It has been rumored for some time now that AMD would be re-entering the embedded/small form factor (SFF) market and with their latest generation of Ryzen CPUs, timing could not be more perfect. With the rise of Edge and IoT workloads, new constraints like cost, footprint, low to no tech-touch and power consumption is now top of mind more than ever for customers.
At VMware, we certainly see interests from customers across this spectrum whether it is a traditional "ROBO" environment running a handful of Virtual Machines for a supermarket or retail chain to an industrial site such as an oil rig or factory to mobile infrastructure like a car, ship or even a submarine. On top of these use cases, personal and development labs continue to be extremely popular amongst our customer base for learning and training purposes.
Today, the Intel NUC is still by far the most popular platform due to its size, portability, cost and low power consumption for running VMware vSphere, vSAN & NSX. The idea of an AMD "NUC" kit which includes a chassis, motherboard and CPU is something that that many folks have been asking for. With the market mostly dominated by Intel, I certainly welcome AMD re-entering this market as this will certainly drive new solutions and innovations in this market. With that said, AMD has re-entered into this market and this is initially through partnerships with several OEMs/manufacturers.
ASRock is one of the partners and have released two models using an AMD Ryzen Embedded SoC: 4x4 BOX-V1000M and 4x4 BOX-R1000V which are comparable to an Intel NUC i5 and i3 respectively. These systems are initially targeted at home entertainment and industrial applications such as an IoT Gateway, Kiosk or Signage. Of course, I had to get my hands on a kit and thanks to the folks from ASRock, I received the BOX-V1000M unit for testing.
Here is a front picture comparing a NUC (6th Gen) and V1000M:
From a cost standpoint, both ASRock systems is priced similiar to their respective NUCs and even their higher-end unit is slightly cheaper than the i5 NUC. This can be good news for those who have had challenges getting their hands on the latest 8th Gen NUC due to supply issues. As the time of writing this article, Newegg is the currently the only vendor selling the new ASRock systems.
Both a dual (R1505G) and quad core (V1605B) ASRock system is available, however these are not using the most recently announced Ryzen Embedded CPUs which I am sure many were hoping including myself. The R1505G was released earlier this year in April and the V1605B was released last February. In terms of CPU frequency, the Intel NUCs do come in slightly higher. I was little disappointed on the maximum supported memory, which is currently 32GB, similiar to that of the Intel NUC.
Having said that, the Intel NUCs (6th to 8th Gen) can take advantage of 2 x 32GB SO-DIMM which I have shown in this blog post here back in March. I ran the same experiment from a VMware standpoint and I am happy to report that the ASRock systems can also take advantage of 64GB of memory (not officially supported), more details in the ESXi section below. I should also mention 32GB SO-DIMMs have dropped more than 87% since publishing my original blog post, they are currently $117 and this is a great way to easily double your memory capacity, especially for those running VMware-based labs.
Similiar to the Intel NUC, the ASRock systems supports a single M.2 and SATA3 2.5" SSD device which will enable folks to run VMware vSAN. One thing that did surprise me with the ASRock system is that they do not support the commonly used 2280 M.2 device, but rather the shorter 2242 or 2260 M.2 size. For folks who might be switching or upgrading from an existing lab environment, you will most likely have to purchase a new M.2 SSD device as you will not be able to re-use your existing M.2, so something to be aware of.
|Intel||NUC8i3BEH||1 x 2280||1 x SATA3 (2.5")|
|ASRock||BOX-R1000V||1 x 2242/2260||1 x SATA3 (2.5")|
|Intel||NUC8i5BEH||1 x 2280||1 x SATA3 (2.5")|
|ASRock||BOX-V1000M||1 x 2242/2260||1 x SATA3 (2.5")|
A welcome change on the ASRock systems is the dual 1GbE on-board network adapters based on the Realtek RTL8111G chipset. This is useful for more advanced network topologies and configurations, especially if you are considering VMware NSX in your environment. The one downside to these Realtek devices is there is currently no ESXi inbox drivers which will prevent the ESXi installer from proceeding. A workaround is available by creating a custom ESXi image which is detailed in the ESXi section to include a community created VIB for the Realtek adaptors. For additional networking, you can also take advantage of any supported USB-based network adaptors and this VMware Fling we had released earlier this year.
As mentioned, ESXi runs perfectly fine on these ASRock systems (after you install using a custom image, details in the next section) and here is a screenshot of the V1000M system running the latest ESXi 6.7 Update 3 release along with 64GB of memory 🙂
A custom ESXi Image Profile will need to be created to include the net55-r8168 offline bundle which is a community created VIB by Andreas Peetz who runs the popular community VIB Depot. You can either use PowerCLI to create the Image Profile and then export the ISO to install on the ASRock system or use the new Image Builder UI that is now part of the vSphere HTML5 Client as of vSphere 6.7 as shown in the screenshot below. If you wish to also take advantage of the USB-based NICs from the VMware Fling, you should also include that offline bundle when creating your custom Image Profile.
There is very little that differentiates the ASRock kits from an Intel NUC and perhaps that was by design to provide a similiar entry level system, especially based on their initial target use cases. The dual on-board network adaptor is certainly a plus but the lack of 2280 M.2 support means most will need to purchase either 2242 or 2260 M.2 device to use this platform which is less common. One big advantage that I think the NUCs have over the ASRock systems is the inclusion of a Thunderbolt 3 port which enables customers to easily add 10GbE networking and/or additional NVMe storage which is very useful for VMware-based lab environments. Perhaps USB4 could be something ASRock considers in the future and that certainly could even the playing field and having at least two if not more can enable further expandability into storage, networking and graphics.
I think AMD and ASRock missed a huge opportunity by not supporting 64GB memory out of the box. We have shown it works and this is also the case with the Intel NUCs which can also take advantage of 64GB memory which I have shown earlier this year. Most of us expect the next generation of Intel NUCs to support 64GB and in fact, this week MSI just announced Cubi 5, a NUC-like system using Intel's 10th Generation Intel CPU with 64GB memory support. I think this could have easily been a huge advantage for ASRock by delivering a kit with 64GB of memory support even on the lower-end systems. Given memory is usually the first constraint for many of us, it will be interesting to see if ASRock/AMD will be innovating in this space and perhaps they might consider a slightly larger kit that support up to 4 SO-DIMM slot to potentially enable up to 128GB of memory?
Even with the slight differentiation, I still think this is a good first step by AMD re-entering into this market and I am excited to see what they will be doing for higher-end systems and also when OEM/manufacturers start to support the most latest Ryzen Embedded SoC's which were announced a couple of months ago. For now, if you are considering a new system or upgrading from an older platform, this could be an option depending on your needs. If you are looking for something more powerful, then you may want to stick with something like an Intel Hades Canyon which has an i7 CPU, dual Thunderbolt 3 and dual M.2 (2280) or go all out with a Supermicro E200-8D or E300-9D, which is no longer a small form factor kit but definitely packs a punch using Xeon-based processors.
Lastly, another AMD partner, SimplyNUC also launched a couple of new AMD "NUC" kits called Sequoia v6 and v8 respectively. I have also reached out to see if I can get my hands on one of those kits to run through a similiar review from a VMware perspective, so stay tuned.