The NUC 11 Extreme (codenamed Beast Canyon) is the latest in Intel's Tiger Lake based NUC lineup which includes the NUC 11 Performance (Panther Canyon), NUC 11 Enthusiast (Phantom Canyon) and NUC 11 Pro (Tiger Canyon). As you can see from the picture above, the codename for the NUC 11 Extreme is quite fitting as this is currently the largest "NUC" that Intel has built to date, coming in at 8L. Yes, this is definitely "stretching" the NUC label in terms of what folks historically expect but I believe Intel is simply expanding on their well known NUC brand, especially as there are also NUC laptops.
However, this is also not the first time Intel has explored a larger NUC design. In 2020, Intel introduced the NUC 9 Pro (Quartz Canyon) and Extreme (Ghost Canyon) which took advantage of the new NUC Compute Element and enabled a new modular design and form factor adding support for discrete GPU and PCIe expandability. As a successor to the NUC 9, the NUC 11 Extreme extends this concept further by adding support for a full length discrete GPU, which is the primary driver for the larger form factor.
The NUC 11 Extreme can also enhance your homelab experience with LED lights which are located underneath the chassis and on the front with the classic Intel NUC Skull. Even cooler, the design in the front is customizable and can be user replaced with a different graphic. For an example of what this could look like, jump down to the customizable logo section of this blog post 🙂
I know there are a number of folks in the VMware community who are currently using the NUC 9 for their VMware Homelab, especially for those with GPU and/or additional network and storage requirements. Let's now take a closer look at what the NUC 11 Extreme has to offer the VMware Community.
The processors in the NUC 11 Extreme has also received a massive upgrade with the fastest Tiger Lake Desktop CPUs, especially with the i9 model with 8-Core and 16-Threads. The NUC 11 Extreme will be available in the following configurations:
- NUC11BTMi9 - Intel Core i9-11900KB Processor (up to 4.90 GHz)
- 8-Core, 16-Thread, 24M cache
- NUC11BTMi7 - Intel Core i7-11700B Processor (up to 4.80 GHz)
- 8-Core, 16-Thread, 24M cache
All three systems can support up to a maximum of 64GB memory using two SO-DIMM memory modules, which is similar to the other existing NUC 11 kits. Unlike the NUC 9 which had a Xeon SKU and provided remote management via Intel vPro, the NUC 11 Extreme no longer offers this capability and users will need to look to the NUC 11 Pro for this requirement.
An unfortunate downgrade from the NUC 9 is that the NUC 11 Extreme only has a single onboard network adapter compared to the NUC 9 which included dual 1GbE interfaces. This was certainly a welcome feature in the NUC 9, especially for VMware Homelab usage. The NUC 11 Extreme does come with the new 2.5GbE onboard network adapter, which is standard for all Tiger Lake based NUCs. The good news is that the onboard network adapter is fully functional with the latest release of ESXi and simply requires the Community Networking Driver for ESXi Fling for enablement.
For non-VMware use cases, I can understand that a single 2.5GbE is probably sufficient but I am still hopeful that Intel may reconsider other built-in networking options in the future, perhaps introducing support for 10GbE? The demand is certainly there 🙂
With 10GbE (copper) being standard in most of Supermicro kits used for VMware Homelabs, I wonder if Intel should also provide a 10GbE option on an Intel NUC?
Curious on what the community thinks? 🤔
— William Lam (@lamw) June 30, 2021
Additional networking can certainly be added using a number of different options including: 2 x PCIe slots, 2 x Thunderbolt 4 ports (see 10GbE Thunderbolt options for ESXi) and there are plenty of USB ports (see USB Networking options for ESXi).
