Server in a can: Unbridled rage

Back nearly a decade ago, Apple was going to release a new Mac Pro. And it was goi to be unlike all the other computers, it was going to be compact, and stylish, a jet engine for the mind.

However instead, we got what everyone would know as the trash can.

big brain idea

So at the time i had this idea that I wanted a Xeon workstation in a nice portable form factor. And this little cylinder seemed to fir the bill. But things changed in my life, i was okay being tied down, and a regular Xeon desktop became my goto machine, a desktop would do just fine.

Then years later, an artist id commish to do some stuff was selling their Mac Pro, as they’d gone all in on Hackintosh, and this was my chance to get one on the cheap. As I’m on a business trip at the moment, I thought this would be a good time to test out what I had envisioned as the future of a personal server in a can.

A long while ago, I’d bought a newer/faster/larger flash for the Mac Pro, and it was a simple matter of hitting the Windows key + R and the machine boots up into an internet recovery mode, and will install OS X Mavericks over the wire. Which sounds great, but this is where the fun begins. Since I ordered. a NVMe M.2 module, it of course is too new for the 2013 machine, so I had to use a shim bridging the Mac’s NVMe SSD port to M.2 for my modern flash. And it never fit exactly right, and I kind of screwed it in incorrectly, but it held in place. Obviously flying bumped things around, as I had kind of figured, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

I didn’t take any big peripherals with me, as I figured I’d just get some new stuff, and didn’t worry about it at all. I picked up a View Sonic VX2770 for £45, I got this RED5 Gaming keyboard for £13, and I already had this Mad Catz 43714 mouse NIB with me. I think I paid $200 HKD or so a year ago, but I like the feel of this style of mouse, and was happy to bring it with me. Little did I know…

So after setting up a desk, and the system, it performed like crap. Worse it was locking up again at random times. I already was using Macs Fan Control to set the fan to 100%, and still it was locking up. I had guessed it’d taken a jostle too many, and I reseated the storage. And then on booting it back up I only got the blinking folder. Great, either it was dying, or I’d just killed it.

A quick jump on Amazon, and I found the “Timetec 512GB MAC SSD NVMe PCIe Gen3x4 3D NAND TLC”, which at a whopping £68 seemed like a good idea. And since it was SSD NVMe, it’d just slot into the Mac Pro, and life would be good. Or so I thought.

The first problem I ran into is that I couldn’t boot the mac into either diagnostics, or recovery mode. There is something really weird with a UK keyboard on a non UK machine. I think the 2013 (and probably many more) power up as American, and this is some kind of common issue with non American keyboards. Seriously why is the pipe,backslash on the lower row? Quotes is over 2? It’s a mess. And since I got my Mac Pro in Asia, maybe it defaults to Chinese? Japanese? Who knows?!

Crappy keyboard controller

Lucky for me, I had this ugly little thing with me for another project. And yeah holding down the ‘Win’+R button got me to recovery mode, with zero issues.

Loading Recovery

I still have to say, this is pretty cool. However what wasn’t cool, is loading the disk util, and yeah, NO FLASH detected. I have VMWare ESX 7.0 on USB, so booting that up, and yeah it totally sees the drive:

TIMTEC drive is spotted!

And of course, like an idiot, I installed VMware to at least make sure it’s working.

ESX on Mac

Yeah it’s booting fine.

By default the Mac Pro seems to be picking up bootable USB devices, so I pop in a Windows 10 MBR USB, and instead I get this:

Bad memory on the GPU? Bad cable? Bad monitor? I have no idea. At this point I’m thinking I’ve totally killed the machine, but a power cycle, and I’m back in ESX in no time. Something is up.

