Apple gives the Mac Pro blazing fast PCIe flash

Analysts say Mac Pro move could be precursor to using PCIe flash on Apple laptops

Apple's new Mac Pro desktop computer, unveiled today, will be available later this year in a vastly smaller, and cylindrical box that adds PCIe flash storage technology, an upgrade that promises to boost performance by 10 times over the hard drives in current models.

Mac Pro
The new Mac Pro (right) design compared to older models

PCIe, or peripheral component interconnect express, is a high-speed serial expansion card format that uses a point-to-point architecture. PCIe-based flash has far better performance than more typical SATA- or SAS-connected solid-state drives (SSD) or flash because of the direct connection to peripherals. There's no translation layer required.

Apple, which announced that Mac Pro upgrade at its Worldwide Developer's Conference, said the new flash internal storage will offer astoundingly fast 1.25GBps reads and 1.0GBps writes. By comparison, a top-rated laptop solid-state drive using a SATA II interface tops out at about 550MB/sec, about half that of the PCIe flash Apple will be rolling out.

"This is a machine unlike anything we've ever made, both inside and out," Apple CEO Tim Cook said during his WWDC keynote today.

Now that PCIe flash is being rolled out in an Apple desktop, one industry pundit said it is likely to come soon to the company's notebook computers. "It's coming," said Joseph Unsworth, research vice president for NAND Flash & SSD at Gartner.

While a first for Apple as a native offering, PCIe cards on high-end PCs are not new. For instance, Fusion-io's ioFX [PCIe flash card] has been available for some time, "but it's bootability was dependent on advanced OSes and this was a workstation phenomenon given how expensive this drive cost," Unsworth said. OCZ also offers PCIe flash cards for desktops.

Unsworth said it's likely that Apple has performed some OS optimization to exploit the advantages of a PCIe SSD, "but this will truly mean for the end-user experience - don't know yet."

"Independent SSD companies have been selling PCIe SSD cards into the high end customer segment, but it took somebody like Apple to 'officialize' it," said Michael Yang, an analyst with memory and storage research firm IHS iSuppli. "The benefits to a professional user is obvious and gives Apple more bragging rights in the art and publishing segment where it has been traditionally strong."

The new Mac Pro, due out this fall, will have a round shape and is about one-eighth the size of the current model, according to Cook.

The new, which will be manufactured in the U.S., also supports 4K displays, multiple streams and 3.4K displays on built-in dual workstation graphics.

The system will also be the first Mac Pro with dual workstation GPUs - AMD's FirePro Graphics chip, which can deliver up to 528Gbps total bandwidth and 7 teraflops performance over OpenCL.

The system will come with four USB 3.0 ports, six Thunderbolt 2 ports, Gigabit ethernet, HDMI out, and motion sensor that lights up the back panel when its turned.

"You're gonna love the Mac Pro. It's killer," Cook said.

Computerworld's Ken Mingis chats with Keith Shaw about his impression of Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference keynote, in which the company announced iOS 7, a new desktop OS and new MacBook Air and Mac Pro models.

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian, or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His email address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

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