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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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

Keyboards for the 12.9″ iPad Pro – An adventure and review

As I’ve mentioned before, I use a 2015 edition iPad Pro 12.9 as a daily driver tablet and almost-laptop-replacement. With the right external keyboard case it can easily be mistaken for a Macbook, and serves most of my on-the-go needs at airports, meetings, conferences, and even in front of the television at night.

However, the two leading contenders for best iPad Pro 12.9 keyboard case have had their quirks and issues, and I’ve run headlong into both devices’ issues.

Those two contenders are the Zagg SlimBook keyboard case and the Logitech Create keyboard case.

A look at the contenders

lead-tile

The Zagg SlimBook ($139.99 at Zagg, Amazon) is a Bluetooth device that pairs with up to three devices (iPad or not) with a removable shell for the iPad Pro itself and a hinge that lets you fold/open the joined device. it has its own battery, and is rated for about 700 hours of use on a single charge (2 years at 1 hour a day). It may be a challenge to find; it was out of stock for January, and Zagg sold out of the new run in about two days this week.

create-backlit-keyboard-case

The Logitech/Logi Create ($150 or less at Logitech, Amazon new, Amazon refurb) is a non-separable keyboard case that connects using Apple’s Smart Connector. It has no battery, and while the backlight draws some juice from the iPad, I didn’t notice battery issues from the draw. It’s more readily available, and comes in 4 colors. I got the purple one, as it was discounted at the time. If I were buying it again, I’d go with a more conventional color. You’ll see why in a bit.

Similarities

I consider these two devices the contenders primarily because they work as lap-top devices. You have different angles; the hinge on the Zagg holds it in place and gives plenty of adjustment angles, whereas the Logitech has a single magnetic-locking position for keyboard use. But they both provide a stable base of operations, which lets you use them like a laptop.

They also both provide methods for using the device without the keyboard in place. With Zagg, you remove the iPad and its shell and set the keyboard aside. Note that the keyboard does stay paired, which could be bothersome or it could let you use an iPad stand to get a bit more distance between your eyes and the screen. With the Logitech, you simply disconnect the Smart Connector and fold the iPad over; without the SC connection, the keyboard is inert.

There are a lot of other devices that work great on a tabletop or desk, like the Logitech Slim Combo ($149.99 from Amazon), which I tried and wanted to like, but I needed the lap stability factor. A number of others follow the kickstand concept (like a Surface Pro). And there are a couple of devices like the Zagg (cheaper imports that are still readily available), but they don’t have the finish and finesse of these options.

Disparate Disappointments

s-l1600

The Zagg’s strength, in the variable-angle hinge, is also its most common complaint. The hinge is susceptible to cracking, and if the plastic around the hinge breaks, you can still use the keyboard, but you can no longer practically open and close the device. After mine stopped working recently, I found numerous complaints online from others having this issue, and one person even built metal clamps to resolve the issue.

Zagg’s one year warranty would have covered this, except that they were out of stock with no information on restocking time frames, so I received a gift card for the purchase price (it was the retail price minus the Best Buy gift card and reward certificate amounts I used, but still more than I expected). I ended up ordering a screen film for my phone and marking the “notify me” option for the SlimBook; I ordered the replacement with the remaining gift card balance within minutes of the notification coming in.

The Logitech’s two disappointments together come in even worse than the Zaggs, to be honest. First, the material on the back will build up fingerprint residue and other daily stains as you use it, and if you get a lighter color (even the purple counts as “light” for this), it will look pretty sad after a while. The woven fabric doesn’t lend itself well to skins or stickers to cover up the grime.

 

But even worse, and again this is a frequent woe on Internet forums, the keyboard’s metal parts will indelibly scratch your $1,000 tablet’s screen. (This one was hard to photograph, so you’ll have to imagine it.)

It ends up looking like a half-inch-high barcode stripe along the top inch of the screen, and at first I thought it was fingerprint oil that just needed scrubbing with a microfiber. Alas it was permanent, and taught me that I should have installed the Zagg screen protector much sooner.

Luckily, it qualified under the AppleCare accidental damage classification, and I got a replacement for the $49 deductible (a month before AppleCare ran out, whew!).

Trying Another Keyboard

Since the Zagg was uncertain at the time, and I wasn’t sure where I’d stashed the Logitech keyboard back in November, I searched eBay and Amazon for alternatives. The best option I came up with was the iEGrow keyboard case. Available in gold or silver, it features a 5600mAh battery in the keyboard which can be used to boost your iPad or other USB-cabled device as well as running the keyboard itself.

61s3r2vzq5l-_sl1000_

The battery adds substantial weight to the case, but if it saves me having to carry a battery pack, it could be worth it. The main complaint that showed up on Amazon was that the circle on the back doesn’t quite align with the Apple logo on the iPad Pro itself, but that didn’t bother me too much.

