It has been about one year since I first got hands on with ASRock's first AMD "NUC" platform dubbed the 4x4 BOX.
A couple of months back, ASRock launched their 2nd generation of the 4x4 BOX platform which adds support for AMD's Ryzen 4000U series mobile processors with the introduction of the 4x4 BOX: 4800U (Ryzen 7), 4500U (Ryzen 5) and 4300U (Ryzen 3) models.
Loving the chassis redesign (left) compared to Gen 1 (right)
— William Lam (@lamw) October 17, 2020
One immediate difference between the original 4x4 BOX (right) is the slimmed down chassis design, which gives it that classic "compact" look of a traditional NUC. The updated design definitely looks cleaner.
All three of the 4x4 BOX kits (4-Core, 6-Core and 8-Core) now officially support 64GB memory (SO-DIMM) which is on-par with the latest 10th Gen Intel NUC (which also officially added 64GB support even though it has been possible for some time now).
Not necessary a compute aspect but the new 4x4 BOX also includes 2 x USB 3.2 Gen 2 interfaces which can now drive up to 20Gbps, so assuming there will be storage and networking accessories that can take advantage of the latest USB specs, this could be interesting for running ESXi.
Another welcome change from the Gen 1 system is moving away from M.2 2242/2260 (SATA) to the more widely used M.2 2280 (NVMe) form factor. This never made sense to me, especially since there are not many M.2 2242 in the market, which also makes it difficult to re-use existing hardware that you may already have. In addition to the M.2, there is also support for a 2.5" SSD (SATA3) device that can be placed on the back of the chassis, similar to your typical 4x4 Intel NUC. This will allow you to setup vSAN or have two separate VMFS datastore for those wanting to run ESXi.
One of the most exciting capability introduced in the new 4x4 BOX platform is support for a new onboard 2.5GbE (Multi-Gig) interface. In late 2019 and early 2020, we started to see more and more multi-gig network adapters being released and was just a matter of time before these would show up in small form factor systems. The 4x4 BOX also includes a secondary 1GbE onboard NIC which is simliar to that of their Gen 1 platform and is certainly a benefit when comparing to a 4x4 Intel NUC which only has a single onboard NIC.
As excited as I was for the upgraded networking, I also knew in the back of my mind that Realtek is generally used as the networking vendor for AMD-based kits and that ESXi would not recognize these devices as we do not have any drivers from Realtek. As expected, this was the case and ESXi was not able to recognize either the 2.5GbE or 1GbE interfaces. For reference, the 2.5GbE interface uses the RTL8125BG chipset and the 1GbE uses the RTL8111G chipset.
All hope is not lost. It is still early but I did want to share some good news that I have been engaged with the Realtek team and hopefully in the near future, we may see an ESXi driver that can support these devices. In the meantime, you can use a supported USB NIC and the USB Network Native Driver for ESXi Fling to provide network connectivity for setting up ESXi.
As you can imagine, without onboard networking, the ability to run ESXi may not be that interesting but it does work when connecting a USB-based NIC. I was able to install and run the latest ESXi 7.x release on a USB device at the time of evaluating the system. I was also able to setup and configure vSAN without any issues.
One experiment that I thought was interesting to try out was to see if I could leverage the onboard graphics and pass that through to a Windows VM. The first challenge was that the AMD CPU did not have IOMMU enabled and there was not an option in the current shipping BIOS to enable this setting. Luckily, the ASRock folks was able to provide me with an updated version of the BIOS that exposed the IOMMU setting and I was able to turn it on afterwards.
The second challenge was how the integrated GPU (iGPU) was wired up, it turns out it is shared with the USB controller (as shown in the screenshot below). Upon enabling passthrough to the VM, the USB NIC immediately disconnected and I was no longer able to access ESXi host. I figure if the graphics could be used, it could interesting for some folks but it looks like you really need the onboard networking to be functional to be able to do passthrough of the iGPU.
Aside from the networking challenges, I think the 2nd Gen of the 4x4 BOX has some really nice enhancements for those considering a generic AMD kit. If you are thinking running ESXi, I would recommend holding off until the onboard NICs can be resolved. I suspect as the market introduces more of these AMD "NUCs", we will start to see more innovation and options in this space.