Apple’s weird storage decision

Apple has adopted a non-standard SATA interface in new iMacs. We’re trying to figure out why.

If you ever want to see a journalist foam at the mouth, ask them about the last time they interacted with Apple PR.

We decided to do so when reports started to reach the media that the new, 2011, range of iMac feature a non-standard hard disk. We wondered what was inside, on the off-chance that perhaps there was something that the storage community could usefully learn about.

The scuttlebutt about the new iMacs’ hard drive suggested it has a seven-pin connector. Hard drives without that connector can be slotted into an iMac, but Mac OS X responds by spinning up an iMac’s cooling fan and blowing it hot and loud ad infinitum. That means iMac are not user-upgradable, which could be an issue if you need a larger drive (iMacs currently only offer a 2TB option) or a faster drive (iMac drives are 7200 RPM).

Apple’s response to our request for confirmation about the seven-pin connector and the fan issues was as follows:

“As a consumer device, the iMac is designed to just work, it is not designed to be pulled apart and modified by consumers. We recommend that our customers think about how they want to use their Mac and check the system requirements of the hardware, applications and games they will be running to ensure they get all the Mac they need.”

“In order to meet those needs, we give our customers the flexibility to specify their screen size, memory hard drive capacity, graphics process and even systems processors.”

That’s a pretty poor answer (hence the foaming) so we’ve been scouting about to try to learn more.

Tear-downs of the new iMac confirm that there is indeed a seven-pin connector in the new iMac.

iFixit’s tear-down offers a view of the connector. Click the image to see it in a very large format in a new window.

Several blogs confirm that the drives are not user-upgradable.

To be fair, the restriction on user-performed upgrades seems reasonable given that you need to remove the iMac’s screen to access its hard drives.

But the restriction is annoying because it means users are forced to pay over the odds for hard drives. Upgrading to a 2TB drive from the standard 1TB model costs $AUD180 on the Apple Australia iMac configuration page. But a quick Staticice search for “2TB 7200 RPM hard drive” and “1TB 7200 RPM hard drive” yields prices that show the upgrade costs less than $180 for single drives bought at retail. Apple is clearly making a pretty penny on the upgrades, even factoring in higher costs for drives with its weird connectors, given that it buys in volume.

Given that disks will inevitably get cheaper and larger, iMac buyers are cut off from upgrades.

The Register and the Macsales blog explain some workarounds.

So did we learn anything from this exercise that might make Apple’s decision important for storage pros?

Not really. But the 2011 iMac has given storage pros at least one point to ponder, thanks to their inclusion of the new Thunderbolt interface and its 10Gbp/s data transfer rate. A few NAS devices offering Thunderbolt have already emerged, notably Promise Technology’s Pegasus Thunderbolt Technology DAS and Lacie’s Little Big Disk. Neither will threaten enterprise arrays any time soon, but thanks to Thunderbolt’s ability to daisy-chain up to six devices they do offer an interestingly scalable storage solution for smaller sites.

Read more on SAN, NAS, solid state, RAID