What do you give to a Mac Pro that has it all? A hardware RAID card, of course. Outside of the sheer pimping factor, there’s a business reason, too, of course. Yeah. Like less danger of losing stuff.
Before getting one, I studiously read forums, user groups, ratings, and stuff, and came away with the clear impression that all of them have some problems. Among all the stories, it seemed that the Apple card had the least features and the most small problems, but also had the least really huge problems. So I went with Apple, as usual. The Mac Pro RAID card is the most expensive one, by a fairly wide margin, and it frequently has battery problems. Also, it won’t allow your Mac Pro to sleep fully, and if you sleep it partially, it often hangs and won’t wake up. But since my Mac, even with a full complement of drives, isn’t exactly noisy (you can’t hear it at all beyond a couple of meters), I can live without sleep. (You can take that several ways, all of them intentional.) I do shut it down for the night, though.
The card itself is impressive. Fairly heavy, reinforced by an aluminium profile along the edge, and with that distinctive Apple hardware smell. (Wonder what that is, actually…) The big chunk of aluminium you see in the pic is the battery. In the images, the battery cable is still unconnected.
The card comes with a very good hardware installation manual, a few little tools, but to work comfortably you’ll need a really long Phillips type screwdriver which is not supplied. The installation involves taking out the front fan assembly to get at the iPass cable (a cable connecting the drive backplane to the motherboard, which needs to be rerouted to connect to the RAID card instead), but that’s not a big deal. There’s a difference in how much stuff you need to disassemble depending on if you have an early 2008 8-core (I do) or an older Mac Pro, where you need to loosen and slide the memory cage in the older model. I didn’t have to do that.
I did go beyond the recommended procedure and took out the first SATA backplane connector as well, which made it a whole lot easier to untangle the iPass cable. Then I put the connector back in, of course. This maneuver provided for a whole lot more slack than the manual described, so I’m sure I could have put the card in any slot, not just the top slot. (The specs say that the card has to go in the top slot due to the short iPass cable.) Not that I see a reason to put the card anywhere else, but who knows?
It’s widely reported that the battery charges very slowly. In my case, it took some six hours to a full charge, I let it run overnight. According to specs, it’ll go through a deplete/recharge cycle every three months. During that cycle, the write cache will be disabled, slowing the system down somewhat.
The system I installed it on had four 500 Gb drives in it. I emptied the drives 2 through 4, backing up to a couple of 320 Gb Western Digital “My Passport” USB drives. I started the backup procedure days ahead of time, of course. It takes forever. I also backed up the system boot drive using SuperDuper to two external drives.
Apple mentions that you can migrate the system drive to the RAID array, but that is only if that drive has already been formatted using the RAID card. In other words, if you have a Mac Pro without a RAID card running, you can’t migrate that system drive. You have to reformat with the card, then restore from a backup.
Reformatting and then preparing the single volume for 4 x 500 Gb tooks something like nine hours all together. After that, I did a restore of the system drive, which took a while as well (two hours? don’t remember). The disk utility on the Leopard install DVD lets you restore SuperDuper images, making it all very convenient. Total space is around 1.2 Tb in one single volume.
Well, the system now takes much longer to boot, maybe a minute or two. According to miscellaneous group postings, that’s due to the RAID card spinning up the drives one by one. Makes sense. But once the login box comes up, things really take off. From logging in to getting a fully live system with all the menu bar items populated is a question of seconds now. Jeez. You could see the socks fly.
Since I develop on Windows, I run anything between two and five Windows instances under Parallels and VMWare Fusion on this machine. To open a saved Windows XP 1 Gb takes around 7 seconds now. It takes around 4 seconds to quit it all the way until Parallels has exited. I can get two XPs and a 2000 up and fully running in less than 15 seconds, using Butler. You get the message, this machine has become unbelievably snappy.
The slow initial boot. Doesn’t bother me much. The lack of sleep function bothers me a little more, since I can’t just leave everything open like I used to. I used to reboot this machine every three weeks or so. On the other hand, I used to have a heck of a time remembering where I got all those open windows from, where I started each process etc, so just having to do it again every day makes me a little more aware of what I’m actually doing. I see that as a good thing in a way.
I have two 23″ Apple cinema screens on this machine and the only way of powering them down now without shutting down the system is to enable the power switch on the side of the screens. To enable these switches, the USB cable to the screens have to be connected, but there aren’t that many USB connectors on this system (two in front, three in back) and only the ones in the back can be reached from the pigtail cable arrangement these monitors have. I ended up connecting one of them to a backside port, and using a USB extension cable to connect the other one to the back side of the first monitor. I use the other two backside USB ports to connect two external USB hubs, not wanting to chain them too much. The two USB ports up front aren’t very convenient for fixed cabling, so I leave those for the occasional USB stick.
This card provides RAID level 5 (and 1 and 0 and 1+0, if I remember correctly), which doesn’t allow expansion on the fly. That is, if I want to replace the 500 Gb drives with 1 Tb drives or more later, I have to copy off the entire 1.2 Tb volume to external storage, switch drives, init the new drives and volume, then restore. Uh-oh… sounds like a project to me. You can’t even take out the old drives, put them in another cabinet and restore from there, since they can only be read using the Mac Pro RAID card now. But this problem is common to all RAID 5 implementations. Raid-X, Raid-X2, Drobo’s stuff, and other proprietary solutions do get around it in various ways, though, but that’s all for external NAS storage.
In summary, the system looks like this now: Mac Pro early 2008, dual quad core 2.8 GHz, 16 Gb RAM, 1.2 Tb single volume on a Mac Pro RAID card, NVidia 8800 GT and two 23″ Apple Cinema displays. Hm… what’s next?