Thursday, May 14, 2015

Intel NUC, interesting but troublesome hardware.

I work at an ISP.  ISPs usually have NOCs.  NOCs do really have that room with a bunch of monitors at the front. For the last six or eight years we've had a set of three monitors up front, driven by "normal" pcs.  To get the video there, we have cat 5 based VGA extenders. 

PC's have gotten smaller.  Much smaller.  Small enough to put behind a TV. 

This is a business, so upgrading stuff that works, receives no priority until something breaks.  A week or two ago, one of the PCs that we use to drive the TV's died.  And we have no replacement for it.  Word from above said "get some NUCs."  Tuesday, we did.

Sadly, the i3 ones were out of stock.  So instead we got the i5 based NUCs.  In specific a set of three NUC5i5RYH NUCs.  Monitor PC's don't need a lot of storage, or even a lot of ram.  They just spend their days showing a set of 2-3 webpages all day long.  

NUCs are barebone machines, so they do require some assembly.  To make them not barebone, we picked up some 64 gig SSDs, and 4 gigs of ram for each. 

Here's what you get when you open the box.  you can see the VESA mount hiding in the box. 

 To install the memory, and disk(s), you pop the bottom off the NUC.

 This is the second time you see Intels care over this hardware.  The first bit, was including the VESA mount. Each of the screws that hold the bottom plate on, have bushings and clips, so they're permanantly retained to the bottom plate.  You can't lose them. 

Mmm computer guts.  What we have here are the two memory slots, and the M2 SSD slot.   The SSD slot can take all three standard lengths.  And if you look at the previous picture, there's even some thermal foam to help manage the temprature of a high performance M2 SSD.  Another thoughtfull move on Intels part.  

So lets put the memory in there.  The i3 and i5 based NUCs want DDR3 1600.  

 Speaking of thermal pads, here's a good look at it.  Along with the 2.5" drive bay.  And those fancy retained bottom plate screws.  The 2.5" slot is designed to be tool less.  You're supposed to just slide your drive in from the side.

And it works.  Mostly.  There are two spring tabs are the front of the slot.  SSDs are pretty low profile, and the slot is sized for a spinny disk.  So you need to press on the disk to keep it low enough to mate with the connectors at the far end of the slot.

 I bet intel could have gotten away without the spring tabs.  There's not a lot of extra room in the case for that drive.  And if you're the belt and suspenders type of person, there are two available screw holes for retaining the 2.5" drive in the bay. 

Closing the NUC is just a matter of pressing the cover in place, and tightening the screws. The thermal pad, and ground pad need a little force to get the cover all the way down, but it's not a concerning amount of pressure.  

 After another five minutes of work, we have three PCs to drive three monitors. 
The next step is getting an OS installed.  Which turned out to be it's own little adventure.  

Now we get to start talking about the quirks of the late model NUC. 

The hardware is great.  Low TDP chip, a high quality wall wart power supply with adapters for several countries.  A nice cast aluminum case.  Space for the M2 SSD, and a 2.5" drive.  Gigabit ethernet, wifi, bluetooth.  Mini HDMI, and Displayport output.  Essentially it's a high end laptop, without a monitor and keyboard attached. 

So this latest and greatest laptop, but not, has the latest and greatest integrated Intel video card.  That video card doesn't play nice with older video drivers.  The intended OS for these machines is Linux, and our first choice, Mint 17.2 doesn't have that video driver.  Nor does the LTS Ubuntu.  The only version that worked properly as installed was the latest Ubuntu release.  15.04 IIRC. 

The manuals that come from Intel, in the box, detail the hardware fairly well.  But their details on software is very, very weak. 

After discovering that Mint, and LTS Ubuntu weren't going to work, and the workarounds weren't very appealing. (Installing the OS in another machine, then moving the drive over to the NUC.) Finally we arrived on the latest Ubuntu.  That would boot off a USB drive.  However, after installation it would not boot off the internal SSD. 

So after a day of half hearted fiddling.  I discovered that I couldn't get into the main bios.  And that choosing which boot drive from the boot menu wouldn't do any good.  (Mind, this is not my core duty at work..)  I had a coworker suggest  I contact Intel.  And I did. 

We came up with a few things to try.  First, was installing the latest bios.  Which went swimmingly.  These machines have a bios utility that can read from a FAT32 formatted disk and install from there.  We also decided trying a displayport monitor was worth trying.  And finally a new SSD. 

I couldn't find a displayport adapter yesterday.  I had just bought a SSD off that same coworker, and I decided to give that a swing.  The NUC booted off the new SSD.   Poking through the boot menu screen, I discovered that the SSD had been formatted with a UEFI compatible partition.  And that's the key. 

After getting the drive set up with a UEFI partition, it will boot.  ... I still can't reach the bios. 

That said, now the PC is working.  It's speedy, does what we need, and boots really quickly.  (19 seconds from button press to login screen.) Other than the documentation issues, the machine is great. 

I expect there will be a followup at some point.  Just.. not right now.  :-) 

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