What are programmable network routers

Mini PCs as network routers: purchase advice

Many tasks in small networks can be carried out by cheap single-board computers such as the Raspberry Pi. But if you need fast interfaces such as Gigabit Ethernet (GE), USB 3.0, SATA or more than 1 GB of RAM, the choice of affordable hardware platforms shrinks.

Mini PC barebones with economical x86 processors from AMD or Intel as well as fanless cooling and several GE sockets are available from around 130 euros. They are well suited for the flexibly configurable pfSense firewall, whose FreeBSD substructure has so far not been able to cope without problems with the ARM SoC Rockchip RK3399 on the cheaper Pine64 RockPro64.

AES-NI for fast encryption

The current generations of AMD and Intel low-cost processors also enable comparatively fast network connections with encryption (VPN) via OpenSSL because they process the AES New Instructions (AES-NI). GE connections can be exhausted with well over 110 Mbytes / s. Therefore you shouldn't buy outdated processors without AES-NI.

Economical "Atom Celerons"

A typical example of a fanless mini PC barebones is the Zotac Zbox CI329 nano with the "Atom-Celeron" N4100, which costs 180 euros. This system-on-chip (SoC) from Intel is closely related to the Atom SoCs for tablets and, in addition to the CPU and GPU, also integrates chipset functions, including two SATA 6G ports, a USB 3.0 controller and up to six PCIe 2.0 lanes. With pfSense installed on a SATA SSD, the Zbox CI329 needs around 5 watts when idling.

The Celeron N4100 belongs to the Gemini Lake SoC generation, Zotac has also used its predecessor Apollo Lake (Celeron N3450 in the Zbox CI327), Braswell (Celeron N3160 in the Zbox CI325) and Bay Trail (Celeron N2930 in the Zbox CI320).

Because Intel currently has delivery problems, mini PCs with Gemini Lake chips are not always easily available. This also applies to the hard kernel Odroid-H2 (test), which also comes with two GE sockets.

Router board without a monitor

PC Engines from Switzerland implements a different concept: The apu2d4 router board is equipped with the older AMD GX-412TC (Crowned Eagle) embedded processor, three GE chips and 4 GB of RAM. Including case and power supply, it costs 164 euros. Here you have to do without a monitor connection, which makes the installation of an operating system a little more difficult.

The current c't 4/2019 provides tips for the selection and configuration of economical mini-PCs for simple network and server services. We also show you how to install pfSense on the PC Engines apu2d4 or the ZBox CI329:

  • Netzzwerge, purchase advice: economical mini-PCs for network tasks, c't 4/2019, p. 146
  • Dwarf filling, configure mini-PCs for energy-saving continuous operation, c't 4/2019, p. 150
  • Signal box shell, installing router operating systems on x86 mini PCs, c't 4/2019, p. 142


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