Building a hi-end photo editing workstation.

This is a “hands on” practical guide to building a photo editing workstation using as a base, the 2010 MacPro Hexacore.

Background

18 months ago I bought a 21MP Canon EOS 5Dmk2, upgrading from a 12M EOS 5D. The file size for RAW (DNG format) files increased from around 11MB to 26MB. This had a major impact on computer performance particularly with Lightroom. I use a 17″ MacBookPro 2.4Ghz Core 2 duo from 2007, with 6GB RAM. Clicking on an image in LR2 it took 7 seconds to build the preview and even if the preview was already created, still a couple of seconds to display, sometime longer. Importing pictures on disk and converting to DNG at the same time was always setup as an overnight task where possible!

Performance will have to more than double to make any noticeable differece, and I’m hoping for more than that, I’d like the 7 seconds preview build time to be brought down to under 2s, and loading of a preview be noticeably less than a second.

Of all the machines that Apple have introduced recently the 6 core MacPro is of most interest to photographers, as it combines multiple cores with the highest clock speed, and is pretty much the quickest Mac available for applications such as Photoshop, Aperture and Lightroom.  The 8 and 12 core machines are a waste of extra money as they have slower clock speeds and this is more important than the extra processor cores for photographic applications. (This is not the case for some specialist 3D modelling CAD applications).

Why a MacPro?

1. It is the only Mac that can hold multiple internal drives with fast eSATA access – 3x faster than firewire 800. *

2. It has the fastest processors and most number of cores.

3. It has expansion slots enabling extra capability including external eSATA ports to be added, USB3 ports and extra graphics cards etc.

4. It has amazing memory expansion capability  – 32GB for 6 core and 64GB for twin processor machines  (8 and 12 core)

5. It’s not an iMac and therefore doesn’t have a ridiculous glossy screen that is next to useless for photo editing – See separate article about what to do if you do have an iMac.

*Actually this isn’t strictly true as it is possible to replace the optical drive in an iMac or Macbook Pro and fit an extra disk – or better still a solid state drive, and the Mac Mini server has two hard drives and no optical drive. But that has a maximum RAM limit of 4GB and even that is shared with the video card! (good machine if really want something small)

So the decision is made, a MacPro. This article shows what to buy and how to set it up.

The workstation will be setup with a solid state system drive and a 4TB RAID 0, striped volume of two 2TB disks for the photos to be stored on, and another striped volume of 4TB for backups.  This gives very fast system drive performance, high performance and high storage capacity for the photos and a fast backup on the hour every hour, giving a good level of information security.

MacPro 2010 Hexacore 3.33Ghz

Parts list

Hardware

MacPro Hexacore with 2TB drives and a SSD.

Order only the basic spec 3.3.Ghz Hexacore.  No extra memory, standard graphics card, whatever keyboard you want, no extra hard drives as Apple charges silly money for all of this kit. This comes with a Western Digital 1TB caviar black drive. This will be useful later as an external drive for backup etc.

Hard drives – 4x2TB drives eg. Western Digital Caviar black 7200RPM.

Solid State Drive – OCZ for example.

Adaptor to mount the 2.5″ solid state drive into a 5.25″ optical drive bay – eg. Asaka

3x 8GB 1333Mhz DIMMS. Only  OWC have 8GB DIMMS that are compatible at present.

eSATA PCI card – This enables external drives to be connected with a high speed interface eg. to make backups for offsite storage.

Software

SoftRAID
– this is a better software RAID solution than Apples in-built software that is part of “Disk Utility”. But currently has no manual – which was a bit of a challenge at first to setup!

Carbon Copy Cloner – this is backup software that clones one drive to another and can make a bootable drive, unlike Apple’s Time Machine.

Use Time Machine for incremental automatically timed backups

Use Carbon Copy Cloner to create backup of system disk to enable booting to an external drive in event of system drive failure.

Tools

Anti-static wrist strap and ideally mat.

