I’m building a home/lab server to run a variety of workloads, but VMware ESX is chief among these. Sadly, VMware ESX is especially picky about network interface cards (NICs): Although many are supported, most are intended for servers and thus very expensive and difficult to find at retail. So I set out browsing through the VMware ESX HCL, Newegg, and Amazon to find the best network card for my home lab machine. Here’s what I’ve found out so far.
Desktop NICs Won’t Work
Most of the network interfaces you will find at retail simply won’t work. Realtek is the dominant provider of Gigabit Ethernet controllers for motherboards and add-in cards right now, but none of their chips are natively supported by VMware ESX. The number-two slot seems to be Marvell’s Yukon chips, with Intel’s desktop controllers close behind. None of these will work, either.
Although it is possible to get a non-supported NIC to work in VMware ESX, it’s not a good idea. First, ESX won’t install unless it finds a supported NIC in the box. Then there’s quite a bit of fiddling to get the driver up and running. And you’re left with a potentially-weird configuration that might not support advanced features. It’s a much-better idea to locate and purchase a supported NIC.
Here’s what not to buy
|Many inexpensive Ethernet cards and motherboards have a chip with the Realtek “digital crab” logo. None of these will work for VMware ESX.||The big “psychedelic M” identifies a Marvell controller. Skip these, too.|
Selecting a Functional Home/Lab NIC
My “home/lab” network card criteria are simple:
- They are specifically listed on the VMware ESX HCL for version 4.1 with no hacks or trickery involved
- They cost less than $100 US
- You can easily purchase them at retail from major online vendors (Newegg and Amazon)
- They use PCI or PCI Express bus and have 1 or more RJ45 Gigabit Ethernet ports
It’s really amazing how few cards meet these criteria: There are really just a few cards to consider in this range.
Here’s what to buy
|The Intel Pro/1000 MT server adapter should work, and the dual-port is cheaper on Amazon (Newegg)|
|PCI Express (PCIe) adapters|
|The Intel Pro/1000 CT desktop adapter is a cheap and functional PCIe NIC (Newegg)||The Intel Pro/1000 PT server adapter is a little more expensive but potentially better-supported (Newegg)||The HP NC112T also appears to be well-supported and affordable|
Although some have reported success with the very-cheap Intel Pro/1000 GT desktop adapter, I can’t recommend it. I’ve heard many negative reviews of folks trying and failing to get this adapter to work in the latest versions of VMware ESX. I think it’s worth the money to step up to the CT or PT instead!
Note also that I have not personally tried the specific adapters listed and linked here. I intend to purchase one or more over the next few months and will update this post when I do, but I welcome feedback on your experiences with them!
VMware ESX seems especially picky about network adapters, and the fact that it will not install without a supported NIC onboard is a real stumbling block for users. I definitely recommend picking up a well-supported NIC like the Intel Pro/1000 MT (PCI) or CT/PT (PCIe) or the HP NC112T.
My home/lab machine has two PCIe slots and two PCI slots. I had intended to use a PCI NIC, but will probably buy a Pro/1000 PT card instead. It’s affordable and called out specifically as supported in the VMware ESX HCL. Sounds good to me!
If you have a suggestion for a NIC that fits the criteria above, please do let me know. I’d love to have more choices in this list!