NUC on Wood
By Bobby Neal Winters
A few years ago, I went through a period of building computers. Built an Itty-bitty Ubuntu box and a media center, going through the process one piece at a time. I liked the one piece at a time model. You plan out your project; you order your piece for the week; you get it in the mail; then you order your next piece et cetera until it is done. Then you put it all together.
This was a great way to spread out both the expense and the joy. And indeed as a big part of these projects are to keep my otherwise mischievous mind occupied, it was very effective. Something with four parts would take four weeks to complete and so keep me in a happy place for a whole month.
My path from computer building took me to Arduino and to Raspberry Pi. These categories are both amenable to the one piece at a time model.
Then earlier this year I happened upon the NUC (Next Unit of Computing) computer. This is a computer that has a tiny (four inch by four inch) motherboard but will support I3, I5, and I7 processors. I thought that this would be great. I could make one and put Ubuntu on it, I would have a Linux box small enough to sit alongside my Windows box but powerful enough to do something beyond the Raspberry Pi level.
And to cut to the chase, I’ve got something working. I got it all to work out today. Let me go back to the beginning, though, and say some things that might (MIGHT) smooth the road for any of the rest of you who might want to trek down the same road.
The first thing is that I was not able to get the one piece at a time method to work out all that well. Let me explain. When you list out the pieces of a computer, what do you have:
- Power supply
- Hard drive
I was not able to get those first four separately. Actually, it’s not that simple. I bought the case. I have it sitting unused over to the side right now. I wasn’t able to get a motherboard to fit it. I looked my eyes out over the Internet, but the only ones I could find came in lots of 10. I didn’t want 10. I wanted one. Within my searches, I came upon a product that combined the first 4 of these. This was a bit pricey, but it did include a lot.
Here is an opportunity to talk about the power supply. When you make a computer--even an itty-bitty box with an ITX motherboard--you put the power supply inside. With this type of machine it goes outside. You use the same sort of power supply that you use on your laptop, your printer, or on most of your peripherals. A mickey-mouse power cord (if you’ve seen one, no explanation is needed; if you haven’t none will do) goes into a transformer which will then connect to your computer with a jack.
Over the next couple of weeks I bought the memory and a solid state hard drive. Okay, memory is boring. The SSD is exciting and even--dare I say it--sexy. It was $75 for 120 GB which looks pricey if you compare it to the standard hard drive where the same money will get you 750 GB, but Lord have mercy this smokes. You turn on your computer and your operating system is loaded.
In building computers these days, my observation has been that if it weren’t for the front-panel connections it would be as easy as putting Legos together. This already had its equivalent of the front panel connected, so assembly was just snapping the memory cards and the solid state drive into place.
The challenge I had in putting my NUC box together came after the machine was totally assembled: installing the operating system. As I said, the entire raison d’etre of this box was to run Linux. You can go to the Ubuntu page and download Ubuntu and even get instructions on how to install it from a USB stick. And it “installs” very quickly and easily. The scare quotes are there because getting it to boot after you’ve gotten it installed is an issue.
I have succeeded in that. I am not going to tell you the exact method because I am not sure it’s reproducible. It required Internet searches and fiddling with the BIOS. Once I got it to boot, the fracking keyboard I have wouldn’t work. I finally installed a wireless keyboard I have lying around and it worked.
I was able to get it to run headless by installing xrdp on it and using remote desktop from my windows machine to login. At this point, I have no methodology to recommend more specific than some combination of stubbornness and patience.