Intel NUC: An alternative to the Raspberry Pi?

Media Center

The following sections present examples of applications for the NUC and comparisons between the NUC and the Raspberry Pi. The first section deals with Kodi, previously known as XBMC, in the form of the media center distribution OpenELEC [12]. It uses a customized Linux system as a base. Because of its lean architecture, this system is considered the gold standard among Raspberry Pi users who use the Pi only as a media center.

To install OpenELEC on a NUC, you should download the 64-bit generic build as a 140MB image file. As is often the case with single-board computers, you should decompress the image on a computer and copy it to a USB stick. Listing 1 shows how this works under Linux.

Listing 1

Save Image to USB Stick

$ gunzip OpenELEC-Generic.<Version>.img.gz
$ dd if=OpenELEC*.img of=/dev/<Device-ID> bs=1M
$ sync

All of the data gets lost on the target drive when the image is written. Thus, you must be sure to have the correct device ID when entering commands. The device ID is obtained, for example, with the lsblk command. You should modify the ID in the dd command to match this output. If you indicate the wrong drive, you risk losing all of your data.

After writing the image, you should boot the NUC from the USB stick. In the installation dialog, select the internal hard drive as the installation target. After a restart, the media center software will appear on the display screen. The remaining configuration is no different from that of the Rasp Pi. The system feels somewhat faster than an RPi2. The power consumption is about 8W in idle mode, which is approximately three times as high as for the Raspberry Pi.

At first glance, a NUC seems somewhat too expansive for a media center. Since the appearance on the market of the quad-core Raspberry Pi, there has not been much to complain about with the reaction speed of the Rasp Pi interface. However, the NUC accumulates points here because it is possible to play 4K videos via the DisplayPort. Additionally, the user with a "merely" medium-sized media collection does not really need an external hard drive, as is the case with a Rasp Pi. You will need to consider whether the 4K video advantage is sufficient to warrant paying a higher price.

Server

The brand new Debian 8 "jessie" [13] distribution can serve as the basis of very fast servers. The smallest installation [14] taken together with various server packages takes just a few minutes depending on individual modifications. Instructions for the installation are found on HowtoForge [15] and include numerous illustrations. Here, one of the advantages of the x86 world becomes apparent. There is still no official Debian jessie for the Rasp Pi. Furthermore, it is much more difficult to install a small system.

The Iperf tool [16] is used to test network throughput. The NUC delivers a raw throughput of 941 or 112MBps when loaded as a destination device and started on the NUC server via iperf -s and on a PC via iperf -c <NUC> – with <NUC> being the hostname of the server. Thus, on the basis of data throughput alone, the NUC is not much different from single-board computers with Gigabit Ethernet, such as the Banana Pi and Cubietruck.

More important than raw throughput, however, is the question of how much network performance remains at the application level. It is well known that network performance with a Raspberry Pi collapses if the hard disk is accessed in parallel on an external storage medium. This happens because both the network and the four USB ports of a Rasp Pi share one internal USB interface and therefore also its bandwidth. The FTP, SCP, and Rsync throughputs provide a good indication of whether the kernel can simultaneously manage numerous interrupts of the drive and network chip.

For this test, the NUC and the PC were connected to the same Gigabit switch. Using FTP and SCP, a large file was transferred at 105MBps. The Rsync transfer of 25,000 files taking up 1GB resulted in a throughput of 30MBps. In practice, the actual throughput depends on file sizes and the additional processes executing on the systems. The values measured here represent generous averages. A comparison with a Banana Pi R1 when transferring encrypted data speaks volumes, because the throughput of the tiny Banana did not even approach USB 2.0 performance. The numbers were 19-33MBps for FTP, 7MBps for SCP, and 7MBps for Rsync.

Generally, the NUC works well as a small, compact, and economical family server. Thanks to a powerful CPU, numerous virtual systems can run on the server without problem. But, if you are looking for something other than an ultra-compact computer, need significantly more disk space, and can tolerate higher power consumption, then you should probably look instead at a microserver like the HP Proliant Microserver Gen8 [17]. It offers a series of genuine server functions based on the Celeron chip for half the price.

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