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Chip in: Improving our render farm with M1 Macs

How Apple’s latest processors are improving the Sketch experience for everyone

Over the last couple of years, Sketch has been evolving. We’ve gone from a local, only-on-your-Mac experience that supported third-party tools for things like version control and developer handoff, to a single design platform that can handle all of a design-driven company’s needs. Last month we celebrated the latest step in that evolution with the addition of real-time collaboration in the Mac app, upgraded Workspaces for easier sharing and collaboration, and powerful controls that help you manage and share Libraries.

To support these new features, we’ve steadily built up a solid server backend. We’ve written before about one part of this server stack; how we’re supporting team collaboration by operating a server-side render farm that shifts the task of processing Sketch documents away from your Mac. But what started as a way to offload your local Sketch copy by drawing document previews on the server has steadily evolved into a central pillar of the Sketch experience.

More than just a render farm

In fact, the render farm does so much more these days than render — it also provides the brains of our real-time collaboration experience. Being able to run the exact same logic in your local Sketch instance as well as on the server lets us offer real-time collaboration in a native app. And the experience… just works™.

Still, the most CPU-intensive work that the render farm does is still rendering images for web previews. The faster we can do this, the shorter the time between you hitting save on your Mac and a new preview being ready for other stakeholders to view in whatever browser they use.

Speed is of the essence. And as we’ve discussed in the past, the best way to speed up the process is with faster network connections and better hardware. So you can imagine how pleased we were when Apple released their M1 processors. In our preliminary testing we saw ~2x performance increases across a range of documents, but we wouldn’t know the real impact for sure until we could run these new M1 Mac minis in our data centers.

Feeling the speed

We’re now happily running 20 M1 Mac minis in our data centers and — in case there was any doubt — we can confirm that these machines are fantastic. We’re seeing performance improvements ranging from 2x to 4x for small to large documents, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. As more people have made Workspaces a home for everything they do and share in Sketch, we’ve gone from processing around 60,000 documents a day to almost 100,000. Being able to process this many documents with the same number of servers — and still get faster throughput — has been incredible.

A graph showing a the time taken to process an image in the render farm on an Intel Mac and an M1 Mac. The M1 Mac takes less than half the time of the Intel Mac in most instances.

On a typical day in our render farm, the M1 Mac minis (blue line) offer at least 2x performance over the Intel Macs (purple line), with performance peaks of up to 4x in some cases.

With a more expensive and higher spec Intel Mac mini still available on Apple’s website, we’re hopeful that the rumored M1X chips will soon find their way into Mac minis as well. And if that happens, you can be sure we’ll put it through its paces and report back.

For now though, we couldn’t be happier with this first foray into Apple Silicon. From faster updates to enabling real-time collaboration in the Mac app, these new machines are giving everyone who uses Sketch a better experience.