OWC's Larry O'Connor: the New Mac Pro is Both Disappointing & Exciting

For 24 years, Larry O'Connor has led the company he founded, Other World Computing (OWC), in Woodstock, Illinois to legendary status for its technology-related products and support for Apple devices. The company's customers have enjoyed first class service and products: everything from simple storage to RAID, RAM upgrades, batteries, upgrade kits and, lately, iPad and iPhone accessories.

TMO has told the OWC story previously, but this time we had a particular interest in president Larry O’Connor’s reaction to Apple’s WWDC announcement of the new Mac Pro. Here are the hottest questions that were on on our mind in a recent Skype chat with him.

John Martellaro: Were you at WWDC? And what were your impressions of the new Mac Pro announcement by Apple?

Larry O’Connor: I wasn’t personally there, but we had people onsite. I did, of course, watch the rollout. First impressions were that it’s both interesting and a little disappointing, in that what’s missing. And interesting in the external opportunities. We’re looking at that. There was some disappointment that there weren’t at least a couple of PCIe slots inside that machine. Thunderbolt is great, but still below the levels of a 16X PCIe slot.

TMO: I want to explore that a little more. My first thought was, what devices can saturate Thunderbolt 2? Is it really a problem? And were there perhaps some engineering trade-offs for Apple? Heat, power, space?

LO: Not having a PCIe slot probably didn’t relate to heat issues, but it certainly allowed Apple to make the Mac Pro smaller. It simplifies the cooling process. I don’t see any technical reason why Apple couldn’t have brought in a PCIe [expansion] slot, but remember, Apple has long been behind Thunderbolt. And it goes back to the mantra of Steve Jobs, in that “what goes inside a computer is what we, Apple think should go inside of it. And if there’s something you really need, then perhaps you should buy that from us on the next model.”

TMO: How does PCIe compare to Thunderbolt 2? TB2 is 20 gigabits per second, bi-directional. What is PCIe?

LO: PCIe gen 3.0 at 16X is capable of 64 gigabits per second. And it has less overhead, although TB2 is better in that regard. For most applications, it isn’t an issue, but on the ultra high end, you are placing a maximum data rate on external devices.

The other aspect is video cards. It’s not atypical for video cards to use 16 lanes.

TMO: Are there SSDs that can saturate Thunderbolt but not PCIe?

LO: It’s really a graphics card issue. I’m not exactly one hundred percent sure about Apple’s planned chipset, but I suspect that those FirePro graphics cards wouldn’t operate to their full capability if placed on a Thunderbolt expansion chassis. There's just not enough bandwidth.

And it doesn’t sound like there’s going to be an option to have just one FirePro. You’re not going to have options for external high performance 4K video cards, so Apple’s making sure they are right there from the start, inside.

As far as SSDs that could saturate Thunderbolt, absolutely. Especially with the PCIe storage standard. I’ll give Apple credit for that, though. I was quite honestly surprised to see Apple, not so much on the Mac Pro, incorporate that into the new MacBook Air. I don’t know that that got a lot of coverage. Apple is the very first company to put the PCIe storage standard into a consumer computer. Everybody else is still providing SATA-based storage. That’s a big leap. And that’s where everything is going.

With SSD arrays, however, it won’t take much more than what people are doing today to hit the peak of Thunderbolt.

TMO: What are you thinking about the price of this new Mac Pro?

LO: I’ll be very surprised if it starts at a lower price than the current Mac Pro. Remember, those 4K FirePro chips, even on the low side—and you can’t go too low—are not cheap. Not a run-of-the- mill chip set. The [E5] Xeon processors aren’t cheap. And with six thunderbolt ports, all this runs up the cost. But Apple has that volume buying power also.

Also, remember that the vast majority of the pro and enterprise market isn’t fully exploiting all the expansion capability, at least not for data storage, that we have now in the [current] Mac Pro. So when you put the video inside, you have a good core machine. Not upgradable, but Apple’s philosophy has been when you need a new machine and capability, you buy a new one.

There’s a lot of capability in this new Mac Pro compared to the current machines, once you get past the idea of not having a PCIe slot. I think it’s going to offer great opportunities to expand externally. Even so, it’s hard to grasp the idea: nothing extra goes inside.

TMO: Tell us what you know about the memory slots. It looks like there will be four slots, each capable of 32 GB, and a maximum of 128 GB of RAM.

LO: Sure, and it’s likely that all four will need to be filled. It’s quad addressing. So 4 x 4 GB would probably be a minimum configuration.

TMO: We know today that Mountain Lion can only “see” 96 GB of RAM, right?

LO: Right. But we know that Mavericks supports 128 GB. And that means on older Mac Pros—2009 and later—that kind of memory is unleashed. Right now, 4 and 6 core Mac Pros are limited to 48 GB RAM and 6 or 12 core Mac Pros are [hardware] capable of 128 GB. We verified that.

TMO: I don’t want to pry into any product plans, but I have to ask. Do you have visions of, say, a black cylinder expansion chassis?

LO: Well, I won’t confirm or deny anything. But if you look at the hive concept in the Mac Performance guide, well, you just never know. But I can say, we’re going to have some good stuff to match up with this machine. It’s an exciting design. It deserves some exciting accessory products with good looks and exceptional function.

TMO: Have you been talking to Apple, outside of WWDC, because you do so much hardware? Just curious.

LO: I guess I’ll just say that we acquire enough information to carry on. Fill the gaps. I really can’t go into much detail there.

TMO: I’ve been wondering. Given that you’re a expert in this kind of hardware, do you have any thoughts on the next steps, the next generation of this Mac Pro? In a casual look forward, where do you see the technology going?

LO: This Mac Pro was certainly a surprise in terms of not being anything like what came in the prior generation. The previous Mac Pro was a stable platform, from 2006 to the present. I honestly don’t expect to see a lot of change going forward. Unless, perhaps, Apple decides that it’s a stepping stone to a larger model with some built-in expansion. This is probably what we’ll get for a few years.

Apple’s pushing toward the cloud. Thunderbolt will get faster. It gets easier and easer for Apple to shift customers to computation in the cloud. Going forward, it’ll be interesting to see what computing power is local versus what’s remote.

TMO: Right. Supercomputers have gone through that. At first, they were standalone. Then it made sense, in non-defense areas, to share computational resources with high speed fiber.

But. What if Apple came out with a big brother Mac Pro? Instead of 6.6 inches in diameter, 9.9 inches, and room for a more powerful cores and internal expansion?

LO: I’m one hundred percent with you on that, and I hope Apple does that. But we waited three years to see a new model. A good two years since people started clamoring for a new model. Apple is selling 50,000 Mac Pros per quarter now. If this new Mac Pro sells, perhaps, a half million per quarter, then it’s a success. There’s no reason then for a bigger machine. On the other hand, if it falls flat, there’s also no reason to invest further.

TMO: Except that we’ve all talked about this halo car concept. We hope that Apple doesn’t worry much about the sales. It’s very existence tells us that Apple knows how to make the very best. So we hope that Apple doesn’t get too fussy about sales goals.

LO: And there’s a lot of people today who will have a huge advantage of having one of these on their desktop. Photographers. File sizes are huge these days.

TMO: And when a senior scientist says he wants 7.5 teraflops of awesome Mac and UNIX power on his desktop for research, he gets it! Okay, I think it’s time to wrap this up. This has been an amazing session. I know the readers will appreciate your insights.

Larry O'Connor: It was fun! I appreciate it. We need to do this more often.