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Supporting PXE over USB Deployment Scenarios for tablets and ultrabooks

Many enterprise IT admins are facing a new challenge: how to deploy and manage systems with only WiFi for networking and USB for IO ports.  As a result, we’re often asked whether our USB network adapters support PXE boot.  In short, this is the wrong question- Mu.

When designing a deployment environment where USB is your fastest or only I/O option, it is likely that using bootable USB storage devices to abstract away from the limitations of the motherboard UEFI/BIOS will be your best option for two reasons:

1. Support for booting USB mass storage class devices is class-based and ubiquitous.  Almost all modern motherboard BIOS/UEFI builds support USB mass storage class device boot. A number of minimal OS with support for accessing a network share and installing the OS via this pre-installation environment. One valid option would be to use an CD ISO to USB bootable converter program like LiLi to create a USB Bootable iPXE environment, and add the open-source 88179 driver here if you need wired and can’t boot from built-in wireless. Another would be to use Windows PE with Bootcamp drivers for Windows as discussed here on Technet forums. In either case, the key is to build support for the network driver into a USB bootable pre-installation environment.

2. Support for USB network devices is not class driver based- individual chips have notable functional differences, and as such there is no class driver for USB networking- thus, support is left to motherboard OEM’s to build support for individual networking devices into their devices- a challenging task.

For this to be possible, the BIOS/UEFI on the motherboard has to natively support the chip used in the USB network adapter- so this answer will always depend on the motherboard, and require research into both the chipset of the USB network device and then whether the UEFI/BIOS a given motherboard runs supports this chip.

The vast majority of “legacy” systems will NOT have the ability to PXE boot a USB attached adapter. On more modern systems, this functionality will vary from model to model and is NOT something we can answer with certainty, as it is effectively a question of whether the motherboard’s software has support for the chip used in the adapter.

This is much less likely to work on newer USB 3.0 networking devices than on  USB 2.0 devices, since those are based on chips that have been around longer, thus giving motherboard OEMs and the open source community time to integrate support for these USB devices into BIOS/UEFI and the alternate pre-installation environments.

Our most widely compatible adapter, capable of 10/100 operation rather than gigabit speeds, is the AX88772 based Plugable USB 2.0 to 10/100 Fast Ethernet LAN Wired Network Adapter for Macbook, Chromebook, Windows 8 and Earlier, Surface Pro, Wii, Wii U, Linux, and Specific Android Tablets (ASIX AX88772 chipset)

For Gigabit connection speeds (although potentially lower performance than the USB3-E1000), check for support for the ASIX 88178 chip used in our, consider the Plugable USB 2.0 to 10/100/1000 Gigabit Ethernet LAN Wired Network Adapter for Windows, Mac, Chromebook, Linux, and Specific Android Tablets (ASIX AX88178 Chipset)

While it is theoretically possible to select only hardware that has native support for booting form USB network adapters, unless you need to PXE boot regularly or are trying to integrate ultra books with SCCM or some other enterprise management system, in most deployment only scenarios it should be easier to use USB media to deploy from since it is relatively easy to setup a USB bootable pre-installation environment, and build support for the driver into the PE instead of having to investigate BIOS/UEFI support for USB network device chips before making every device purchase. Information about what chips are supported this way is virtually impossible to find outside of hands on testing.

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