MOTL: Minis Forum N33 NUC

Part 1: The hardware setup

As a first attempt at trying MAAS outside the lines (MOTL), let’s pick a random, inexpensive Next Unit of Computing (NUC). Indeed, let’s start with a Minis Forum N33, which is older and “out of print.” The relevant forum is offline, and manuals are hard to Google up. Nice challenge.

Background

PXE (Preboot Execution Environment) booting is a key technology in network-based computing. It enables computers to boot from a network, independent of local storage devices. PXE enables provisioning environments like MAAS. We can’t remotely deploy operating systems and applications if we can’t control the unit.

PXE plays a critical role for MAAS. It automates the installation, reconfiguration, and re-purposing of servers. It streamlines operations in data centers, managed IT services, and sophisticated home networks. The Minis Forum N33 NUC, with its compact form factor and versatility, is a potential candidate for MAAS. The N33 is versatile. It can function as home media center, a lightweight server, or a desktop replacement. Whether or not the N33’s really supports PXE booting, though, is pretty much undocumented.

So let’s figure it out. Along the way, maybe we can uncover a few of the mysteries of PXE booting. Our objective is not just to determine whether the N33 will PXE boot, but also to document the research process, hopefully bridging a literature gap. We aim to qualify or reject the Minis Forum N33 NUC as a viable option for MAAS via thorough examination. This exploration may illuminate new possibilities for this device. Maybe it can be an asset for small clouds. More importantly, this also lays the groundwork for vetting MAAS-friendly devices.

The N33 NUC

The Minis Forum N33 NUC (Next Unit of Computing) is a compact, low-power mini PC designed for a variety of uses ranging from general computing tasks to specific roles like media centers or lightweight servers. Here are some of its technical details:

Processor

  • CPU: The N33 typically comes equipped with an Intel Celeron N3350 processor. This is a dual-core processor based on the Apollo Lake architecture, primarily designed for low-power devices. It operates at a base frequency of 1.1 GHz with a burst frequency up to 2.4 GHz.

Memory and Storage

  • RAM: The device often supports up to 8GB of DDR3L RAM, providing adequate performance for everyday tasks and light multitasking.
  • Storage Options: It usually comes with eMMC storage (ranging from 32GB to 64GB) and also has support for an additional SATA SSD/HDD (up to 2.5 inches) for expanded storage. This flexibility allows users to balance speed and storage capacity according to their needs.

Connectivity and Ports

  • Network: It generally includes Gigabit Ethernet for reliable wired network connections, which is crucial for applications like media streaming or file serving. Some models might also support wireless connectivity through WiFi.
  • USB Ports: Multiple USB ports (including USB 3.0) are typically available, facilitating the connection of various peripherals.
  • Video Output: HDMI and VGA ports are often present, allowing for dual display setups and a wide range of monitor compatibilities.

Form Factor and Power

  • Compact Design: True to the NUC concept, the Minis Forum N33 is characterized by its small footprint, making it suitable for space-constrained environments.
  • Low Power Consumption: The device is designed for efficiency, consuming significantly less power than a standard desktop, making it an economical choice for continuous use scenarios like digital signage or as a server.

Operating System Compatibility

  • OS Support: The N33 is typically compatible with various operating systems, including Windows 10, various Linux distributions, and more specialized OS options, depending on the user’s requirements.

Use Cases

  • Versatility: Its compact size, combined with reasonable computing power, makes the N33 suitable for a range of applications, from basic computing, home entertainment, educational purposes, to light server duties in a small office/home office (SOHO) environment.

Considerations for PXE Booting

  • Network Boot Support: One key aspect to investigate for advanced users, especially those looking to integrate the N33 into environments like MAAS, is its support for network booting, or PXE booting. This capability would allow the N33 to boot from a network source, bypassing the need for local storage for the operating system, which can be a significant advantage in managed IT infrastructures.

The Minis Forum N33 NUC, with its balance of size, power, and connectivity, represents a versatile choice for users who require a compact yet functional computing solution. Its potential compatibility with PXE booting could further extend its utility in more specialized network-based computing environments.

More importantly, the network card

Detailed specifications for the network card in the Minis Forum N33 NUC model don’t seem to be widely documented. Booting to the BIOS setup, though, shows us it’s a Realtek NIC (at least in this particular NUC). Let’s go with that.