I pull the flash, and I can boot Windows 10 to the installer, but obviously there is no storage to install to. I try adding in a 16GB USB thumb drive, and … It won’t let you install to it. It appears that there is a way to prepare a USB drive for Windows 10 to install, but it’s not exactly something that is easy to do. However Mac OS X, doesn’t suffer this limitation and will let you install to whatever you want, so I install Mavericks to the 16GB drive, and yeah it’s booting. And SUPER slow. The flash still doesn’t show up, so I read the amazon page some more and find this tidbit:

My Macbook came with Mac OS Capitan as the operating system for recovery, and therefore did not detect the SSD. I had to create a High Sierra installer on a USB using another Mac and an app (DiskMaker) in order to reinstall the operating system from High Sierra. Once this was done, the SSD appeared available and I was able to install the operating system and upgrade without problem.” –Gilberto R. Rojina

Oh, now isnt’ that interesting? So of course I got to update my thumb drive, and of course 16GB isn’t enough space. Great. So I order a Elecife M.2 NVME Enclosure for £23, thinking I should be able to figure out once and for all if I can see the old drive, or maybe boot from it. I get the drive, plug in the storage, and Disk Util sees a drive, but will not mount it, nor is it selectable too boot from. The issue of course is that it’s APFS, which I guess cannot boot from external media? I have no idea, but I don’t have anything that critical on there, as I keep my stuff backed up on some cloud thing. So I do have a 128GB thumb drive on me, so I format the 1TB as HFS+, backup the drive, and and once more again reboot to the recovery mode, using the crap keyboard, to install Mavericks onto the 128GB flash. Thinking everything is going to be fine, I find this apple support page, with the needed links to get ‘old’ versions of MacOS.

These versions can be directly downloaded and installed without the store.

Another weird thing is that Mavericks won’t let me login to the Apple store. It notifies me on my phone, I approve it, but it never prompts for the verification. Maybe it’s too old? Anyways I install macOS Sierra, and do the upgrade.

Now running Sierra, I can use the store, and try to take the leap on my USB to Mojave. And of course disappointment strikes again:

You may not install to this volume because the computer is missing a firmware partition.

What the hell?! So now I’m trying to find out how to create a bootable USB installer from the download. That leads me to this fun page at apple. Apparently an ‘install installer to USB drive’ would be too complicated for Apple, so its hidden in a terminal command. Fantastic. Since I’m using that 128GB as my system, I grab that 16GB flash drive, and install the installer to that.

sudo /Applications/Install\ macOS\ Mojave.app/Contents/Resources/createinstallmedia --volume /Volumes/SanDisk\ Fit

What an insane path to get this far. The tool will partition and format the drive, and now I can shut down, pop out the 128GB Sierra drive, and boot into the Mojave installer.

I didn’t take pictures, but by default the Mojave installer & DiskTool only show existing partitions. You have to right click on the drive, to expose the entire drive. This was an issue as I’d installed ESX onto the new storage. I clear the drive, and now I can finally install Mojave.

Home run?

Thinking it’s all over, I reboot into the Mac Pro, thinking everything should be fine, I have a properly fitting drive that is super fast, and It’s already 10.14.6 the latest and last version that lets me run 32bit stuff. Except that It’s slow. And unstable. No progress was seemingly made.

Trying to search ‘why is my Macintosh slow’ is, well a total waste of time. And it periodically locks hard making it extremely annoying.

Somehow I found this thread over on Apple support:

