Most of the time, your average xpc has a longer useful life than its PC counterpart. Unfortunately, the fast evolution of technology means that, after a while, that older Mac may seem a little slow and may not be able to take full advantage of current tech.
Such is the case for earlier Mac Pros. As they currently sit, they only move data at SATA 2.0 speeds, roughly three gigabits per second. If you wish to put the drives in to a RAID array, you are limited to either a mirrored RAID 1, losing half your capacity, or a RAID 0, which is faster, but increases the risk of data loss. On top of that, those RAID levels are all software-based, which can reduce overall performance.
Fortunately, if you happen to have a 2006-2008 Mac Pro, you can improve the performance in those bays, with only one small thing to lookout for.
How does it work?
The backplane (where the drives in the bays are connected) consists of four pass-thru SATA connections which are, in turn, connected to the SATA controller on the logic board (located near the front of the Mac Pro) via a mini-SAS connector.
The great thing is that mini-SAS is a fairly common connector for PCIe SATA controller cards. The trick is to find one with that mini-SAS connector on the inside. This Highpoint RocketRAID card fits the bill. Not only does it feature six internal mini-SAS ports, it also has a built-in (hardware) RAID controller which supports RAID Level 0, 1, 5, 10, and 50 along with individual drive support and disk spanning, as well as an external port for more expansion options.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves; let’s concentrate on upgrading those drive bays.
What’s involved in the process?
Once you install the Highpoint card in your Mac, you’ll notice that the mini-SAS cable that connects to the logic board is located near the front of the Mac Pro and the internal port on the card is located near the rear – much too far away from each other to connect. This is easily remedied, however, by using a mini-SAS extender cable to bridge the distance.
Once connected, the four drive bays in the Mac Pro are now being controlled by the RAID card, making it capable of both high-speed data transfer and more advanced RAID options.
At this point, we run into a bit of a problem; the Highpoint card isn’t bootable in a Mac. You will need to put your OS on a drive installed in one of the optical bays.
For the best performance, we suggest getting an OWC Mercury EXTREME Pro 3G SSD and attaching it via one of the “extra” SATA 2.0 connectors on the logic board, located near the front of the Mac Pro. Just run a SATA cable from the drive to this connector on the logic board (you’ll probably have to remove the fan to do this) and use a SATA power converter cable to adapt the power from the drive bay for your SATA drive.
If you don’t want to go the SSD route, you also have the option of hooking a standard SATA hard drive up much the same way.
You can install the system on this “fifth” drive, and use your upgraded hard drive bays to set up a RAID array for maximum data transfer.
There’s only one situation where this won’t work: if you happen to use Boot Camp to run Windows on your Mac. Apple doesn’t support Boot Camp on these “extra” connectors. In that instance, you’ll need to use an ATA hard drive hooked to the ATA connector in the drive bay. You’ll lose a lot of the speed advantage during booting and launching when you do it this way, but at least you still retain Boot Camp capability.
Whichever drive type and size you choose to put your OS on, we’ve got Multi-Mount bundles that include all the mounts and cables necessary to make installing it into the drive bay a simple process.
Is it worth it?
With all the effort you need to put into this sort of setup, you almost begin to wonder whether or not the speed boost is worth it. The key benefit is in the ability to read/write large amounts of data. If you’re accessing a lot of information (like audio or video editing or possibly a local file server for a small company) this could be just what you’re looking for.
We set up an Early 2008 Mac Pro (MacPro3,1) with four OWC Mercury EXTREME Pro 6G SSDs and booted from a standard SATA drive installed in the optical bay.
To test the built-in card, we set all 4 drives up as a RAID 0 array using Disk Utility, then tested it using a series of benchmarking utilities (including ones from Intech, BlackMagic and Aja) running off the boot drive.
As you can see, speeds from the built-in controller topped out in the neighborhood of 725MB/s.
Next, we installed the Highpoint card and hooked it to the internal bays like we described above. Then, using the card’s RAID management, we set up another RAID 0 array and tested it again
As you can see, we more than doubled the card’s output with transfer rates topping out around 1600MB/s. Obviously, if your workflow includes heavy-duty data transfer, this setup will work nicely.
Are there other benefits?
Though it’s a key component in getting the most out of your drives, RAID functionality this isn’t the only benefit to this kind of setup.
If putting your drives in a RAID isn’t necessarily your “thing,” you’ll still benefit that the card converts the bays from 3.0Gb/s SATA 2.0 performance to the 6Gb/s performance of SATA 3.0, allowing you to take advantages in speed.
This card also adds SAS functionality, so you can now use SAS drives in the internal bays, which is a boon for more advanced users.
In addition to the internal upgrade, the Highpoint card also has an external mini-SAS port, which can be used with external storage systems utilizing mini-SAS, such as the OWC Mercury Rack Pro mini-SAS, giving you even more high-speed storage.
The Bottom Line
If you have a 2006-2008 Mac Pro that you need to move a lot of data through, upgrading the built-in SATA ports with the Highpoint card may just be the performance boost your machine needs.
In case you didn’t pick them out of the article, here’s a brief shopping list of what you’ll need.
- Controller Card: HighPoint RocketRAID 2721 6 Gb/s SAS RAID Controller
- Connection: mini-SAS extender cable
- Boot drive for optical bay (depending on needs)
- Maximum Speed: OWC Mercury EXTREME Pro 3G SSD
- More storage on boot drive: a standard SATA hard drive
- Boot Camp users: an ATA hard drive
- Mounting Kits for optical bay: OWC Multi-Mount bundles
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