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More than a Rackmount Case for a Mac

I debated buying a new Mac due to its limited options for expandability. This all changed when I found a way to not only rackmount my Mac, but add PCIe slots to add additional components like NVMe SSDs, video capture cards, dual 10 gig networking, and even testing a video card.

Thank you to Sonnet for sending this xMac Studio / Echo III / M.2 8x4 Silent Gen4 PCIe Card to help complete my video editing / software development Machine!

Disclosures:

  • I was not paid
  • I chose Sonnet and contacted them after researching alternatives
  • SSDs are on loan and will be sent back

Thinking about expanding your Mac/Windows/Linux Machines? Check out Sonnet!

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More than a Rackmount Case

I racked my Mac Studio using this rackmount case and it gives me so many connectivity options. It not only serves as a rackmount but it also expands its capabilities by adding a Thunderbolt enclosure that can fit 3 full length PCIe cards and connects over Thunderbolt 3 or 4. This unlocks the Mac’s full potential by allowing you to connect PCIe cards like network adapters, video capture cards, or even add super fast storage using this 16x PCIe card that can fit up to 8 NVMe SSD drives. the xMac Studio rackmount case also has a built-in USB hub, cut outs that still let you access the IO ports, an easy to reach out button, and even an area to keep USB or Thunderbolt drives if you’ve decided to connect those.

Sonnet xMac Studio Sonnet xMac Studio enclosure with the Echo III expansion system

Today we’re going to take a look at the xMac Studio Pro Rackmount System from Sonnet, with the Echo III expansion system, and even one of their m.2 8x4 silent gen4 PCIe cards to add some additional storage. We’re going through all of this today, including the rackmount case, the enclosure, testing different cards that work with a Mac, and even do some speed tests using the included PCIe NVMe card. This kind of expandability makes it hard to know why the Mac pro even exists.

Testing cards with the xMac Studio I tested lots of PCIe cards

Why a Mac Studio over a Mac Mini?

I bet you’re wondering, why a Mac Studio, and why not a Mac Mini? I debated this for quite some time and even started configuring a Mac Mini and after I started comparing the specs of what I wanted out of a Mac Mini m2 and a Mac Studio m2, I found that for only 100 dollars more I was able to get twice the GPU cores (38 in total), twice the RAM (64 in total), 2 additional USB C ports, a media card reader, faster on board SSDs and even faster memory. I did have to reduce the storage down to 1 TB but that’s a sacrifice I was willing to make and knew I could supplement storage with a system like this from Sonnet. Don’t get me wrong, the Mac Mini is a great Machine but once you start getting into the upper end of the specs, you’re better off going with a Mac Studio. Oh, also sonnet makes a Mac Mini rack too, which I’d love to test out in the future as a Mac build / render server.

Mac vs Mac Mini If you’re going to increase the specs of the Mac Mini, at some point you’re better off getting a Mac Studio

Why Rack a Mac?

The next question you’re probably asking is why rack a Mac system at all, I mean, aren’t they meant to be looked at? Joking. Kind of. I chose to rackmount my Mac Studio, not because it’s on brand (ding), but because I wanted better cable management. Wait, cable management? Yeah, cable management. Being a content creator, streamer, and developer, I have lots of cables and cords to connect lots of devices, like this 4kHDMI capture card that I connect cameras and devices to capture their output. The same goes for audio equipment, USB devices, XLR cables, and on and on. While building my server rack in my basement, I found that having everything in one cabinet, like a server rack, makes wire management much easier, or at least easier to hide. So recently I picked up a smaller server rack to rack both my Mac and my upcoming Windows / Linux build in a Sliger water cooled case.

But there are many audio and video creative professionals who do rack their equipment and I am adapting it to fit my needs. Will it work? Let’s find out.

xMac Studio Rack Case

The xMac Studio rack mount case isn’t just a case to keep it safe, but a way to expand the capabilities of your Mac Studio.

xMac Studio xMac Studio rakcmount case by Sonnet

Features:

  • 3u rackmount
  • Rack mountable with rails (we’ll mount it later)
  • Rugged
  • Easy to access, front panel is removable
  • Power button
  • 4 USB-A 3.0 Hub
  • PCIe expansion Module
  • SSD Storage Space for up to 2 Thunderbolt or USB SSDs
    • Great for extra storage or even time Machine backups on the go
  • Front to back airflow so nothing is recirculated

Echo III PCIe Enclosure

The enclosure that comes with the xMac Studio / Echo III combo is actually a desktop enclosure that converts to a rack mount enclosure. It’s the same internals but without the outer case from the desktop module. This is a professional level enclosure for creative pros and can be connected to any device that has a Thunderbolt connection, but I opted for the rack mounted version without the desktop case. Let’s take a look at it.

