Should You Build a Mac Mini Render Farm?
When you consider upgrading your workstation for rendering 3D projects faster, you will find dozens of different options. On one hand, it may be smart to invest in a powerful CPU, like AMD Threadripper; despite the high prices, the processing power provided may reduce rendering times tenfold and more. On the other hand, you can link together several cheaper and older processors and use them as a render farm. They may not work as fast, but will still provide invaluable rendering speed changes. Building such a farm is challenging if you are not a pro, and assembling even a single PC requires certain knowledge. That’s why simple solutions, even if less powerful, find popularity in the industry. One of these solutions is building a Mac mini render farm.
Mac mini overview
Introduced first in 2005 and regularly re-released since then, the Mac mini is a desktop computer developed by Apple. It is the only Macintosh solution that doesn’t come with a monitor, keyboard, and mouse included. Nevertheless, it is a good base for an office workstation, and the latest versions even compete with older Mac Pro computers in processing power.
Mac mini’s two main selling points are its small size and a comparatively low price (for an Apple product). It doesn’t require special furniture to set up and has all the required ports for input and output devices, Ethernet connection, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth. Because of its compact size, it can be unplugged and easily transported between workplaces in a handbag. Otherwise, it is a Macintosh computer that can be seamlessly integrated into any Apple workflow without adjustments.
Building a farm
The lower price and small size are why Mini inspired an idea of using it as a portable render farm. While the first generation was pretty slow, the third (2011) and fourth (2018) generations offer enough processing power to function as nodes for a render farm. For example, the fourth-generation Mini comes with an Intel Core i5 or i7 processor with 6 cores, 3,0-3,2 GHz each, up to 64GB RAM, 128-512 GB storage space, and a simple built-in graphics processor. It works on a lower wattage to guarantee lower power consumption in accordance with ENERGY STAR standards. This means the CPU almost never reaches high temperatures where it would require a big cooling system. This is also why these computers are very quiet.
Unfortunately, lower wattage is its downside too. It leads to reduced processing power and is known to lead to CPU throttling during long-time rendering (and the rendering will take a long time because of the lack of processing power). But the more computers you link together, the less this will affect you. Another possible issue with Mac mini is that it was not designed for 3D rendering and the constant load that it implies. Render farm use will lead to the hardware breaking down much faster than expected. As with most Apple products, replacing inner components may be impossible, and you will have to discard a broken unit.
Finally, the Mac mini is cheap only when compared to other Apple products. If you are already using MacOS workflow with 3D and editing system software, adding a couple of Mac minis may greatly improve the rendering capabilities. For example, Cinema4D developer Maxon works closely with Apple and provides software solutions to easily distribute rendering between all the available computers linked through the router. But if you work in 3DS MAX, or your main workstation uses Windows or Linux, Mac mini is just not worth it. You can either buy similar but cheaper small computers from other manufacturers or invest in a powerful CPU and a cooling system.
Let’s summarize all pros and cons of a Mac mini render farm.
- A finished product, so it doesn’t require buying parts separately and assembling them
- Small and portable, you can easily carry several of them in a handbag
- Low power consumption and efficient energy management
- Easily integrated into any MacOS workflow by connecting it to the router via an Ethernet cable; special software will handle the rest
- Overpriced compared to non-Apple hardware; much more powerful computers are available for the same price
- Lower wattage means slower rendering speeds and the risk of CPU throttling
- Not so durable under constant work stress as it wasn’t designed for rendering
- Components are hard or impossible to fix or replace
If the pros outweigh the cons for you, a Mac mini based render farm can be a great upgrade.
M1 Mac mini
In 2021 building a Mac mini render farm can become a viable option for even more people, as Apple has released the fifth generation of the computer. Now it is based on the Apple Silicon M1 chip and introduces a revamped architecture. It offers an 8-core CPU, with 4 performance and 4 efficiency cores, and an 8-core GPU. There is 8-16 GB unified RAM available, which may seem small at the first glance. However, this memory is used much more efficiently, and the M1 Mac mini has been reported to easily render projects that require 100 GB RAM on other computers. It is possible, Apple will soon beat Intel and AMD as the best visualization solution on the market.