Experimenting with Intel Optane at home with the Intel NUC 7th Generation PC

Welcome back to rsts11 for the summer. We’ve got a lot to cover in the next few weeks.

I haven’t really done a build report in a while, so when I realized I was getting double-dinged for high power usage, I started looking around for ways to save power. One was my desktop PC, which while very nice (with 8 dimm slots and lots of features I don’t use), is using around 250-300W for a 3rd gen core i7 processor.

I decided, based on availability and curiosity, to build out a 7th gen Intel NUC (Next Unit of Computing) PC, which conveniently supports Intel Optane memory. You can read a lot about the Optane technology, but in this application it’s a turbo-charged cache for internal storage. The newer NUCs support it in place of a more conventional m.2/NVMe SSD (used alongside a 2.5″ SSD or HDD), and of course you can use it as an overpriced SSD if you don’t want to use the Optane software.

See my earlier post about an Intel NUC for use with VMware. That NUC is currently running Ubuntu and Splunk for training in the home lab.

I’ll take you through the build manifest and process, and then we’ll look at benchmarks for five configuration permutations.

Build manifest and current prices (July 6, 2018)

  • Intel NUC (NUC7i7BNH) tall mini PC, $450 at Amazon
  • (Optional: NUC kit with preinstalled 16GB Optane module, $489 at Amazon)
  • Intel Optane Memory flash module (16GB $34 – $39 at Amazon, 32GB $58 for Prime members or $72 otherwise at Amazon)
  • Crucial CT2K16G4SFD824A 32GB DDR4 memory kit is currently $310 (it was $172 when I bought it a year and a half ago, ouch).
  • HGST Travelstar 7K1000 1TB 7200rpm SATA drive is $57.
  • Seagate FireCuda 2TB SSHD is $92, with the 1TB version available for $60.
  • Keyboard, mouse, USB flash drive for Windows install, and living room television with HDMI were already in house, but if you’ve read this far, you probably have them and/or know how to choose them. After installation you can use a Logitech Unifying device or a Bluetooth device, but for installation I’d suggest a USB cabled device.
  • Windows 10 Professional can be had for $150 give or take. The actual software can be downloaded from Microsoft but you will need a license key if building a new system without entitlement.

You’re looking at about $1,000 for the full system at today’s prices. If you don’t need 32GB of RAM, stepping down to 16GB should save you at least $100.

Building the NUC

I’ve used Intel NUCs going back to the 3rd gen Intel core processors, so they’re fairly easy to get around. The system I chose, NUC7i7BNH, has the following features:

  • Intel Core i7-7567U processor (2 cores, 4 threads, 3.5-4.0GHz, 4MB cache, 28W TDP)
  • two DDR4 sodimm slots (max 32GB)
  • storage slots:
    • an M.2 (PCIe x4 2242/2280)
    • a 2.5″ SATA (SSD/HDD)
    • a MicroSDXC storage slot exposed on the side (unused by me so far)
  • integrated Intel AC8265 + Bluetooth 4.2 wireless module (unused by me)
  • Gigabit Ethernet
  • Thunderbolt 3 / USB-C (usable for any USB function, Displayport, Thunderbolt 3)
  • four available USB 3.0 ports (including a rapid charge port on the front)
  • two USB 2.0 headers on the board (more on that later)
  • dual microphones for Windows Hello etc
  • two configurable LED indicators on the front panel

I loaded it up with a 2400MHz 32GB DDR4 kit from Crucial. You can get by with 2133, but this was what I had on hand. You can probably get by with less than 32GB, but only you know for sure.

Likewise, I probably did a bit of overkill with the 32GB Optane module, and a 2TB 2.5″ Seagate FireCuda gaming drive (2TB spinning disk plus onboard flash memory). I do tend to keep a lot of downloads locally, including my entire Dropbox folder, and want to have the best acceleration possible.

Notably, the current generation of NUC doesn’t require you to buy a localized power cable; once you have RAM, storage, and a keyboard/mouse/display, you’re good to go.

Getting Optane drivers ready to go

Any of you who built systems in the first decade of SATA will get flashbacks from this, but you will probably need to install additional drivers to make use of Optane. Even with the 1803 release of Windows 10 (downloaded in the last three days from Microsoft), an Intel Rapid Storage Technology (RST) driver is required, as is the Optane application to enable/monitor/disable Optane technology.

