My Ultrabook Quest

computereyeWorking for myself, I try to keep major expenses to a minimum. Computer equipment falls into that category. But the time has come to refresh my laptop. And since many of you buy and support hardware I thought I’d turn to you for suggestions. I have some requirements and something of a short list but am open to suggestions.

Right now, I use a Toshiba Qosmio when I speak at conferences or train. I originally bought it for the horsepower to run all of the virtual machines I typically need. But it is a beast to travel with. I also have an old Lenovo Netbook which I originally loved. But it was never designed for Windows 8 and is beginning to feel underpowered. Since I’ve started using a Brix for my Hyper-V server I think I can travel much lighter now.

So I am looking for something in the Ultrabook form factor with a 4th generation i7, a decent size SSD and at least 8GB of RAM so that I can also run a few VMs. I need something with a physical keyboard. I tried a Surface and other tablets. Those devices are perfectly fine for consuming content, but I need something to create content. I’m trying to stay in the 13″ screen size with the best resolution I can get. I never used to care about that but this laptop will also need to serve as my traveling entertainment option as well. On top of all of that decent battery life would be a great asset. Something that could get me through a 5 hour cross country flight.

I’ve been looking at the new X1 Carbon, some of the ASUS Zenbooks, a Toshiba Portege and the one of the Lenovo Yoga models. So what would you suggest? What tales of woe or wonder do you have to share? I have a feeling I’m going to have to spend around $2000 to get what I need but naturally would love to save some money if I can.

Mini Hyper-V Benchmarks

I’ve received a lot of interest in my mini Hyper-V project. I’m still running preview bits of Microsoft Hyper-V Server 2012 R2. Once final bits are released I’ll do a clean re-install. But until then I’ve been using it running about 4 virtual machines without a hiccup. I was getting some questions about benchmarks so I thought I’d post what information I could.

Part of the challenge in using a benchmarking tool is that I’m running Server Core so most tools won’t run. I was able to install Dacris Benchmarks on the server and run some benchmarks. I didn’t bother with the video tests and not all features of the tool work on Server Core. But I was able to gather enough information if you are interested.

Overall, it looks like a pretty good system for what I need.

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I hope it’s obvious this isn’t a production-level server for a datacenter. But for testing and lab work it is more than adequate. and personally, the portable form factor was the driving force. Dacris Benchmarks confirms my theory.

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Here are the results from some of the advanced tests.
Memory Transfer Rate for Large Blocks
largblocks

Memory Transfer Rate for Small Blocks
smallblocks

CPU Parallel Scaling
parallel

CPU Pi Calculation
pi

I also decided to grab system information with MSINFO32.EXE.

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While not a benchmark, some of you may be interested in the nitty-gritty. You can also download a zip file with the complete NFO file.

Finally, if you missed any of the earlier articles on my project here they are:

Part 1: Intro and Specs
Part 2: Hardware Build
Part 3: Setup
Part 4: Operating System

I expect just about anywhere I will be presenting or training I’ll have this with me so please feel free to find me if you want a closer look.

Mini Hyper-V: Setup

Now that hardware has been installed on my mini Hyper-V project, next up is to setup the unit and get software installed. The Brix fires up very quickly and of course since nothing is installed I initially see the no operating system found message. Rebooting, pressing F2 gets me into the BIOS setup.

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The only thing I need to do on the first page is to adjust the date and time. I was hoping I could change the Project name to something such as Mini Hyper-V, but it doesn’t appear that is possible. On the Advanced tab, I’ll want to enable virtualization.

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You can see the Brix has a dual-core i7 processor. On the Advanced tab I can also verify the mSATA drive.

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Checking boot options I see that the unit only sees the internal drive.

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But the device supports EEFI and legacy boot options so I’m not expecting any problems. After saving my changes I even verified that F12 will bring up a boot menu, should I need it.

Next I need an operating system. I decided to try preview of Windows Server 2012 Hyper-V R2. I realize I’ll need to re-install when it is finally released. I don’t expect to run anything other than Hyper-V on this little box and Server Core keeps the footprint nice and small. But how do I get it onto the unit? Easy. I need to “burn” the ISO to a USB stick. To do that I’ll use the freeware, ISO to USB.

One thing I messed up initially, not really thinking, is that you need a decent size USB device. I foolishly started with 2GB only to realize I need at least a 4GB device.

ISOtoUSB

The utility will reformat the USB device. The one I was using had some pre-existing files and I had to try a couple of times to get the process to work. I think the best approach is to delete any files first, or even “pre-format” the device first. But once I got through that hurdle after about 7 minutes I had a bootable USB device which I inserted into the Brix and fired up.

The unit immediately detected the USB device and started the installation process.