Realtek Network Interface Controllers (NICs) in Mini PCs

  1. General Characteristics:
    • Manufacturer: Realtek is a popular manufacturer of integrated circuits, widely used in various computer hardware including network interface controllers.
    • Common Models: For mini PCs like the Minis Forum N33, common Realtek NIC models could include variations from the Realtek RTL81xx series, RTL84xx series, or similar.
    • Performance: These NICs typically support Gigabit Ethernet speeds, which is sufficient for most home and office applications including high-speed internet, file sharing, media streaming, and more.
  2. Compatibility and Drivers:
    • Wide Compatibility: Realtek NICs are known for their broad compatibility with various operating systems, including Windows, Linux, and others.
    • Driver Availability: Realtek provides drivers for different operating systems, ensuring the NICs work effectively across platforms.
  3. Features for Network Booting:
    • PXE Support: Many Realtek NICs support PXE (Preboot Execution Environment), allowing computers to boot from the network. This feature is particularly important for setups that require remote booting capabilities, like those managed by MAAS (Metal as a Service).
  4. Reliability and Efficiency:
    • Stable Performance: Realtek NICs are generally considered reliable for everyday use, providing stable network connections.
    • Power Efficiency: These NICs are often designed with power efficiency in mind, which is beneficial for mini PCs like the N33 that aim for low power consumption.
  5. Potential Limitations:
    • Driver Issues: While generally reliable, there have been instances where Realtek NICs faced driver-related issues, especially on certain Linux distributions. However, these are typically resolvable through driver updates or community support.
    • Advanced Features: In some cases, Realtek NICs may lack certain advanced features found in higher-end network cards, such as specialized traffic management or additional hardware offloading capabilities. For most standard users, however, these features are not usually necessary.

This covers the critical hardware aspects of the laptop; a complete readout of dmidecode wouldn’t give a lot more usable info.

In the Context of the Minis Forum N33

For this Minis Forum N33, which indeed uses a Realtek NIC, it’s likely to provide a solid network performance for typical use-cases of a mini PC. Since we want to use the N33 in a network-boot environment, verifying PXE support and ensuring up-to-date drivers are key steps in the setup process.

Challenges

Undertaking an experiment to PXE boot the Minis Forum N33 NUC, especially in the context of a MAAS environment, presents several challenges:

  1. Limited Documentation: The biggest challenge is the lack of specific documentation about PXE booting capabilities for the Minis Forum N33. This lack of information means much of the process will be trial and error, requiring a more exploratory approach.
  2. BIOS/UEFI Configuration: Navigating the BIOS or UEFI settings without clear guidance can be tricky. The N33’s BIOS/UEFI might not be straightforward in terms of enabling network boot options, or it might not visibly support PXE booting at all. Note the word visibly.
  3. Network Environment Setup: Setting up a proper network environment for PXE booting involves configuring DHCP and TFTP servers correctly. Any misconfiguration here can lead to failure in the boot process.
  4. Hardware Compatibility: Ensuring that the N33’s hardware, particularly the network interface card (NIC), supports network booting. If the NIC does not support PXE or similar network boot protocols, the experiment cannot proceed.
  5. Driver and Software Issues: Potential issues with network drivers, especially if the N33 is running an operating system like Linux, where certain Realtek NIC drivers might have compatibility issues.
  6. Troubleshooting: Without clear documentation or support channels, troubleshooting issues that arise can be time-consuming. It involves a lot of guesswork and reliance on community forums or similar experiences shared online.
  7. MAAS Configuration: Integrating the N33 into a MAAS setup adds another layer of complexity. MAAS itself requires careful configuration to manage machines effectively, and integrating a new, untested device like the N33 can be challenging.
  8. Time and Resource Constraints: Experiments like these can be time-consuming and may require multiple attempts and adjustments, demanding a significant investment in terms of time and effort.

Despite these challenges, the experiment can provide valuable insights and contribute to the community’s understanding of the capabilities and limitations of the Minis Forum N33 NUC, especially in relation to network booting and MAAS. It’s a learning opportunity that can benefit others who might be considering similar setups.

The MAAS host

I’m using a Lenovo Yoga laptop to host my MAAS instance. Here are the basic specs:

  • BIOS Information:
    • Vendor: LENOVO
    • BIOS Version: BNCN32WW
    • BIOS Release Date: 09/04/2019
    • BIOS Revision: 1.32
    • Characteristics: Upgradeable, ACPI support, UEFI support, and more.
  • System Information:
    • Manufacturer: LENOVO
    • Product Name: Lenovo Yoga C740-15IML
    • Serial Number: PF1D3BQL
    • Family: Yoga C740-15IML
    • System Version: Lenovo Yoga C740-15IML
  • Base Board Information:
    • Manufacturer: LENOVO
    • Product Name: LNVNB161216
    • Version: SDK0J40700 WIN
    • Type: Motherboard
  • Chassis Information:
    • Manufacturer: LENOVO
    • Type: Convertible
    • Serial Number: PF1D3BQL
    • Version: Lenovo Yoga C740-15IML
  • Processor Information:
    • Type: Intel Core i5
    • Model: Intel(R) Core(TM) i5-10210U CPU @ 1.60GHz
    • Core Count: 4
    • Thread Count: 8
    • Characteristics: 64-bit capable, Multi-Core, Hardware Thread, Enhanced Virtualization
  • Memory Device Information:
    • Total Installed Memory: 12 GB (8 GB + 4 GB DDR4)
    • Speed: 2667 MT/s
    • Manufacturer: Samsung
  • Physical Memory Array:
    • Maximum Capacity: 12 GB
    • Number of Memory Devices: 2

This covers the critical hardware aspects of the laptop; a complete readout of dmidecode wouldn’t give a lot more usable info.

Information overload

That’s a lot of information to digest, so let’s split this story into multiple posts. We can refer back to this one as we need to recall what we’re trying to do and what we’re trying to do it with.

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