Intel does have good documentation (pdf) on this, whether adding Optane to an existing Windows 10 installation, or installing fresh. You obviously need a motherboard and CPU that support the Optane technology. This will be 7th gen or newer Core processors, and motherboards that explicitly call out Optane support (just having an m.2 slot isn’t enough).

Five configuration options

I tested five storage options to get a feel for relatively objective performance.

The benchmark software I used included current versions as of July 5, 2018:

PCMark10 from Underwriters Labs – an application-style benchmark simulating various regular PC tasks
NovaBench from Novawave – a more component-based test that delves into applications a bit, but less than PCMark10
Crystal DiskMark – A pure storage test, using sequential and random read and write tests

Note that the results are for comparison only, and may not be validated with the benchmark sites. They are definitely not endorsed or even known by the benchmark software makers.

The storage options included:

1a. Travelstar 7200RPM 1TB SATA drive, no Optane
1b. Travelstar 7200RPM 1TB SATA drive, Optane enabled
2a. FireCuda SSHD 2TB SATA drive, no Optane
2b. FireCuda SSHD 2TB SATA drive, Optane enabled
3. Optane module itself (Crystal Diskmark test alone)

Tests 1a/1b were performed on the same OS install (fresh with no updates, offline, no network connectivity). Tests 2a/2b/3 were done on a new OS install, again no updates or network connectivity.

Results

Note that benchmarks are often worth less than the paper they’re printed on. I like to use them for comparison within a system over time, or to get some level of comparison between systems, but depending on what you’re doing, your results may be much better or much worse than these.

Novabench tests

Unsurprisingly, CPU, RAM, and GPU tests didn’t show a distinction between the four storage options. Also unsurprisingly, disk performance with Optane was much better than without. I was a bit surprised that unaccelerated writes were better on the standard 7200rpm disk compared to FireCuda.

NovaBench (graph above) showed 2-4x better writes with Optane, and 7-9x better reads, roughly speaking. PCMark10 (graph below) had less shocking results, but Optane improved the 7200rpm disk by 20% on “Essentials,” but only 3% on Digital Content Creation. With FireCuda, Optane only improved Essentials by 5% or so, and the other two tests were similar to the 7200rpm tests

PCMark10 tests

CrystalDiskMark showed similar jumps in performance, with sequential reads going up by 10x and writes 3x. The results for the 4KiB queued tests were absurdly higher, with the worst results being 250x higher on reads and 98x faster on writes.

You’ll notice that on some of the rows, the 7200rpm and FireCuda drives don’t even show up. The random read and writes came in around 1 MB/sec for each, whereas with acceleration via Optane, they came in 93 MB/sec at worst, 621 MB/sec at best.

CrystalDiskMark results

 

I also ran Crystal DiskMark against the Optane disk as an SSD with NTFS filesystem (disabled Optane technology with the app, and then partitioned/formatted with Disk Management in Windows). Effectively this was the result of an NVMe SSD; I would probably not bother with a 32GB SSD for Windows, but I wanted to see how those results would compare with an accelerated HDD.

Turns out, with the exception of the 4KiB Q8T8 read (which was 49% faster than the accelerated FireCuda and 74% faster than the accelerated 7200rpm disk), results were between 2% slower and 9% faster than the accelerated FireCuda.

Give your NUC a hat?

There are two USB 2.0 headers on the NUC motherboard that don’t go anywhere. There are no extra holes in the case to let you use them anywhere either. However, if you don’t plan to stack your devices and want an extra USB option or two, there are companies like GoRite who make feature lids for the 5th generation and later NUCs. Some of the options include a supplemental fan, USB 2.0 ports, audio, video (HDMI, DVI, VGA), external wifi antennas, serial ports, memory card readers, Fast Ethernet, TV tuners, and more. You can also just pick a different color for the lid if that’s all you need.

So where do we go from here?

I’ll be putting some time this weekend into migrating my files and apps to the new system so I can retire/migrate my power-hungry desktop.

The testing I’ve done, while rather generic and not exhaustive, definitely shows that an Optane module will improve your disk i/o performance. An SSD (whether M.2 or 2.5″ or both) will still be the best performance choice, but I was able to get a 2TB SSHD and the 32GB Optane module for less than the price of a good 1TB SSD.