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Excellent. I selected a custom install.

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By the way, I’m installing without a mouse but the keyboard shortcuts are more than sufficient. Install is very speedy. Copying the install files too literally seconds. Of course I’m installing Server Core but still very impressive.

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The overall installation took less than 3 minutes. Reboots are blazingly fast. Within minutes I had the initial screen to change the admin password.

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After struggling to get a password typed on my super mini keyboard, I’m eventually rewarded with the Server Core setup windows.

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I was wondering if I would need to load any drivers off the CD that came with the Brix, but so far I haven’t seen a need. I notice an occasional ripple in the video, but that could be an artifact from the ancient Dell monitor I’m using or the adapter. In any event it’s no big deal since once this is setup it is going to run headless anyway. The server got a DHCP address which is the most important element so I should be ready to start configuring the OS. I’ll cover that in the next post.

Mini Hyper-V: Hardware Build

So the parts arrived for my mini Hyper-V project. I have to say I’m really excited about this. Everything is so tiny! Here’s what I have to work with.

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I have the Brix unit, a 256GB mSATA drive, 16GB of RAM and a video adapter. The Brix unit is amazingly small and fits in the palm of your hand. As you can see, it is not much bigger than a CD-ROM. Oh, and that white spot is actually a reflection from the ceiling light. The only thing on the top, aside from the label is a power button which will glow blue when on.

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There is a single USB port on the front. Here’s the business end. Sorry it is a little out of focus but I think you get the idea.

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Now to start assembling. All I need is a small phillips-head screwdriver. Turning the unit over there are 4 corner screws. In the upper right there is also a small knob. Turns out when you unscrew everything you use it as a handle of sorts to remove the bottom. Very nice.

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The internals are pretty straightforward.

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The slots at the top are for memory and the mSATA goes in the bottom. You slide it in to the slot.

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It doesn’t lie flat. You need to screw it down.

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Even though the drive has holes for 2 screws, the Brix only has one, but it seems to get the job done. Next, I slide in the memory. This is easier to do if you insert the stick that will be on the bottom. The sticks slide in and then lock into place.

Here’s the finished install.

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All that remains is to screw the bottom back on. Here I ran into my first minor gotcha. The unit isn’t an exact square so the back can only go on a few ways. But it seemed to me that one way fit better. The bottom has a “This Side Up” label. I think the right way is to have that label pointing to the “back” ports. The Brix is designed to be mounted (it includes a mounting plate), but since I’m not going to do that I think I’m ok.

I hooked up the power and fired it up.

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Wow. Other than the blue light on the power button there is no indication that the unit is running. There is a fan, but it is impossible to hear. And of course the mSATA is silent. It is stunningly quiet. I can’t wait to get this bad boy loaded.

Building a Mini Hyper-V Server

Microsoft Hyper-VSince I work at home, I naturally lack the extensive IT infrastructure that you most likely enjoy. However I rely on a mix of virtualized machines delivered through an ESXi server and running Hyper-V on my Windows 8 laptop. The downside, is that even with 8GB or RAM and an SSD in my laptop, I’m still limited by the number of virtual machines I can run, and I also don’t have the ability to test some server-centric Hyper-V concepts like replication. Clearly I need a Hyper-V platform. But I can’t go out buy a used server from eBay. I have no room and my wife would not be too happy with likely noise and added electrical cost. In addition, between my conference appearances and training I would really like something portable. ¬†Yes, there is a trade-off between performance and portability, but that is something I can live with.

After some research, I decided to build a Hyper-V server using the smallest form factor I could find. I decided to try using the Gigabyte Brix.

I originally thought of using an Intel NUC, but it appears they decided not to release an i7 model and I wanted every bit of performance edge I could get. The Brix, an unfortunate name I’ll admit, looked to be a reasonable alternative. I also considered a Mac Mini but the customizations I wanted to do would have been much more difficult in the Mini. Apple doesn’t really intend it to be a user-modified device. You can order a Brix unit from NewEgg for under $500.

I also will need a hard drive, which in this case means a Plextor 256GB mSATA drive which I got for about $200. I also need to max out the RAM at 16GB which added about $150 to the project price. I intend to temporarily use an existing keyboard and monitor for the set up. However, the Brix uses HDMI and a mini display port so I also ordered a mini display port to VGA adapter for another $24. Even though internal storage is limited, the unit sports 2 USB 3.0 ports so that should be more than sufficient. Or if all goes well, the project cost is pretty reasonable and I can build another unit.

So this is the start of my project. I’ll be blogging my experiences. I’m sure I’ll run into obstacles, but I’ll share those as well and how I overcame them. I’m looking forward to this project not only because I’ll learn new things, but because I really need the end result. Check back later for a progress report.