effectively, but Intel says TB can scale up to 100Gbps, FAR exceeding PCIe’s limit of 60Gbps.

    Kind of a show stopper, isn’t it?

  8. Shawn L. says:

    The Mac Pro will not likely go away, but be reimagined.

    Smaller, more portions of the box sealed from users. External card chassis connected via thunderbolt may be something transitioned to (probably not right away).

    But a machine with top of the line CPU’s will definatly be part of the line. It just may be that the Pro evolves into a larger and more powerful Mac Mini. (Return of the Cube?)

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