Choose the right quad port NIC

With vSphere 5.5 VMware has dropped support for some of the hardware enthusiasts like me used in their home lab (which basically means I consider people who spent quite a few bucks for a home lab to be enthusiasts – are you really sending the right message to us, VMware?). I cannot approve that – to me it’s just a bad move to remove drivers for hardware that would otherwise work fine, even if it was not supported. Which basically would just mean you’d be on your own if something would not work, and VMware Support would just tell you that. Nothing to scare a whitebox user away.

Anyway. I had to face the fact that the onboard and additional PCI Realtek NIC of my lab ESXi would be unusable sooner or later, even if an older driver could be injected into the ESXi 5.5 image, as I explained in a previous post. So I decided to find a setup that would provide at least five network interfaces with presumably long term support.

Therefore I dumped the Realtek PCI NIC and aimed to replaced the PCIe dual port Gigabit NIC (HP NC360T) with a quad port NIC. But which one? The list of devices deprecated and unspported in ESXi 5.5 already contained some NICs based on the Intel 82571EB, so a NIC like the HP NC364T did not seem to be a good choice. But the HP NC365T aka Intel i340-T4 aka IBM 49Y424x based on Intel 82580 looked promising. Usually you’ll get used HP NC365T on eBay cheaper than the others, but the Intel ones cheaper in retail stores. The IBM branded ones are for some reason always more expensive.

Bottom line: if you’re looking for an affordable quad port NIC which is [most likely long-term] supported by VMware, search for the Intel i340-T4, no matter which OEM brand.

But beware: for some unknown reason the port numbering differs.The HP NC365T counts the ports from the bottom (this is where the PCIe connector is) up, which means port #0 is close to the PCIe connector, and port #3 is at the far end. On the IBM it’s just the other way around: port #0 is at the far end, and port #3 is close to the PCIe connector. All related to the MAC address order, by which the OS including ESXi usually assign interface numbers / identifiers. Confusing, eh? Yep. Could someone please tell me why that is?

Also, if you plan to use PXE boot with the NIC, you may need to prepare the flash beforehand. First download the latest “Ethernet Connections Boot Utility, Preboot images, and EFI Drivers” from the Intel download page. Since all NICs are Intel OEMs, these utilities should work fine – at least they did with my HP’s. The easiest way to go ahead is to boot the ESXi (or any system available to temporarily plug the NICs into) with Windows or into a Windows PE environment. Plug in an USB stick with the unpacked utilities, run install.bat  from the corresponding (Win32 or Winx64) subdirectory of APPS\BootUtil. Open a command prompt there and execute the following commands:

BOOTUTILW32.EXE -all -fe
BOOTUTILW32.EXE -all -up=combo -file=..\BootIMG.FLB
BOOTUTILW32.EXE -all -bootenable=pxe
BOOTUTILW32.EXE -all -wole
BOOTUTILW32.EXE -all -ste
BOOTUTILW32.EXE -all -tle
BOOTUTILW32.EXE -all -mse
BOOTUTILW32.EXE -all -swt=3

Since you usually use just one port for the PXE boot, the other ports could be disabled, which decreases the boot time. In my case it was all ports but 0, and also the single port Intel NIC was still enabled:

BOOTUTILW32.EXE -nic=3 -bootenable=disable
BOOTUTILW32.EXE -nic=4 -bootenable=disable
BOOTUTILW32.EXE -nic=5 -bootenable=disable

The final output shows the status of all ports on all NICs:

BOOTUTILW32.EXE -e

Intel(R) Ethernet Flash Firmware Utility
BootUtil version 1.4.61.2
Copyright (C) 2003-2013 Intel Corporation

NIC= 1 MACAddress=001B21xxxxxx
NIC= 2 MACAddress=AC162DxxxxA4
NIC= 3 MACAddress=AC162DxxxxA5
NIC= 4 MACAddress=AC162DxxxxA6
NIC= 5 MACAddress=AC162DxxxxA7

Port Network Address Location Series  WOL Flash Firmware                Version
==== =============== ======== ======= === ============================= =======
  1   001B21xxxxxx     3:00.0 Gigabit YES UEFI,PXE Enabled              1.5.43
  2   AC162DxxxxA4     2:00.0 Gigabit N/A UEFI,PXE Enabled,iSCSI        1.5.43
  3   AC162DxxxxA5     2:00.1 Gigabit N/A UEFI,PXE,iSCSI                -------
  4   AC162DxxxxA6     2:00.2 Gigabit N/A UEFI,PXE,iSCSI                -------
  5   AC162DxxxxA7     2:00.3 Gigabit YES UEFI,PXE,iSCSI                -------

Next thing will be to try out the iSCSI boot option…

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