External drive caddy, preferably with a firewire 800 interface. This enables an internal drive to be placed in the caddy and accessed by the machine. And will be used to transfer the system from the 1TB supplied drive to the Solid State Drive.

Important first step.

The first step is to install Carbon Copy Cloner onto the system. Later we will use this to clone this system to the SSD. This is the best backup solution I have ever used on any platform. It creates a bootable external drive by coning everything from the system disk to another. A Mac can then be booted from any external drive connected over USB or Firewire. This is an excellent Mac safety feature, and is one of many advantages of the Mac over a Windows PC.

Taking the MacPro apart

The MacPro is a superbly engineered computer and this can be seen as you pull the lever on the rear of the machine to release the side panel. This is easily removed. The computer is split into three zones.

Top – contains two optical drive bays and power supply.

Middle – Hard drives and graphics card, and spaces for PCI express slots.

Bottom – processor and memory

All three zones have fans sucking room temperature air in at the front and expelled at the rear. The fans are not the usual type you find in a PC component store, these are of much higher quality, larger with deeper pitch blades for example and in custom designed housings. In operation they are very quite. This is a great design with cool air blowing across all the components in a controlled way.

Three zones shown clearly in this picture. The lever at the rear releases the side panel and releases the locks on the four hard drive drawers that can be clearly seen. The red object in the centre is the graphics card, which has its own fan.

The three vacant PCI Express slot covers can be seen in this picture, note that the graphics card takes up two bays. The card has one DVI and two mini displayport adaptors. No HDMI port, which is interesting as the new MacMini does have this interface.

In the lower zone are three 1GB DIMMS, soon to be replaced with 3x8GB.

On the back of the machine are USB, Firewire 800 (no Firewire 400) Optical digital audio input and output, ethernet and headphone/microphone ports.

Taking anti-static precautions.

YOU MUST TAKE ANTISTATIC and safety precautions!

1. This means the Mac MUST BE UNPLUGGED!!! And ideally left for 20 mins.

2. An antistatic wrist strap must be used. Note. DO NOT connect yourself to earth using a piece of wire. You MUST use a properly designed earthing wrist strap.  If you connect yourself to earth directly and touch a live wire the current will flow through you and down the earth cable, being the path of least resistance and you could be electrocuted. A wrist strap has a very high impedance, but still gets rid of static electricity from your hands.

So the Mac will be unplugged and you will be using a proper wrist strap.

3. The Mac needs to be earthed, either with an antistatic mat, with the Mac laying on it’s side, or the case earthed with a strap and a croc clip attached to metal inside case – see picture.

Note the hard drive drawers just side out, and the anti-static strap clipped to the metal casing inside Mac.

Hard drive trays slide out.

Fitting the Hard Drives.

Remove all four hard drive drawers; simply pull on them, as long as the release catch on the back is OUT.

Remove the new hard drives from their bags and place them on the anti-static matt with the screw holes upward. The Drive drawers have captive screws, that require a small cross head screwdriver. Screw each drive into a drawer. Ensure that the eSATA socket is sticking out as in the picture. Note the green anti-static mat.

Screwing the drive tray to the disk.

Simply slide the drives back into their slots, push quite hard at the end to click into place.

The optical drive tray just pulls out - note 2 eSATA connectors

Mounting the Solid State Drive.

The SSD is going to be fitted into the lower optical drive bay. The picture shows the optical drive drawer pulled out – I found this quite stiff. Once the drawer is out a little way release the eSATA cable from the back of the optical drive.  This will enable the drawer to be pulled completely free. The optical drives are 5.25″ but all SSD’s are 2.5″, a physical adaptor is therefore required. My recommendation is the simple Asaka device that costs around £6 or $10.  I didn’t have one in time, so took an adaptor from a PC that converts a 3.5″ floppy drive (yes amazingly PC’s still use floppies!!!) and used the supplied 2.5″ for 3.5″ adaptor supplied by OCZ.