I have a quad-core CPU Mac Pro late 2013 (Model Identifier: MacPro6,1).  MacOS X 10.9.5. 
I have had all sorts of USB devices hooked up to it.  At any one time, I usually have all 4 ports filled.  I have a 3TB USB 3.0 disk that stores my large files, a USB mouse and keyboard (logitech with a usb mini dongle), a cable to charge my logitech USB cordless mouse, Lightning cable to my iPhone 5, and other things that I rotate in and out, like CF card reader, Audio Box USB audio interface from PreSonus, Sony Webcam, etc. 
About 3 months into having the Mac Pro, I noticed that my keyboard went dead in the middle of using it.  The mouse was dead too.  I blamed the RF dongle that they both share, because the Apple Magic Trackpad (bluetooth) I have still functioned.  Try as I might, I couldn't get the keyboard or mouse to work again, so I used the Magic Trackpad to restart the machine, and then my keyboard and mouse worked again. 
It wasn't until later that I realized that all the USB busses on the machine had frozen or "died" temporarily.  I realized it later because my USB hard drive complained about being "ejected improperly." 
Now I have had the USB die on the Mac Pro at least 15 times over the last month and a half.  Usually once every two days or so. 
I have tried (almost one by one) using some of the USB devices on the mac, and removing others to ascertain if it's a certain USB device that is causing this.  But the odd thing is that I never get a message from the OS like "xxx USB device is drawing too much power." 
I'm going a little nuts here because I cannot see any rhyme or reason to the USB interface lock ups.  And each time it happens, all the USB devices go dead until I restart.  Sometimes, I'm able to SSH into the machine from my iPhone and issue a "shutdown -h now" and even though I see the Mac OS X UI shutdown, it never fully halts.  I often have to hold the power button to get the machine to turn off. 
I really can't say if it's software related, hardware related or what.  I've tried to watch my workflow carefully to see if anything seems to make a pattern, but nothing yet. 
Any suggestions? Is anyone else seeing behavior like this?  Do we think it's a USB device... or is my Mac Pro flakey? -- Cheule

Wait the USB?

And to follow up, this thread over on Apple, that mentions:

"When I plugged in the same config on my new machine USB 3.0 directly it was very weird, devices would not remount and only show up if they were then when present at startup, and thruput was sluggish.  So I stopped using the in built USB 3.0 and grabbe the old belkin thunderbolt USB hub, and BAM it all works perfectly.  Better than that after testing the throuput , the belkin gave me 30-50% better performance that the inbuilt USB, that is without any hubs just direct." -- symonty Gresham

And sure enough another search about the USB setup seems to confirm it from Anandtech

Here we really get to see how much of a mess Intel’s workstation chipset lineup is: the C600/X79 PCH doesn’t natively support USB 3.0. That’s right, it’s nearly 2014 and Intel is shipping a flagship platform without USB 3.0 support. The 8th PCIe lane off of the PCH is used by a Fresco Logic USB 3.0 controller. I believe it’s the FL1100, which is a PCIe 2.0 to 4-port USB 3.0 controller. 

Unreal. I notice as I try to use the machine more occasionally the mouse turns itself off. Replugging the mouse shows it powering up and immediately powering off. I turn on the annoying backlight of the keyboard, and yeah it powers down too, however reinserting it brings it back to life. Luckily I still have this A1296 Apple Wireless Magic Mouse with me, so I pair that and unplug the mouse, and everything else USB.

Mad Catz, the Mac KILLER
This mouse killed my Mac Pro

It was the mouse. I can’t believe it either. I am simply blown away how this could possibly be a thing. I haven’t ordered the thunderbolt to USB dock yet, as I really didn’t want to spend any money on this thing, it was a grab and go solution, that has proven itself not so much grab and go.

Finally getting somewhere

After 6 hours of working yesterday, I shut it down to give it a break for a few hours, and it’s been up some 12 hours so far, pain free. In 2022, the Xeon E5v2 processor just really isn’t worth lugging around, but I already had it, so when it comes to transport, it actually works out pretty well. I wonder if this would have been a good traveling solution 2013 onward, but the fact a mouse could basically bring the machine down makes me think I’d have gone totally insane trying this on the road. Just as the USB Win/Alt/Alt GR/FN keys not being able to trigger the recovery mode was also crazy.

I don’t know why Apple insists on such fragile machines, but maybe the new Arm stuff is better? I can’t justify one at the moment.

Updates in the field

I’m working on getting some local retro kit, and I’ll have more fun coming up. But this fun experience ate 4 days of my life, and the least I could do is document it. I don’t know if it’ll help anyone in the future, maybe once these become iconic collectable, like the Mac Cube. Although as a former cube owner, those at least didn’t freak out when you used a 3rd party mouse.

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