Going Banana

That’s right… just one banana. I have been looking to upgrade the Raspberry PI 3 that has been operating as home lab’s reverse proxy. While it would have been more familiar to find another Raspberry Pi 4 to use, their availability is, well, terrible. I found a workable, potentially more appropriate, solution in the Banana Pi M5.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery…

Then the Raspberry Pi Foundation should be blushing so much they may pass out. A Google search of “Rasbperry Pi Alternatives 2023” leads to a trove of reviews on various substitutes. Orange Pis, Rock Pis, Banana Pis…. where do I begin?

It is suffice to say that Single Board Computers (SBCs) have taken a huge step forward in the past few years, and many companies are trying to get in the game. It became clear that, well, I needed a requirements list.

Replacing the Pi3 Proxy

I took a few minutes to come up with my requirements list:

  • Ubuntu – My Pi3 Proxy has been running Nginx on Ubuntu for over a year. I’m extremely comfortable with the setup that I have, including certbot for automating SSL and the Grafana Agent to report statistics to Mimir. My replacement needs to run Ubuntu, since I have no desire to learn another distro.
  • Gigabit Ethernet – The Pi3 does not support true Gigabit ethernet because of the USB throughput. I want to upgrade, since the proxy is handling all of my home lab traffic. Of note, though: I do not need Wifi or Bluetooth support.
  • Processor/Memory – The Pi3 runs the 1.4 GHz Quad Core Cortex A53 processor with a whopping 1GB of RAM. Truthfully, the Pi3 handles the traffic well, but an upgrade would be nice. Do I need 8GB of RAM? Again, nice to have: my minimum is 4 GB.
  • eMMC – Nginx does a lot of logging, and I worry a bit about the read/write limits on the SD cards. As I did my research, a few of the Pi alternatives have eMMC flash memory onboard. This would be a bit more resilient than an SD card, and should be faster. There are also some hats to support NVMe drives. So, yes, I want some solid memory.

Taking this list of requirements, I started looking around, and one board stood out: the Banana Pi M5.

Not the latest Banana in the bunch

The Banana Pi M5 is not the newest model from Banana Pi. The M6 is their latest offering, and sports a much stronger chipset. However, I had zero luck finding one in stock for a reasonable price. I found a full M5 kit on Amazon for about $120 USD.

The M5’s Cortex-A55 is a small step up from the RPi3 and sports 4GB of RAM, so my processor/memory requirements were met.

Gigabit ethernet? Check. The M5 has no built-in Wifi, but, for what I need it for, I frankly do not care.

Ubuntu? This one was tough to source: their site shows downloads for Ubuntu 20.04 images, but I had to dig around the Internet to verify that someone was able to run a release upgrade to get it to 22.04.

eMMC? A huge 16GB eMMC flash chip. Based on my current usage, this will more than cover my needs.

The M5 looked to be a great upgrade to my existing setup without breaking the bank or requiring me to learn something new. Would it be that easy?

Making the switch

After receiving the M5 (in standard Amazon 2 day fashion), I got to work. The kit included a “built it yourself” case, heatsinks, and a small fan. After a few minutes of trying to figure out how the case went together, I had everything assembled.

Making my way over to the M5 Wiki, I followed the steps on the page. Surprisingly, it really was that simple. I imaged an SD card so I could boot Ubuntu, then followed their instructions for installing the Linux image to EMMC. I ejected the SD Card, rebooted, and I was up and running.

A quick round of apt upgrade and do-release-upgrade later, and I was running Ubuntu 22.04. Installed nginx, certbot, and grafana-agent, copied my configuration files over from the old Pi (changing the hostnames, of course), and I was re-configured in easily under 30 minutes.

The most satisfying portion of this project was, oddly enough, changing the DNS entries and port forwarding rules to hit the M5 and watching the log entries switch places:

The green line is log entries from the M5, the yellow line is log entries from the Pi3. You can see I had some stragglers hitting the old pi, but once everything flushed out, the Pi was no longer in use. I shut it down to give it a little break for now, as I contemplate what to do with it next.

Initial Impressions

The M5 is certainly snappier, although load levels are about the same as were reported by the RPi3. The RPi3 was a rock, always on, always working. I hope for the same with the M5, but, unfortunately, only time will tell.