Intel NUC 9 Pro & Extreme – First “Modular” NUC

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The highly anticipated “modular” Next Unit of Computing (NUC) has just been announced at the Consumer Electronic Show (CES) this week, dubbed the Intel NUC 9 Pro (codename Quartz Canyon) and NUC 9 Extreme (codename Ghost Canyon). Boy am I super excited for this new platform and what it could mean for the VMware Community!

Intel

Immediately off the bat, you can see that this is not your typical NUC “cube” form factor. Intel has completely redesigned the system from the inside and out, more on this in a bit. The key difference between the two NUC 9 variants (Pro and Extreme) are the CPU options, which are detailed below. For the remainder of this article, I will be focusing on the Pro version of the NUC 9 and I will call out any differences where applicable.

The use of the word “Pro” is also quite fitting as Intel is positioning this system as a high-end prosumer to Mid-Enterprise device compared to the traditional NUC. The NUC 9 Pro is targeting more demanding workloads such as Digital Content Creation, CAD/Manufacturing and Financial Service applications that either require a high-end graphics card or AI module for computing. When I first heard about this system from Intel, it conceptually reminded me of Apple’s recent 2019 Mac Pro, which is also designed with modularity in mind and can cater to a variety of use cases.

Speaking of use cases, although Virtualization is not a target use case for this new platform, VMware customers have been taking advantage of the Intel NUCs for a number of years now and it is still by far the most popular platform for running a vSphere/vSAN/NSX Home Lab. However, one common complaint I often hear about the current generations of NUCs has been its CPU and I think the new NUC 9 Pro/Extreme will be a nice contender for current alternatives like the popular Supermicro E200-8D. Thanks to Intel, I was able to get my hands on a pre-production NUC 9 Pro unit for testing, so lets take a closer look at what this new platform has to offer!

 

CPU

The NUC 9 Pro will be available with following two CPU flavors:

  • Intel Xeon E-2286M (2.4 Ghz – 5.0 Ghz) Turbo 8-Core, 16-Thread, 16MB Cache, 45W Intel UHD Graphics P630, 350 MHz – 1250 MHz Intel vPro Technology, Intel AMT
  • Intel 9th Generation Core i7 9850H (2.6 Ghz – 4.6 Ghz) Turbo 6-Core, 12-Threads, 12MB Cache, 45W Intel UHD Graphics 630, 350 MHz – 1150 MHz Intel vPro Technology, Intel AMT

The NUC 9 Extreme will be available with the following three CPU flavors:

Intel

In addition, the NUC 9 Pro will include support for Intel vPro and Intel Active Management Technology (AMT), which finally adds support for out-of-band management. This will be a very welcome feature and something that customers have been asking about, especially since this capability has been available on all Supermicro platforms for quite some time. The NUC 9 Extreme will not have support for vPro.

Memory

The NUC 9 Pro will officially support up to 64GB memory using DDR4 SODIMMs (2x32GB) for both the Xeon and 9th Gen CPU. As many of you already know, earlier this year I shared the good news that you can actually run 64GB memory starting from the 6th Gen NUC all the way up to the latest 8th Gen including both the Skull and Hades Canyon without any issues. In any case, its good to see Intel will now fully support 64GB memory, especially for the non Xeon-based system as memory is usually the first bottleneck for anyone running a VMware Home Lab. For those interested in the Xeon system, it will also have support for ECC memory.

An interesting tidbit while looking at these CPUs on Intel’s Ark site, these processors can actually support up to 128GB of memory! I am not sure if 64GB SO-DIMM modules are even in the immediate horizon, but if they are …

Storage

The NUC 9 Pro include support for up to 3 x M.2 slots (1 x 2242/2280 and 2 x 2242/2280/2210)! This is really awesome for those wanting to run a larger vSAN setup or have both vSAN and VMFS on a single system, especially useful for storing the vSAN trace files. This is a fantastic enhancement compared to the traditional “cube” NUC which has 1 x M.2 and the Skull/Hades Canyon which has 2 x M.2 slots. The NUC 9 Pro is also Optane ready, so you can really load it up and get some serious performance out of the system. Installing the first two M.2 is pretty easy but the third is located at the very bottom of the unit (shown in the next picture below), which means you need to fully disassemble the unit to get to it which is a bit of a pain.

Intel

Network

The NUC 9 Pro includes 2 x 1GbE built-in Intel ethernet adapters (i219-LM and i210-AT) which are the exact same models used in the Hades Canyon NUC. Here I was a bit disappointed to see that Intel did not include any 10GbE connectivity. Honestly, I do not think it would have added much to the overall cost but it would have been a very useful capability to have out of the box. Customers still have some options for expandability, more on that in a bit but it would have been nice, especially since the Supermicro E200-8D includes 4 x 1GbE and 2 x 10GbE (RJ45 or SFP+) by default!

Although ESXi can not take advantage of Wi-Fi directly from the Hypervisor, the system does include Wi-Fi 6 AX200 2.4Gbps and WiAMT + Bluetooth v5 (dual internal antennas) for those interested and wish to pass-through this directly to a Virtual Machine for use.

IO Connectivity

The NUC 9 Pro has 6 x USB 3.1 Gen 2 (Type-A) and 2 x Thunderbolt 3 (Type-C) ports. I was also surprised to see that Intel did not bump up the number of TB3 ports, especially given it is their technology and the 2018 Apple Mac Mini comes standard with 4 x TB3 ports. Earlier we mentioned there was no 10GbE connectivity, but with the 2 x TB3 ports, you can easily add some TB3 to 10GbE NICs or USB-based NICs or even additional NVMe storage via TB3 that functions with ESXi, especially for those looking to run vSAN and NSX in their VMware Home Lab.

