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Niccy, NUCcy, Nuuu...!

OK, sooo.... a very long time ago, back when I was on placement for Uni, I picked up a license for NT4 Server and started running it on one of my machines at home (my 486 DX4/120 to be precise). This machine was set up as a Domain Controller and also ran FirstClass Server on a 5-user-or-less freebie license. This meant I had an NT system I could poke around in that wouldn't stop our users from doing anything if I broke it, while also giving me a development box for working on application code for FirstClass.

That machine was one of three that I had at that time, the others were a general purpose Windows 9x system and a Linux box that was used both as a desktop machine and as my fileserver-slash-"server-of-many-purposes"... Oh, and the fourth of my three machines was a somewhat battered PowerBook 540c from work.

This little network was my playground for learning stuff and doing things that I'd never be allowed to in a live, production environment... as a consequence, over the years it developed a few, erm, quirks.

Anyway, later on, after I'd hand-me-downed my upgraded Linux system's former hardware to replace the 486, I acquired a Windows 2000 Server licence and upgraded the Domain to a somewhat quirky Active Directory setup... this particular bit of quirkiness being down to my using 'bind' on the Linux box to host the DNS component of Active Directory, rather than the Microsoft DNS Service as most installations probably do... I wanted to try out this particular corner-case, becauseI figured there would be places that has already had DNS and didn't want to be replacing bind boxes.... and afterall, this was kind of the whole point of this little playground LAN....

Later still, when I had an MSDN subscription, I upgraded the domain from Server 2000 to Server 2003. By this time, I had a couple of Windows laptops, so most of the day-to-day desktoppy stuff was done on those.... but I still had a reasonably decent soundcard, in the form of a SoundBlaster Live, coupled with the nice Live Drive module that gave me MIDI ports and audio sockets on the front of the machine so I could use them with my synth... but I wanted to have a backup DC, as I'd had the DC go !POP! and (with no tape drive, and nowhere with enough free space to make backups to) had to rebuild the Domain from scratch, and didn't want to have to repeat that process.... in one way, that DC loss did do me a favour; I'd had Exchange Server installed at one point, which makes a lot of changes in Active Directory, but it never quite worked properly, it was like some part of the installation hadn't quite completed correctly, but not amount of clean-box reinstalling seemed to sort it... it was always very flaky... in the end I gave up on it, but that none of the Active Directory modifications got undone, so I had an Exchange-ified ADS that was missing Exchange... the 'pop' eliminated the Exchange-ification completely and in a fraction of a second! (NOT the recommended way to fix AD, I know....!)

By the time I was really properly nestified in my lovely little cottage, I was running three servers 24/7; my Linux "server-of-many-purposes", my MDC/FirstClass system and the (ex-Exchange, replacement-for-the-one-that-popped) backup DC come MIDI host/audio amplifier... and by now, things had gotten rather more convoluted... for example, I had 2 parallel printers (one colour bubblejet, the other mono laserjet), the laser printer was hooked up to the MDC/FC box, the bubblejet to the BDC/'desktop'... but because the MDC/FC machine was running Services For Macintosh (because I've always assumed (based on that being how it was on the server at work, where I first encountered FC) that because FC supports (?supported?) connections over classic AppleTalk-over-Ethernet, Services for Macintosh needed to be installed to provide the AppleTalk portion of the network stack, and also so I had somewhere to store Mac software for the PowerBook and a way to print from it), the main print spools were on the MDC/FC... but in order to print to either printer, the Linux machine had to be powered up, because AD comes in to play, and AD needs DNS to function....! And printing to the bubblejet from the 540c meant all three machines were required...!

Anyway, as I say, I was in my cottage and since I was paying the bills, I was happy enough for it to just keep going as it was...

But then I had to move back to the P'rentalles.... at which point, I thought I had better reduce the power usage somewhat, since I was no longer paying the bill.... and it quickly became apparent that this 'interconnectedness' (read 'interdepennce') just couldn't continue....

It took a little while to unravel things, but I did get things so that everything to do with the AD was on the two Windows Servers, and things like printing didn't require additional machines to be powered up... well, sort of.... my mum's bubblejet is USB, so her machine has to be on in order to print to that, and my parent's laserjet has a little Edimax printserver attached to it, but its nothing like the palaver it was.

I have maintained the Active Directory Domain (even if its still running on Server 2003 R2 in 2015...), because -shrug- I've been running it for so long now, and even if I don't use it for very much, and I don't have things like Group Policy doing very much... I guess it would be really strange to not have it, and I can't bring myself to knock it on the head... oh, that and its really nice not having to change password on all my Windows machines (6 of them, but 2 of them are only used intermittently, and I would definitely forget to change them at some point and have absolutely no clue about what the unchanged password could be!).