Do you need the 32GB module? Maybe not, but for a larger spinning disk it may be worth it. You’ll see similar performance improvement with a 16GB module, though, so if you need the extra $30 for something else, go for it.

Have you tried Optane yet? If so, let us know what you think in the comments.

Update after two weeks use

I wrote this post, and sat on it for about two weeks so I could see how the Optane acceleration felt during my regular usage pattern over time.

The first couple of days were painful. Switching browser tabs would often lock up, and boot-up was not as fast as a pure SSD. I ordered an M.2 NVMe SSD in case I needed to scrap the Optane experiment, but as time went on, it got more stable.

I decided to disable Optane caching while I synced half a terabyte of Dropbox data. This may have been more superstition than actual benefit, but I figured the caching would not help me on sustained write, and I bought myself another write cycle in the process.

I later realized that part of the degradation may have been from a radical core count reduction. My previous system was a 3rd gen core i7 with 6 cores/12 threads, whereas this one is a 7th gen core i7 with 2 cores/4 threads. RAM is the same quantity (was 8x4GB DDR3, now 2x16GB DDR4), and I’d say the storage is a definite upgrade.

As I wrap up this post, I’ve been running on the Optane system for about 16 days, and it’s quite livable. I did export some of the peripheral connections to an OWC USB-C 10-port dock, which provides some additional charging capability as well as getting some of the USB-A connections off the NUC itself. I’ve plugged my Drobo into the dock, along with my Fitbit Ionic charger and a couple of other items. I could also run a second monitor this way (or even a third), but that would require some more desk space that I’m running short on.

All things considered, it’s a very viable desktop system, and I’m mostly happy with the performance and capacity. It will shortly be mounted on the back of my monitor (to help with airflow and free up some shelf space). And I am a bit tempted to replace the Optane with the ADATA NVMe drive I bought, but I think that may do better in another tiny PC that can’t use Optane (like an HP Elitedesk 800 G2 Mini I have in the home office).

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Weird Stuff Warehouse closed this weekend

I probably should’ve had more of a teaser title, but it’s still a bit of a shock, so you get the bottom line in the title. After 32 years, Weird Stuff Warehouse is closing this Sunday.

Updates at the end. This post has been updated multiple times  since publication.

If this is your first time here, please do take a look around. I’ve written about gear I’ve bought at WeirdStuff, but there’s a lot more here, from system builds and hardware, Psycho Overkill Home Office technology, and then there’s rsts11travel which breaks out my travel and related adventures and discoveries.

Maker:0x4c,Date:2017-10-14,Ver:4,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar01,E-Y

For techies who’ve lived in or heard of Silicon Valley anytime in the last 30 years, you probably already know Weird Stuff Warehouse very well.

Ars Technica wrote about them in 2013. The Six Fifty posted last year. Atlas Obscura got a post just last month apparently. You can see an archive of people’s Weird Stuff posts on Instagram here.

And over three decades after they opened up, serving businesses that wanted to get rid of no-longer-needed stuff as well as individuals who “needed” that stuff, Weird Stuff Warehouse is closing its doors at the end of business on Sunday, April 8, 2018. Continue reading

Getting Started with Cryptocurrency Mining – Building Your First Rig

This is a post I’ve started three or four times, with different aims and detail, but since I haven’t gotten it posted and people keep asking, I thought I’d start with a simple build plan and some caveats and considerations.

Where I refer to a ‘rig’ here, it’s simply a system dedicated to, or purposed for, mining cryptocurrency of some sort. It might be a single board computer, or a dedicated device, or a PC with one video card (or just a good cpu), or an open frame build with lots of GPUs and a beefy power supply.

Big Hairy Audacious Caveats

The numbers in this article, from prices to currency rates, are based on the time of writing (which may have been a while before the time of posting). They are not guaranteed to last even as long as it takes for this article to post. I am not advising on the value or prospects of any mining or cryptocurrency. You may gain money, lose money, or break even, or your entire city may sink into the ground like a big ole glowing gopher, if you engage in cryptocurrency mining on any level. Do so at your own risk. 

