Intel seeks student innovation with NUC Challenge

Intel looked to PSU students for innovation with the multinational corporation’s Next Unit of Computing (NUC), a small form factor PC, Jan. 31.

The NUC Challenge kickoff, hosted in the atrium of the engineering building, was a chance for students to get acquainted with the hardware and begin to formulate project proposals using the NUC, with the best proposals standing to win as much as $3,000.

According to Zach King, an RI project manager at Intel Labs, what makes the NUC stand out is the raw power that Intel engineers have managed to cram into a very tight space. Some of the NUCs on display, for instance, featured i5-5250U processors, 16gigs of DDR3 RAM and solid state drives.

“Basically, what it is, it’s a PC shrunk down to 4 inches by 4 inches by … about an inch and a half,” King said.

He explained that the impetus for the NUC Challenge was his company’s desire to reach out to students, a demographic which, according to him, is still largely unfamiliar with the compact PC.

“As students, you guys have an incredible amount of imagination and creativity and intelligence and free time … The point is you have a lot of great ideas, which quite frankly, I’m in awe of,” King said.

One of the students who attended the NUC Challenge kickoff was Aaron Baker, a sophomore and member of the Portland State Aerospace Society.

“Basically, we just try to build a really sophisticated-sounding rocket that we’re hoping one day we’ll be able to put into orbit,” Baker said.

According to Baker, bespoke hardware is generally preferable in the field of rocketry, due to limits surrounding the mass of the rocket, but he did see applications that the NUC could be useful for.

“Certainly for the ground-side stuff, it’s a powerful option that ties everything together really easily…I think there’s some pretty unique functionality on the ground side of things at least,” Baker said.

Philip Arola, a freshman and another member of the aerospace society, explained more about his group’s plans for the NUC unit.

“Right now what we sort of do is run systems that are separate but are linked together over a network,” Arola said. “We have one computer that will gather data from the rocket…then another system on a router so that people can connect over Wi-Fi on their phones or their laptops and view that data.”

This system—which uses a signal directed by an antenna on the ground to interface with the rocket after launch—could be greatly simplified by means of an NUC, according to Arola.

“With the NUC, we could combine that all into one unit,” Arola said. “So we could incorporate that into the NUC’s wireless card interface.”

Evan Roman, another student at the kickoff, was working on a project in which he planned to use clusters of NUC units to facilitate high server performance per watt by means of passive cooling and a shared, efficient power supply.

“[It could be tested by] seeing how many hits or pages that system can serve…and seeing how many web pages I can deliver per second and then [measuring] the wattage that that system would be using,” Roman said.

According to Roman, though large scale server operations might be limited by the cost of NUC units, his project could prove useful to people living largely off the grid with limited electricity.

“If there’s a retreat out there where people don’t have real internet but they want community internet, you could host your own sort of community internet off these,” Roman said.

Renjeng Su, dean of PSU’s Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science, explained the educational value of the college’s partnership with companies like Intel in Portland’s tech industry.

“The main vision about such a program is to have students learn not only in the class room, in the teaching lab, but extracurricular learning,” Su said.

According to him, projects like the NUC challenge allow students to apply what they have learned in their classes in a real world setting.

“We really want to encourage all students…to stimulate their thinking and their creativity—to apply those tools and fundamentals to take their ideas to prototype to the application,” Su said.