So I've always been on the lookout for some way to resurrect the "always on" Domain, but in a form with massively reduced power requirements, because there are some aspects of the "always on" scenario (most notably local DNS services) that I still (after a good few years) haven't gotten used to not having.

And finally the technology has become available (at a low enough price) for my to actually reinstate "always on"-ness, in the form of the Atom-based Intel NUC DE3815.

This little beastie comes in two forms, a 4"x4" bare board and a 'kit', which additionally supplies a wall-wart PSU and an enclosure large enough to hold both the board and a 2.5" SATA drive. The package is 64-bit and supports up to 8GiB of RAM, has an 4GiB onboard eMMC (think soldered-on SD Card), has a (single) USB 3 port, as well as two USB 2 ports (and headers for 3 more), audio, VGA and HDMI outputs and Gigabit Ethernet (plus headers for GPIO, UART and a bunch of other custom solution/embedded system-oriented stuff).

But the best bits are that:


  1. The SoC is a 5w TDP part... allowing the kit version to be fanless, so the only noise the machine makes is from the HDD (there is a motherboard header for a fan though, in case its needed)

  2. Everything is pretty low power (even down to using low-voltage (1v35) SODIMM RAM), so the power requirements are nice and low; I ballparked the power requirements for the NUC with its display power-saving, an active spinning-disk HDD and no USB devices, but an active LAN connection to under 20 watts, assuming about 85% efficiency in the PSU (its around 15 watts actual draw, depending on the RAM and HDD used)...

Add these two things together and you come up with a small, low power, low noise device that can run Windows... which sounds just like what I want :-)

So I ordered one around the time that Dad went into hospital... was around £110... plus £15 for a 2GiB stick of DDR3L (...and I don't need to but a harddrive, as I'm using a 120GB drive that has been sat on the spares pile for a while). Its been sat on my desk pretty much untouched (beyond checking it powered up and would boot Linux from USB) ever since. While its not as cute as the rest of the NUC range, I do think it not having any glossy plastic to gather fingerprints is a good thing, and both the placement of the power button and the provision of a nice little stand so it can sit on its end (ie, like a book on a bookshelf) are far better than the "I'm gonna take up 5 square inches of desk and you can't stack anything on top of me because you'll scuff me, oh and you have to press a button on my top to turn me on!" aspects of the cuter NUCs!!

I should mention at this point that, as a student, Microsoft's DreamSpark program allows(/ed) me to acquire one Windows Server 2012 R2 Standard Edition license and one Windows Server 2012 R2 DataCenter Edition license, and it is these licenses I've been planning this reworking of the Domain around.

Anyway, my mum just bought me a new UPS (as a(n unprompted) thankyou for doing all the cooking for us two since Dad went into hospital), so I'm trying to set sort out the various things that are going to be powered via it, and as the NUC is one of these, setting it up has become this week's "Thing to get done".

The plan when purchasing the NUC was that I'd migrate the Active Directory MDC part of the MDC/FC Server to the NUC, which would be running Windows Server Standard Edition (with no virtualisation) and that it would be "always on". Then, once they were released (and I could afford one, so not for a while), I would acquire a 2015 Core i3 NUC that would be more of a workhorse machine (but that wouldn't necessarily be "always on"). The i3 NUC would (thanks to dual cores, hyperthreading and a 16GiB nominal RAM capacity) comfortably run multiple virtualised systems, even if they were quite demanding. It would use DataCenter Edition (for the virtualisation licensing) and would host Windows Server VMs for a BDC (or two), an SQL Server and (possibly) my FirstClass server, as well as, say, a (probably TinyCore) Linux VM that I could connect to from offsite using SSH (port-forwarded from the router) that could then be used to tunnel VNC connections, etc through)...

However, while I was looking around for drivers and stuff, I noticed that the Atomic NUC's CPU supported VT-x and this gave me an idea; what if I ran two virtual Domain Controllers on the Atomic NUC...? I mean, its not like the current DCs ever really use huge amounts of CPU... and when they do, its when Windows Update is happening... so although the E3815 is only running at 1.46GHz, is single core, single threaded, and despite Atom CPUs being significantly slower clock-to-clock than a "proper" x86-64 CPU (ie, a similarly clocked Pentium/Celeron/Core part will do much more work in the same timespan; something like double, if I'm remembering various articles correctly), there should be enough horsepower there to service logon requests, serve up the necessary bits of data (like GPO) and to replicate the AD store, afterall, Atom-based server machines are out there, even if they are clocked significantly faster than 1.46GHz!

So that's where I'm at and what I'm now planning... hopefully in the next couple of days I can get everything installed on the NUC and then the next part of the plan comes in to play; drop the Server 2003 R2 DCs and update the Active Directory functional level to 2012 R2... eek!

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