The 2018 Router – The Motherboard

Now we’re getting into the meat of this project – the single, absolutely most important part of any router: The Motherboard!

This is the Gigabyte GA-J3455N-D3H – a Mini-ITX board with a soldered Intel Celeron J3455 which runs up to 2.3GHz at maximum turbo. This is a quad core part using the Apollo Lake architecture. It is considerably more powerful than the Bay-Trail based N2830 chip that was in my Intel NUC.

This board is by no means a server-oriented board, but it is the only one I could find at a reasonable price that had:

  • A passively cooled CPU that supported AES-NI
  • Two gigabit LAN ports
  • Support for DDR3L SODIMMs – I had old RAM lying around I wanted to use
  • Reasonably good build quality (eg solid capacitors).
  • Low power consumption
  • A low-end soldered CPU. Routers really don’t need much horsepower.

That first bullet point is critical for the latest versions of pfSense and OPNSense. A lot of other boards I considered all ran J1900 parts which don’t support AES-NI. I wanted this system to run the latest versions of software for security purposes – and being stuck at an old version was not an option for me.

On the rear you get a decent selection of IO – PS2 ports, 2x Serial ports, VGA and HDMI, two gigabit LAN ports, two USB 2.0 and two USB 3.1 Gen 1 ports alongside basic audio outputs. The video output ports are perfect for the initial setup of the box.

You get two 1.35V DDR3L slots (good for power consumption), four SATA 6 Gbit/s ports, a USB 3.1 Gen 1 header and two USB 2.0 headers. There are also things like TPM headers and naturally the front panel headers. Present there is also a 24-pin ATX header along the right hand edge and a 4-pin CPU power header (though I’m not sure why this is needed – some other low-power boards don’t seem to bother with this).

The onboard buzzer is quite loud – which is annoying when the board starts up. It is very useful, however, for pfSense and OPNSense to notify you when the system is booted, and when the system is powering down.

There was one, glaring issue with this board that really made me worried about using it… the two gigabit ethernet ports run off Realtek controllers. For FreeBSD-based things like pfSense and OPNSense you really want Intel based NICS.

Fortunately, for this board, the NICs work perfectly with OPNSense. They show up and work just fine – and the performance is very good (more on this in future articles). I must admit I was relived to see them working without manually shoehorning in drivers – otherwise the board would have been returned to sender!

What’s it like whilst its running – I hear you ask? Does that puny heatsink and case ventilation mentioned yesterday do enough to cool that 10W monster of a CPU? Well, yes actually. During normal routing duties I don’t see anything above 47-48 degrees C, and so far after two months not once has it let me down. It’s been absolutely rock solid running OPNSense – though I had a lot of challenges getting the install completed… that’s a saga meaty enough for it’s own post! I could not for the life of me get pfSense installed – so I moved to OPNSense (which is basically the same thing).

So finally, time to conclude my experience using this board as my routing platform over the last couple of months:

The good:

  • It meets my requirements as discussed earlier
  • Considering it includes a CPU, it is well priced (~£80)
  • Excellent build quality
  • Silent operation
  • Sips power

And the not-so-good:

  • Realtek NICs – not the best for pfSense and OPNSense.
  • No ECC support… not the end of the world though
  • BIOS buzzer really goes wild at boot with no keyboard, mouse or screen attached
  • Not server-grade – something you want with critical 24/7 equipment.
  • pfSense wouldn’t play ball at all
  • OPNSense was a bit tricky to get installed and needed some crowbar-ing

So yeah – it’s worked out to be a good board for OPNSense once the install is done. That’s the most headachey part of this project – getting the OS installed. After that – it’s been smooth sailing. More to come on performance, power and the software!

The 2018 Router - The Case
The 2018 Router - Power Consumption

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