I used it for about three days but found that the case didn’t quite fit the iPad Pro; the edge along the home button side was noticeably raised compared to the camera side. It did come with a rubber keyboard skin that wasn’t impossible to type through, and offers some protection to the screen.

I probably would’ve kept it and suffered through the ridge issue, but that notification from Zagg came in, so the iEGrow is going back.

Closing Caveats

It’s been two years since I started using the iPad Pro, and in that time I switched keyboards twice. If the Zagg hinge were better or the Logitech keyboard didn’t permanently damage the iPad Pro screen, either could be a slam dunk (or both could). I did finally relocate my Logi, so I’ll be returning the iEGrow and using the Logi (with the Zagg glass screen protector and a microfiber keyboard cover) until the SlimBook arrives next week.

I am a bit surprised that there haven’t been more top-brand choices with Apple renewing the iPad Pro 12.9 in 2017, and that Zagg let their device disappear even from Customer Service. I will say that Zagg customer service was excellent when trying to deal with this issue, as was Apple’s support with the screen issue last fall.

I will also note that if you’re thinking of using your credit card’s extended warranty feature to protect in an eventual failure, make sure you don’t use gift cards or reward certificates; some if not all card warranty programs will decline protection if you didn’t pay for the device entirely with their credit card (this happened for me).

And finally, while the 12.9″ iPad Pro has very limited top-shelf keyboard case options, that is not the case (so to speak) with the 10.5 or 9.7. The 9.7″ iPad Pro seems to work with most cases that fit the iPad Air 2–feel free to buy one of mine on eBay if you like–so you’ll have plenty of options. The newer version of the Belkin QODE Ultimate Pro keyboard for iPad Air 2 is one of my all-time favorites; I wrote about the original version here after Belkin’s CMO sent me one to try out, and I ended up buying the new version on my own and loving it.

Do you have insights or experiences with the iPad Pro in keyboard cases? If so, share in the comments, or join the conversation on Facebook or Twitter.

Disclosure: All of the devices discussed/reviewed here, with the exception of the first generation Belkin QODE Ultimate Pro mentioned in passing, were purchased out of our own pockets and no consideration was given by (or asked for) from the vendors in question. The Belkin device was provided free of charge in 2014, but with no expectation of review content or direction.

 

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Quick Take: Antsle coming out with Xeon-D models with 10GbE in December

Welcome back to rsts11. Earlier this year you saw us post a first look at the Antsle “personal cloud” development systems, which provide a fanless, silent development and desktop cloud-style provisioning environment with the KVM hypervisor and Linux Containers (LXC).

Later, we built a system that approximated our view of the obvious evolution of Antsle’s model, albeit not fanless (thus not completely silent), and not as compact. We used the SuperMicro X10SDV-4C-TLN2F-O 4-core, 8-thread board that featured dual 10GbE copper ports and support for 64GB non-registered or 128GB registered memory.

Well, Antsle announced today that they will be releasing Xeon-D based models in mid December.

antsle-announcement-tweet

Their low-end machine, with similar specs to the 4-Core board we used, starts at $1,349. Models with 8-Core and 12-Core boards are also available.

antsle-xd-models

The prices jump more than the difference in board cost because the base RAM/SSD configurations also grow, as do the uplift options.

  • antsle one XD: $1,349 for 4-core, 16GB (upgradable to 32GB), 2x 256GB Samsung 850 Pro SSD
  • antsle one XD Pro: $2,499 for 8-core, 32GB (upgradable to 64GB), 2x 512GB Samsung 850 Pro SSD
  • antsle one XD Ultra: $4,499 for 12-core, 64GB (upgradable to 128GB), 2x 1TB Samsung 850 Pro SSD
  • The Avoton-based systems are still listed, starting at $759, and if you register for their mailing list, you will probably get occasional promotions and discount offers. You can also watch their social media profiles (Twitter, Facebook) for some of these offers.

We still haven’t ordered one of the Antsle boxes due to shifting project budgeting, but the idea still has promise. And they don’t seem to do eval boxes (although if they change their minds, we’d love to try one out).

As we noted in our original take on the antsle model, you can probably build something similar on your own, and if you find it worthwhile and/or practical to spend time building the hardware and software platform, you’ll probably have lower capital expense building it yourself. If you just want to plug a silent box in, plop it onto your desk, and go to work, the nominal added cost for the pre-built appliance is probably worth spending.

Have you tried the antsle platform, or built your own similar system? Let us know in the comments.

 

Disclosure: While I’ve had an email exchange with the CMO of antsle prior to writing the original antsle post in March 2017, I don’t get any consideration from antsle for discussing their product. And while it is relatively resilient (mirrored SSDs, ECC RAM), I wouldn’t recommend it for an enterprise deployment into production. But then, it’s explicitly not aimed at that market.