Other Reading

See the sidebar: A note about mining pools

See the other sidebar: Setting up your cryptocurrency wallet

Givens and Druthers

Two ODROID HC1 single board computers, next to a Transporter NAS device.

There are a lot of options out there, from multi-thousand-dollar ASIC miners for Bitcoin to sub-$50 single board computers that can mine Verium or the like. Your budget will determine a lot of the details of your rig, and your power cost may influence it as well. It’s also worth keeping family approval requirements in mind, since an Antminer may be noisy and generate a lot of heat, whereas a Raspberry Pi or ODROID might fit better behind something in your living room.

You can build a starter rig with one GPU, and depending on the GPU, you might be able to bring in $10-20 a week or more from that. Considering that you can do this with an existing PC and operating system, it may be an economical way to get your feet wet, and it won’t require messing with special power supplies, excessive cooling, or riser cards.

If you’re looking to impress people or make a lot of money, well, good luck. But you’ll be looking at open frame systems with riser cables or even multiplexers for PCIe. That’s beyond the scope of this post. Continue reading

Coming back to the NetBeez monitoring service – a gigabit agent and more

[Disclosures at the end, as usual. Also, since this post was begun, NetBeez has announced discontinuation of their free tier of service. There is still a 30-day trial, though, so if you’re looking at deploying a paid option, you can still try it out first.]

At Cisco Live this year, I won a NetBeez monitoring agent (in the form of a Raspberry Pi 2 model B). It took a couple months, but I finally got it plugged in and running. NetBeez were kind enough to offer me an expanded license for a couple of devices, so I could run them from my home, my workshop, and possibly even a mobile rig.

See the previous article for how I started using the gear, and why I wanted to upgrade almost as soon as I got the first agent going.

B is for Banana – Pro, that is

With a 200mbit+ connection at home, and a 100mbit Ethernet port on my agent, I hit an obvious bottleneck.

Luckily, though, I’d stocked up on a couple of Banana Pi Pro devices, and had a Raspberry Pi 3 Model B as well. Since the only device I have a case for is the Banana, that’s what I ran with. I later realized the Raspberry Pi 3 is also a 10/100 device, so it would not fix the problem, although it worked fine as an agent on my backup DSL connection (which maxes at 20Mbps). Continue reading

First look: Checking out the Netbeez cloud-based monitoring service

[Disclosures at the end, as usual. Also, since this post was begun, NetBeez has announced discontinuation of their free tier of service. There is still a 30-day trial, though, so if you’re looking at deploying a paid option, you can still try it out first.]

At Cisco Live last year, I won a NetBeez monitoring agent (in the form of a Raspberry Pi 2 model B). It took a couple months, but I finally got it plugged in and running. NetBeez were kind enough to offer me an expanded license for a couple of devices, so I could run them from my home, my workshop, and possibly even a mobile rig.

I’ll admit that I wasn’t completely sure what I would do with the agent, but once I got it going, I found a lot of utility in the offering.

Getting Started

If you want an utterly painless way to get started, win a pre-built monitoring agent at an event. The second closest option to that would be buying a preloaded agent from NetBeez.

However, for most of my readers, loading an OS onto a device you’ve had sitting in a pile in the corner of your lab or spare room is going to be as easy and a bit cheaper. NetBeez offers options for Debian Linux, OVA bundles for the virtualization platform of your choice, Raspbian for Raspberry Pi, and an Odroid C2 Debian image. There are probably other options you can work out if you put your mind to it, but it’s not much of a hindrance to getting going.

With any of these options, you’ll run an agent setup script with your secret code in it, given to you in an email (or in their dashboard once you’re set up–click on the gear icon in the top right of your dashboard). Then it should show up promptly in the NetBeez dashboard, and you can rename, configure, add targets, etc.

What I’m Monitoring

The first tests I put in were pointing at my home router (a Meraki MX84, see disclosures), and my remote workshop router (a Meraki MX60).

For my home router, I have a ping to the router’s internal interface, and a DNS lookup for one of the Meraki Cloud sites I would use to manage the Meraki environment. This validates internal connectivity and general DNS availability.

For the remote workshop router, which is connected over VPN, I check ping and http response to the internal interface of the router (which validates VPN connectivity), and ping and traceroute to the external interface (which validates Internet connectivity). Continue reading