For ESXi: Realtek NICs Are Awful And Don’t Use Them

OK, this isn’t a really a controversial opinion. This is more as a guide for those who run into these problems when trying to setup their first whitebox/homelab systems for ESXi.

So it goes something like this: You’ve got an old desktop, gaming rig, or workstation. You decide you’ll retire it to your home data center (or basement, or laundry room) as a hypervisor. ESXi by itself (no vSphere controller) is free, and here’s how to download and get the license key.

For most desktop/workstation type of hardware, you can install ESXi from the general ESXi installer except for one aspect: Many of these types of systems use Realtek, Marvell, or other desktop/consumer grade NICs, and there’s not an ESXi driver for these. And for good reasons: They suck.

So you have the choice: Try to use a special custom ISO installer with the Realtek?Marvell/etc. driver loaded, or buy a different NIC. In most of IT, there’s usually more than one right answer, and a heaping dose of “it depends”. However, for this particular question (Realtek or buy another NIC) there’s only right right answer: Buy another NIC.

Realtek NICs suck. They don’t perform well, they’re a pain to work with for ESXi, so just buy a NIC. The other desktop NICs don’t fare much better. If it’s not recognized by ESXi, it’s a pretty good bet it’s shit.

You can get a one or two port Intel Pro 1000 NIC on eBay for $20-30 USD. These NICs work great. I’ve even replaced the Realtek NIC on my Windows 10 Pro workstation and went from 700 Mbps to fully saturating a gigabit NIC for file transfers. (Make sure they’re Intel Server NICs, the Pro NICs, and not the desktop NICs.)

For $20-30 additional, you can install ESXi on just about any desktop or workstation hardware with the standard ESXi installer. I’m sure there are edge cases, but for me desktop/workstation plus Intel Pro NIC has worked fine.

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