OCZ Vertex 120GB SSD mounted in two adaptors

The SSD looks tiny inside a 5.25″ adaptor – plenty of space for cooling air. Easily space for two, and I have seen a special bracket to mount two SSD’s in this space, but with only one spare eSATA port that doesn’t help much, at least not with a 2010 machine.

An option here is to remove the top optical drive, and replace with another SSD. (I may do this at a later date as I have an external optical disk anyway).

Optical drive tray with SSD in lower bay.

Now the drawer can be eased back into place and both optical drive and SSD connected to the eSATA plugs.

Once I had reassembled this I replaced the side panel and plugged in the external drive caddy with the previous 1TB system drive. We now need to clone the system onto the SSD.

Unfortunately, at this point the SSD proved to be faulty! So I replaced the SSD with the original 1TB drive and carried on. I re-attempt the SSD installation later.

Current configuration.

AT this point I have 4x2TB drives in the 4 drive drawers, and a single 1TB drive in the lower optical drive bay. I’m now going to format and “zero” the four 2TB drives. “zeroing” is the process where zero’s are written to every part of the hard drive to ensure that every sector is good. Bad sectors are excluded by the drive software from being written to again, so this reduces the chances of files becoming corrupt by being written to bad parts of the drive.  (All the drive contents will be erased during this process) You have probably worked out that “Zeroing” is going to take a long time, writing to all sectors of 8TB, but fortunately it is possible to do this to all four drives at once. I had initially tried doing this using an external USB caddy and my MacBook Pro, before the MacPro arrived, but this turned out to be a waste of time as the process took a day and a half! Inside the machine this can be done in around two hours.

Open “Disk Utility”. Select one of the drives, choose [ERASE] tab, [security options] choose [zero out data] make sure that “volume format” is set to [Mac OS Extended(journaled)] in the pull down menu.

Click erase.

Then choose [File] [New window] and repeat for one of the other drives, and so on for all four 2TB drives. You can see my screenshot at this point below, with three of the drives being zeroed.

Zeroing multiple drives.

On completion of this phase it is time to setup the RAID arrays.

Download SoftRAID 4.0 and install on the system drive.

The aim is to setup two of the drives as a RAID 0, striped 4TB volume, and other two also as a RAID 0, but as the time machine backup. This will backup the SSD (which is a small capacity – 120GB in my case) plus the 4TB disk that will store all of my photos and documents and Lightroom library, previews etc.

SoftRAID shows physical disks on the left and logical volumes on the right.

The process is to select each disk and initialise them. Choose pairs of disks and convert them to striped RAID format.

RAID zero volume created from two disks

These are the steps.

1. Choose first disk on the left, from menu [Disk] [Initialise]

2. Choose second disk on the left, from menu [Disk] [Initialise]

3. Choose these two disks – using CMD to multiple select.

4. From menu [Volume] [New]

5. A dialogue appears with the options for setting up the RAID. Choose RAID 0 stripe, name the RAID volume, I called one of mine “Backup” and the other “Master Photos”.

6. Choose “digital photography” as the pop up against best sector size – this is 128kb.

7. Click OK, new RAID volume appears on the right hand side, and on the desktop, together with a dialogue that appears asking if you want to use this as the “Time Machine” backup – click YES for the backup and No for the Photos volume.

Backup volume, RAID 0, will be used for Time Machine

Pending the replacement of the 1TB drive with the SSD  the MacPro is good to go.

Now copy all of the photographs and documents from the old computers via external disks to the “Master Photos” drive, and create shortcuts for these to the menu in the ‘Finder” window. Remove the links to “Pictures” and “documents” as these point to the system drive, and the whole point of this setup is store content on the RAID O Master-Photos drive.

Setting up Backups in Time Machine.

Open Time Machine preferences from the menu at the top of the screen, switch on and ensure that the “backup’ disk is selected.

This will now backup both the system drive and the “Master-Photos” drive, incrementally every hour.

This is important as RAID 0 splits files between two drives and doubles the likelihood of data loss caused by drive failure.

