ESXi on 11th Gen Intel NUC (Panther Canyon) & (Tiger Canyon)


The highly anticipated 11th Generation Intel NUCs based on the new Tiger Lake processors has just been announced by Intel and I am excited to share my first hand experience with this new NUC platform. There are currently two models in the new 11th Gen lineup: the Intel NUC 11 Performance codenamed Panther Canyon (pictured on the left) which is the successor to the 10th Gen (Frost Canyon) NUC and the Intel NUC 11 Pro codenamed Tiger Canyon (pictured on the right) which is the successor to the 8th Gen (Provo Canyon) NUC.

There are a number of new improvements and capabilities that will make these new NUCs quite popular for anyone looking to build or upgrade their vSphere environment in 2021.

Before diving right in, I must say I love the new aesthetic look of the NUC chassis. In previous versions, the lid had a glossy and shiny finish, which easily left hand prints. These new models now have a clean matte finish. The NUC 11 Performance has a smoother feel compared to the NUC 11 Pro which has more of a texture to the finish, which I personally prefer. The other noticeable change is the power adapter, which is now half the size now which is nice for those looking to have several of these new kits sitting next to each other.


NUC 11 Performance (Panther Canyon)

The NUC 11 Performance is similar to the previous 4x4 NUC models and will include three different configurations:

  1. "Slim" K chassis (one pictured below)
  2. "Tall" H chassis with a 2.5" SATA3 storage drive bay
  3. "Tall" Q chassis with a 2.5" SATA3 storage drive bay and for the first time, a wireless charging lid!

Here is a quick summary of some of the new new hardware specs as they pertains to running ESXi:

  • Includes i3, i5 & i7 SKUs
  • 64GB SO-DIMM (DDR4-3200)
  • 1 x M.2 (2280), PCIe x4 Gen 4 NVME or SATA3
  • 1 x SATA3 (Tall Chassis, the one pictured below is Slim)
  • 1 x 2.5GbE onboard NIC
  • 2 x Thunderbolt 3
  • 2 x USB 3.1 Gen 2

The NUC 11 Performance is a solid kit for anyone looking to upgrade or purchase a new system for their vSphere homelab. The maximum amount of memory is still 64GB but it does support DDR4-3200 DIMMs. On the storage front, the M.2 (2280) has been upgraded to support the latest PCIe x4 Gen NVMe for those who may need an extra boost in storage performance, but I suspect for most it will be unnoticeable compared to PCIe x3.

For those considering the Tall chassis model, you also have your standard SATA3 which will allow you to setup vSAN or just have two separate vSphere datastores. The IO connectivity on the system has also been updated to support Thunderbolt 4 / USB 4 ports (one in the front and one in the back), this is a nice upgrade from previous NUC models which only had a single Thunderbolt 3 port aside from the Hades or Skull Canyon NUC models. With two Thunderbolt ports which are now capable of 40Gbps, you have even more flexibility in expanding either the storage and/or networking including 10GbE which a number of folks in the community have been doing when deploying vSAN and/or NSX-T. It will be interesting to see what new Thunderbolt 4 / USB 4 peripherals will be available in the market later this year.

Last but not least is the networking which has also been upgraded from a standard 1GbE to a 2.5GbE interface (Intel I225). Multi-gigabit network adapters have been rolling out slowly (herehere and here) and it was only a matter of time before they started to show up on the NUC platform. One of the challenges with a new network device is of course driver support that will allow ESXi to recognize the new device, which I will cover later in the post.

NUC 11 Pro (Tiger Canyon)

The NUC 11 Pro as the name implies is the higher end version of the NUC 11 Performance and the biggest differentiator is vPro capability and a new expandability option, more on this in a bit. There will be two different configurations for the NUC 11 Pro:

  1. "Slim" K chassis
  2. "Tall" H chassis with a 2.5" SATA3 storage drive bay

Here is a quick summary of some of the new hardware specs as they pertains to running ESXi:

  • Includes i3, i5, i5 vPro, i7, i7 vPro SKUs
  • 64GB SO-DIMM (DDR4-3200)
  • 1 x M.2 (2280), PCIe x4 Gen 4 NVME or SATA3
  • 1 x M.2 (2242), PCIe x1 Gen 3
  • 1 x 2.5GbE onboard NIC
  • 1 x Thunderbolt 4 / USB 4
  • 1 x Thunderbolt 3
  • 3 x USB 3.2 Gen 2

I will not rehash the similarities between the NUC 11 Performance and NUC 11 Pro, but if you are interested, you can read the assessment above. I do want to focus on the differences and why you might consider getting a NUC 11 Pro. Earlier, I mentioned the biggest difference is expandability and I literally do mean that. The NUC 11 Pro comes with an optional expansion module (pictured below) that is located at the bottom of NUC (pictured above) which includes an additional 2.5GbE interface (exactly the same as the onboard 2.5GbE) and two additional USB 2.0 ports. The standard onboard USB ports have also been updated to support latest USB 3.2 Gen 2.