Echo III PCIe Enclosure Echo III PCIe Enclosure

Features:

  • 3 PCIe Slots
  • One is 16x and the other 2 are 8x
  • These slots can be filled with any cards you can think of with the exception of video cards due to Apple’s limitation, but we’ll populate some here in a few, even a video card for fun
  • All 3 are PCIe 3
  • Power supply is a 400w power supply easily power everything connected
  • 75w auxiliary power connector for cards that require extra power
  • Automatically power on and off based on your Machine’s power
  • 2 Noctua fans that are temperature controlled and variable speed
  • Thunderbolt 3 (which is better than Thunderbolt for for this use case. See Sonnet’s video explaining the differences)

So what am I going to put in the slots? Well one of them for sure is the Sonnet M.2 8x4 silent Gen4 PCIe Card

M.2 8x4 Silent Gen4 PCIe Card (NVMe SSD)

This is the Sonnet M.2 8x4 Silent Gen4 PCIe Card and it’s a professional level card. That’s blazing fast! It’s a 16x card, and the bandwidth is available to all of the connected NVMe SSD which help facilitate maximum speeds. It works with Windows, Mac, or Linux computers that have an x16 slot and is compatible with a variety of m.2 NVMe Gen4 and Gen3 SSDs, but you’ll want Gen 4 if you’re going for speed.

Sonnet M.2 8x4 Silent Gen4 PCIe Card This card is blazing fast!

Here’s the cool thing about this card too, is that it doesn’t require a specific motherboard for raid or any other features, and it does not require PCIe bifurcation. PCIe bifurcation is just a fancy word that means taking something and dividing it into parts. If the card didn’t support this, we would only see one device or need a special motherboard, but because this card does support bifurcation the card presents multiple devices to the computer so we can see each individual drive. That makes this card very flexible. I did install 8 NVMe SSDs into this card, installed the thermal transfer pad to transfer the heat from the ssd drives to the cooler. This helps keep the drive cool and avoid any kind of thermal throttling.

Sonnet M.2 8x4 Silent Gen4 PCIe Card Loaded it up with 8 NVMe drives!

Features:

  • Eight M.2 NVMe SSD Slots on a PCIe 4.0 x16 Card
  • Works with Windows / Mac / Linux
  • Up to 64 GB
  • Silent, no fans
  • Though the case does have super quiet noctua fans
  • This Sonnet card doesn’t require a specific motherboard to operate or specific SSDs to support RAID features – no PCIe bifurcation required

This allows me to connect 8 NVMe SSDs via Thunderbolt port using Echo III PCIe expansion enclosure which pops right into the xMac Studio.

So let’s put all of this together, add some PCIe cards, and test various speeds and compatibility.

Testing PCIe cards on a Mac

First of all, it’s worth mentioning that this card is really intended for a high performance server or desktop that is connected to a PCIe 4.0 device and can take advantage of all 16 lanes of PCIe. This is not the case with my Mac Studio since it is limited by Thunderbolt and the enclosure only supports PCIe 3.0. This because Thunderbolt does not support PCIe 4.0. I know this all sounds complicated, because it is 😀.

When testing in this enclosure over Thunderbolt, here are the speeds I was able to achieve:

~2800 MB/s Read / Write.

Speed testing SSDs This speed test maxed out Thunderbolt speeds!

This is roughly 22 Gbs, which is no slouch, but that’s a far cry from the 40 Gbs that Thunderbolt supports?

This is actually the theoretical max of Thunderbolt, it reserves half for downstream devices like monitors so that card, enclosure, and even Thunderbolt is performing as it should. This isn’t a limitation of the card or the enclosure, it’s a limitation of Thunderbolt.

I will test this some more in my next rackmount project which is building my new Windows/Linux workstation in a Sliger case that’s water cooled.

As a side note, I tested many other cards which aren’t covered here but can be seen in the video!

More than a Rackmount for a Mac

Speed testing SSDs This speed test maxed out Thunderbolt speeds!

Overall, I am very happy with my Sonnet xMac Studio and Echo III module. If you’re looking to rack your Mac Studio, there are few mounting options, but xMac Studio offers the additional Thunderbolt expansion system that really takes this to the next level. The combination of these two give me the flexibility I need to use my Mac how I want to use it. Thunderbolt connectivity ensures that I can connect this to any system I want, a new, a Windows Machine, or Linux, and even if they are a laptop. Overall it’s a great system even if Thunderbolt has some limitations. Well, I learned a lot about Thunderbolt 3 and 4, the Mac Studio, the xMac Studio system and I hope you learned something too. And remember if you found anything in this post helpful, don’t forget share! Thanks for reading!

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