One more interesting thing to note is that inside of the NUC 9 Pro, there is also an internal USB-A slot which can be used with a USB license dongle. There are still many types of applications (audio/video) which uses this type of licensing model and this is something Apple has also added to their 2019 Mac Pro.

Expansion and Upgradability

The bump up in hardware specs for the new NUC 9 Pro is definitely most welcomed but what really makes this platform really exciting is it’s configurability and upgradability. Unlike previous generations of the NUC platform, where customization of the graphics card and/or PCIe expansion was simply not an option. You were stuck with what Intel provided out of the box with no options to really expand or upgrade.

With the redesigned form factor, the NUC 9 Pro now includes two expandable PCIe slots that can be used to add any standard PCIe device. The first PCI slot (blue) is an x16 and will include PCIe power (225W) with support for an 8″ card length and double-width capable. The second PCI slot (black) is a standard x4. With two PCIe slots, you can really let your imagination run wild whether you need a high-end GPU or additional storage controller for vSAN or even 10GbE networking! Now you can see why I compared this conceptually to what Apple has done with their 2019 Mac Pro and allowing their customers to really customize the system based on their particular use case.

Intel On the topic of upgradability, Intel has done something quite interesting with its redesign of the NUC which enables the system board to be completely swappable! This is based on the new NUC Compute Element concept (pictured below) that Intel had introduced earlier this year. This “Element” encapsulates CPU, memory and storage into a single unit which can then be plugged into various form factors using an industry standard PCIe connection. The NUC Pro 9 is just one form factor, which is designed by Intel. Expect to see other designs from Intel’s partners which can take advantage of this new element component to enable greater modularity and expansion of a NUC system.

In the future, you will be able to just purchase a NUC Compute Element with new CPU and memory capabilities without having to purchase a brand new unit. The same would apply to serviceability and hardware issues, simply swap out the element if that is the underlying culprit while leaving the rest of the system intact.

Intel Although this not a new concept it is interesting to see that Intel is now enabling this capability in the NUC and I think this will open up the door for new innovations in the future when it comes to upgrades. With the modular system board, the power supply has also received a nice enhancement. Today, if you are managing multiple NUCs, it is a challenge with all the power bricks sitting next to each other and with the NUC 9 Pro, the power supply (500W) is now integrated within the chassis and should really help with cable management.

Size

With the amount of expansion capabilities, it should come as no surprise that this new NUC is going to be much bigger than the traditional “Cube” design. If you lay the NUC 9 Pro down horizontally, it is roughly twice as tall and twice as long compared to the traditional small form factor. This is really in the league of a small to mid-size workstation, which is perfect for content creators. One thing to remember is that this form factor is just one of many, so although the Intel design is bigger, there will be other designs that could be much smaller or even bigger. For reference, here is a table for the dimensions across the existing NUC systems.

System Dimensions
NUC “Cube” 117 x 112 x 36mm
Skull/Hades Canyon 221 x 142 x 39mm
NUC 9 Pro/Extreme 238 x 216 x 96mm

If you are more of a visual person like me, here is a comparison of the NUC 9 Pro (left) to the various platforms the community is familiar with such as the standard Intel NUC “Cube” (top), Intel Hades Canyon, Apple Mac Mini and Supermicro E200-8D (bottom).

Intel Here is a comparison view from the back of each system

Intel One of the most beloved feature of the current NUCs is its size and portability. At the same time, this has also been its biggest constraint. If you are looking for a small form factor system, the NUC 9 Pro may not be a good fit but if you are open to having a slightly larger system with expanded capabilities, this might be something to consider if you are looking to build a new home lab in 2020. It will be interesting to see what other designs will be available using the new NUC Compute Element, especially for a fanless design. Even with the fans, the noise is not noticeable on a medium type of load. My Supermicro E200-8D which has been retro-fitted with Noctura fans still has a slight hum when compared to the NUC 9 Pro, which is virtually silent like its predecessor “Cube” design.

Pricing

As of publishing this article, pricing and availability of just the bare-bones kit has not been announced. Intel does not sell direct to consumers and pricing will be provided by their channel partners. So far only SimplyNUC has provided pricing for both NUC 9 Extreme (Ghost Canyon) and NUC 9 Pro (Quartz Canyon) but their kits include some form of memory and storage. I have not done the comparison but depending on your needs, it could be cheaper by purchasing your own memory and storage. A single 32GB SODIMM is ~$117 last I check and to bump up to full 64GB is certainly less than what SimplyNUC is currently charging for the memory upgrade.

ESXi

Last but not least, I have also verified that the NUC 9 Pro works with the latest ESXi 6.7 Update 3 release without any tweaks or additional drivers. This should give folks confidence if you are in the market for a new home lab in the new year. All built-in NICs and storage controllers are fully recognized by ESXi and I have also setup vSAN without any issues as you can see from the screenshot below.

Intel Overall, I am pretty pleased with the direction Intel has taken with the NUC 9 Pro and Extreme platform. I think this will allow Intel to focus on innovating on the core compute element while enabling the broader eco-system to also innovate on the chassis itself and provide differentiated solution that can cater to a number of different consumers. As the platform evolves, hopefully some of the limitations that I have mentioned will be considered in a future release. I am also curious on what AMD’s response will be and whether they will also follow suit and provide a more modular platform as they re-enter the ultra/small-form factor market.

It will be interesting to see what our VMware community will do with such a system and the types of configurations this platform can now enable. What do folks think, will you be considering the new NUC 9 Pro/Extreme or will you still be a fan of the current “Cube” design? Leave a comment with your thoughts.

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