This is really the first 4x4 NUC which can be expanded outside of the larger NUC 9 Pro / Extreme NUC, which was just released last Spring. This expansion module connects to a newly added M.2 (2242) B-Key slot which you can see in the picture below. This is definitely going to be useful for those wanting an additional onboard NIC for setting up advanced networking with NSX-T.

If adding a secondary onboard NIC is not your cup of tea, the M.2 B-Key slot can also be used for expanding storage. The number of vendors and options for an M.2 2242 is limited when when compared to the traditional M.2 2280 or 22110 form factor. In fact, I was skeptical on whether I would even be able to find an SSD that ESXi would recognize given most of the vendors that showed up on Amazon were ones that I had never heard of before.

I ended up selecting this 256GB M.2 2242 from a vendor called KingShark , I figure if its going to be random vendor and without sinking too much money into this test, I might as well pick the coolest name

To use the M.2 2242 slot, you will need to remove the expansion module, if you have purchased it. There are three screws to remove, one for the M.2 slot itself and then two more for the back panel. After that, slide out the expansion module. You can see in the screenshot below that the M.2 SSD has been installed.

To my complete surprise, the KingShark M.2 was fully recognized by the latest version of ESXi! This is a really interesting enhancement with the NUC 11 Pro, with previous 4x4 NUC models, the maximum number of storage devices has always been two. With the addition of another SSD, customers now have even more options when it comes to configuring their vSphere Datastores. You can have three separate VMFS datastores, a combination of both a vSAN and VMFS datastore (especially useful for vSAN traces) or a larger vSAN Datastore with two capacity devices.

Here are a couple of comparison picture (front and back) between the NUC 11 Pro (top) and NUC 10 (bottom). You can see the NUC 11 is slightly wider and taller to accommodate for the new expanded capabilities.

I personally think the new NUC 11 Pro will give customers the greatest flexibility when it comes to running a vSphere Homelab! In terms of availability, Intel will be shipping both the Panther and Tiger Canyon to their partners in the coming weeks and they will be available for purchase later in Q1 of this year. Intel also has plans to release a successor to Hades Canyon which will be called Intel NUC 11 Enthusiast (Phantom Canyon) and while there is no information on when this system will be available, there are some technical details from Intel about the discrete GPU which will be RTX2060 Discrete Graphics with 6GB GDDR6 and it also looks like they have removed the secondary onboard NIC which was a very desirable feature in both the Skull and Hades Canyon models. As I learn more information about the upcoming Phanton Canyon NUC, I will share that in a future blog post.

Finally, lets now take a look at running ESXi on these new NUC 11 systems

ESXi on NUC 11

Here is the latest ESXi 7.0 Update 1c running on the new NUC 11 Pro, no issues with storage as mentioned above and I have been able to setup both standard VMFS as well as vSAN without any issues as long as you are using an M.2 NVMe/SATA that ESXi recognizes using devices from Intel, Samsung and WD which are known to just work out of the box.

On the networking front, because the 2.5GbE onboard network adapters are brand new devices, ESXi does not recognize these devices out of the box. With that said, we have developed a new ESXi Native Driver which will be released as an upcoming VMware Fling, which customers will be able to incorporate into a new ESXi custom image for installation. The Fling will support both ESXi 7.0 and 7.0 Update 1 and once incorporated into a new ESXi custom image, ESXi will automatically detect the onboard network device for both the NUC 11 Pro and NUC 11 Performance. More details about the Fling will be shared when it is available and a huge thanks goes out to both Songtao and Shu from the VMware Engineering team in supporting this VMware community effort!

Here is screenshot of ESXi 7.0 Update 1c also running on the NUC 11 Performance, as mentioned already, the upcoming ESXi Native Driver Fling will be required for networking and customers can setup both standard VMFS and/or vSAN, for those purchasing the "Full" height chassis configuration.


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