How AWS Added Apple Mac Mini Nodes to EC2


AWS EC2 Apple Mac Mini Node In Rack Cover

Since this is a holiday week, and we tend to do a bit more fun content. I wanted to take a look at how Amazon AWS is adding Apple Mac Mini nodes to EC2. We recently covered the announcement in Amazon AWS EC2 Mac Mini Powered MacOS Instances Launched, but now we have some pictures of the solution.

This is what an x86/ 10GbE Apple Mac Mini looks like in an EC2 rack. One can see that the unit is placed in a sled. Around the Mac Mini are a surprising number of wires being routed through the chassis.

AWS EC2 Apple Mac Mini Node In Rack

Many of these wires terminate at the front of the sled. Here, we have an AWS Nitro controller. Amazon is now on its fourth generation of Nitro controller after starting the journey years ago.

AWS Nitro To Nitro4

We have covered this a number of times, but Nitro is effectively what the industry is trying to replicate (and expand upon) as part of the push towards DPUs. If you are not familiar with DPUs, check out our What is a DPU A Data Processing Unit Quick Primer and video:

On the front of the AWS Mac Mini sled, there is the Nitro controller. There are two Annapurna Labs branded chips, one with what looks like five DRAM packages atop the PCB and one without. There is a red cable atop the Nitro PCB that almost looks like a standard SATA cable with a 90-degree connector.

AWS EC2 Apple Mac Mini Node In Rack Nitro Controller Highlighted

AWS says it is using Thunderbolt to connect to the Mac Mini. Although most logos are covered up in AWS’s screenshot, we can see what appears to be (logo partially covered by a white label) a black Belkin Thunderbolt 3 cable on the bottom of the Nitro controller. Amazon said it is using Thunderbolt to connect its Nitro controller to the Mac Mini and provide its basic suite of EBS storage, networking, and security/ management features.

Final Words

Something important to keep in mind here is that the Mac Mini itself is a relatively lower cost versus the rest of AWS’s infrastructure to host the node versus many of AWS’s other EC2 offerings. It is also much more complex than something like a Mac in a Rack setup that we recently featured on STH.

Overall, the big takeaway for our readers should be the impact of the AWS Nitro and why the industry is pushing so hard on DPUs right now. AWS is effectively using its Nitro controller as the endpoint so it can abstract the nodes it is putting on its network. Instead of having to re:Invent (yes that was purposeful) a new Mac OS stack, it could leverage Nitro and deliver its services over Thunderbolt. Some of the Thunderbolt changes in the M1 generation also may partially explain why AWS is using the older x86 nodes instead of newer M1 Arm nodes.

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