Updated

I finally received the replacement SSD. This now works fine after formatting. I cloned the system from the 1TB Western Digital drive that came with the machine using an external drive caddy. I checked that it could boot the Mac (Hold down [option] when booting]. Then swapped over the SSD and 1TB drive – that is now a spare external, accessible using my caddy.

I also received the memory, 3x 8GB from OWC in the US. This was very straighforward to fit – I didn’t need to pull out the processor tray.

The final component is the external SATA PCI Express card. I decided that Firewire 800 is tooo slow for external drives, and indeed is expensive to buy disks for. I decided therefore to fit a SATA card that could support RAID. SO I could create an external backup drive for example.

After some research, I decided upon the NewerTech 6G card, which has two ports. There is a RAID and non- RAID capable version. I went for the RAID version. I have two Western Digital Raptors 74GB each 10000rpm spin speed and so I will build a very fast scratch overflow volume.

NewerTech 6G RAID card - works for Mac or PC

In situ – the card is tiny, but easy to fit into the MAcPro.

NewerTech Card in situ

There are two external ports that can be used as RAID or not, and can have up to 5 drives added to each, though the bandwidth or 3Mb/s for each will limit the benefit of that. This gives external drive access as quickly as internal drives, and is a real benefit of using the MacPro. However I have just bought an Expresscard 34 eSATA card for the MAcBookPro – though it is limited to 1.5Mb/s.

2 eSATA ports now available for fast external backups and storage.

In Use

This machine feels VERY fast, Lightroom zips along, performance now doesn’t really get in the way of all of the usual editing tasks. The machine slows down if you ask for batch processes such as HDR”  or “convert to DNG” but it zips through these tasks far quicker than the MacBookPro. My first backup from the “Master Photos” disk to “Backup” via time machine was under an hour – for 1TB of data!

24GB means that I can have all sorts of applications open at once with little if any performance hit.

I have spent a some time loading utilities and applications and testing them all, it has been smooth so far, though I have had to get updates for most. In a separate article I will outline my favourite utilities and why. For the time being though I have a Boston photoshoot to edit…

13 thoughts on “Building a hi-end photo editing workstation.”

  1. Wayne,

    Mind if I ask for some information regarding your setup? I’ve been considering a MacPro for a couple months now and what you’ve described is precisely the way I’d like to go with the exception of Drive size. I’m thinking 1TB. My questions are:

    1. Does it matter much which brand eSATA pci card. Could you make a suggestion?

    2. Is the caddy a Drobo or will anything do?

    3. Finally, why would you not want to upgrade the graphics card?

    Is it okay for me to correspond with you when I decide to take this plunge?

    Regards,
    Charles Boehm

    1. 1. I’m not convinced that all the eSata cards will work with the Mac so I went with one I knew would work, that wasn’t too expensive.
      2. The caddy I am using is the Icybox – it is a bit cheap but works OK. The Drobo is a better choice, (it acts as an external RAID with multiple enclosures) but why not load up the internal bays with low cost and fast eSata drives before going external?
      3. The graphics card does NOT improve photo editing performance. It will make games run faster and could make 3D rendering faster if you are into CAD, but can you afford the electricity bills and put up with the extra noise! The upgraded card is very power hungry!

  2. Good article. Impeccable reasoning. Agree about eSata and SSD. One issue with the mac pro is lack of support for Thunderbolt, though this should be forthcoming on next gen mac pro. I use FireWire 800 to connect external 7200 drive to macbook. Seems fast enough, though eSata adapter would be a lot faster.

  3. So that was about $4k-6k

    I built a 12 core, 64gb ram, 4tb Raptor raid, 512mb ssd, dual 32″ monitors monster for $2800. Lightroom, photoshop are butter smooth. and for the 3k I save not buying a mac I got a d800 body.

    1. Good luck with it. I tried something similar in 2005, it was so unreliable I gave it away in the end as I was fed up rebuilding windows on it.
      There are very few 30″ displays worth buying. NEC SpectraView and Eizo being two. Both are more that £2800 each! You get what you pay for.

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