The storage options on the NUC 11 Extreme really shines in my opinion, especially for those looking to run VMware vSAN and/or simply adding more storage capacity. Up to 4 x M.2 NVMe devices can be installed on the NUC 11 Extreme, including two that are PCIe x4 Gen 4 and the other as PCIe x4 Gen 3. Similar to to the NUC 9, the NVMe (3) devices are installed next to the CPU and memory as shown in the picture below. Although there is more space in the NUC 11 Extreme, accessing the compute element is still not as easy as I would like it to be. There are a several screws that need to be removed including one that is connected to a latch which allows the top to swing open and finally exposing the compute element. I know most folks will not be touching the NVMe and memory too often, but it still would be nice if it can easily be accessed with out too much effort.
The location of the 4th NVMe is actually quite convenient, it is right under the chassis of the NUC 11 Extreme! Just a single screw and you can drop in an M.2 NVMe (2280 or 22110).
One thing that threw me off after installing all 4 x M.2 NVMe was that the system was only detecting 3 out of the 4 devices and I spent a good 40min troubleshooting and testing all slots and devices (this is why I wish it was easier to replace all NVMe devices). I eventually ran out of ideas and although I had looked at the BIOS after initially booting up the system, I decided to take another look. Under the Advanced menu, there is a PCIe Bifurcation Configuration which defaults to Automatic. I wrongfully assumed it would do the right thing and decided to change the option to Force x8, x4, x4 and immediately all four NVMe devices were picked up! If you plan to make use of all 4 NVMe, make sure to update this setting or else it can make you go nuts 🙂
Similar to the networking expandability, if you need additional storage capabilities, you have can use either the 2 x PCIe slots and/or the 2 x Thunderbolt 4 ports (See Thunderbolt storage options for ESXi).
As mentioned earlier, the biggest enhancement to the NUC 11 Extreme is the support for a full length discrete GPU. Unfortunately, I did not have access to a graphics card that I could quickly test with ESXi but users should be able to use any graphics card that is supported with ESXi (see here, here or here). The NUC 11 Extreme also includes an Intel Iris Xe Integrated GPU, however passthrough of that device to a Windows VM running on ESXi is currently results in a generic Error 43, which is still being investigated. With the ability to install any standard GPU, it will be interesting to see what the VMware Community will do with this new capability and the types of workloads that folks are thinking about. There certainly has been an increase in interests for AL/ML and other graphics intensive computing, including the use with Kubernetes which has been coming up lately with the VMware customer base.
So how big is the NUC 11 Extreme? Lets put it next to a couple of its NUC siblings for a comparison (from Left to Right):
- NUC 11 Pro - 117 x 112 x 54 mm
- NUC 9 Pro - 238 x 216 x 96 mm (5L)
- NUC 11 Extreme - 357 x 189 x 120 mm (8L)
The latest release of ESXi 7.0 Update 2 installs perfectly fine on the NUC 11 Extreme as shown in the screenshot below and as mentioned already, you will need the Community Networking Driver for ESXi Fling for networking, which is also required when installing ESXi on other NUC 11 kits.
Here is a screenshot of vSAN configured on the NUC 11 Extreme and taking advantage of all four NVMe devices, we can create either a single large vSAN Datastore using a single diskgroup or one that utilizes two diskgroups or other combinations using standard VMFS. This should offer plenty of storage options for most VMware Homelabs.
Intel expects the NUC 11 Extreme to start shipping in late Q3.
Unlike the original Skull Canyon and Hades Canyon NUC, the iconic Skull graphic on the NUC 11 Extreme is actually user customizable. Remove the four screws on the front panel and you will find the default LED mask, which is a thin plastic film with the skull designed etched in, which is transparent and allows light to pass through. The LED mask is 102 x 116.5 mm and users can either print their own design using a similar transparent material or look at using a vinyl cutter.
Sadly, I was not able to find any local printing and graphic stores that provided, what I thought would be a pretty basic and inexpensive service. The one store that could support the requirements above gave a quote of $150 for what they called a custom "light-box insert", sorry but thanks!
I decided to "hack" this myself with a little arts and craft over a weekend. I got a hold of the LED mask template and printed out the design that I wanted to use on standard paper which will act as my cutting template. Using an exacto knife, metal ruler and a piece of matte black card stock paper ($5) from Michaels, I was able make the following: