Supermicro SuperServer Workstation Graphics Card selection revisited, featuring VMware ESXi 6.5 passthrough testing of HHHL PCIe GPUs

Posted by Paul Braren on Jul 19 2017 (updated on Mar 22 2020) in
  • ESXi
  • Virtualization
  • HowTo
  • HomeLab
  • GPU
  • HHHL stands for Half Height, Half Length (source). These are the type of single PCIe slot cards that fit into the Supermicro SuperServer SYS-5028D-TN4T mini-tower bundles, and are entirely PCIe bus powered. This means the watt consumption is generally under 70 watts at highest workloads, which means the overall system stays well within the capabilities of the 250 watt power supply.

    Back in March of 2017, I needed to go back to using my SuperServer Workstation as my daily driver Windows 10 workstation, in large part because of excessive video render times for 4K video production workflow. This meant it was time to revisit how well this VM worked with the latest ESXi 6.5.0d, determining whether all features and functions behaved as they did back in the ESXi 6.0 days, when I first wrote this article:

    This SuperServer Workstation hybrid combo is a niche build, and not a turn-key solution. Yes, I admit that Bundle 2 is much more popular for good reasons: it's sold without Windows 10 and without a GPU, a better choice for the vast majority of use cases. This is especially true for virtualization enthusiasts, who generally don't need or want a watt-burning GPU. But this article is about those who very much do want a compact GPU that takes up only one slot for their Workstation VM. The term Workstation comes from the use of an attached keyboard, mouse, and monitor, so your vSphere 6.5 Datacenter can also be your Windows 10 Workstation, simultaneously. See also How to locate your triple monitor (up to 2K) PC 20 feet away for less noise and more joy.

    With so many months having gone by since these SuperServer Workstations began shipping, it's high time I revisit this little screamer, and let you know what discoveries I made when moving from vSphere 6.0 to vSphere 6.5, and when determining whether any suitable replacements for the VisionTek AMD 7750 GPU card had arrived, with the promise of quiter operation.

    AMD Radeon Pro WX 4100 - Fail


    Notably, I failed to get the newer and more powerful and quieter AMD Radeon Pro WX 4100 Workstation Graphics Card working properly for passthrough, when using the latest system BIOS 1.2, as explained here. Yellow bangs through the Display adapter listed in Windows Device Manager, and/or occasional PSODs. Maybe some manual tweaks to the .VMX file will do the trick someday, if somebody figures out what those tweaks are.

    NVIDIA K1200 - Fail


    As for NVIDIA, well, the spiffy looking and quiet sounding K1200 was a no-go as well, exhibiting the dreaded yellow bangs through Device Manager. Yes, NVIDIA still doesn't want you to use anything but the proper NVIDIA Grid product line for vGPUs carved up among many of your VMs, explained in their video. NVIDIA has historically not been interested in allowing easy VMware ESXi passthrough for either their Quadro (workstation) or GeForce (gaming) product lines.

    VisionTek AMD 7750 - Still a win!


    The noise of the always-on fan can be reduced by creatively using a fan speed reducer from nearly any Noctua cooling fan, installing it inline. Noctua calls it a Low-Noise Adaptor (L.N.A.), sold alone as the NA-SRC10 3-Pin Low-Noise Adaptors. Clumsy to get attached firmly, but very effective once in place, with my GPU still managing to stay cool to the touch even after long benchmarks like FurMark that doled out heavy abuse.

    I'm much happier using my Xeon D for daily use when compared to any laptop, even that lovely work-issued Core i7 Dell Precision 5510 with 1TB NVMe, worth around $3000 total. Why? Because it's still just a mobile CPU, the 4 core 8MB cache i7-6820HQ. Compare that with my 16 core 18MB cache Xeon D-1567 in my SuperServer Bundle 1, as detailed in this Intel ARK comparison table. These specs really do matter. Routine content creation tasks like Camtasia 9 video renders use all those cores and now take me much less time. See also my 4K video render measurements with various core counts here:


    Here's my current observations, fresh off about 3 months of heavy use.

    The good

    Premium CPU in Dell Precision 5510 versus Xeon D-1567 in SuperServer Bundle 2 12 Core.
    1. snappy UI, easy triple monitor support
    2. CPU speed and multitasking abilities are impressive
    3. extreme versatility compared to any laptop
    4. many drive bays for your storage needs, and a fast M.2 slot for exceptional M.2 NVMe storage performance when used as an ESXi datastore for your Windows 10 VM
    5. video render times using Camtasia 9 are greatly reduced over any laptop
    6. having great performance with assigning 20 vCPUs to this powerhouse VM I use for dozens of hours per week
    7. sound quality of my USB to Digital Coaxial and headphone jack adapter is great
    8. I've discovered that turning VGA to offboard in the BIOS, for hand-off of video from onboard VGA port to offboard GPU card, isn't necessary for stable VM operation, I may want to revisit the build procedure Wiredzone follows when prepping these systems for shipment

    The noteworthy gotchas

    Yes, full disclosure here, this is not a VMware supported way to run a VM, we already knew this. Only certain USB devices are support, and really only products like NVIDIA GRID are properly supported for use as vGPUs carved up across your most important VMs. But this is a home lab, where pushing technology forward with what's possible on budget can be fun, especially if somebody has figured out the bumps in the road before you.

    1. you need to have full daily backups of your precious VM you're using as your workstation, free and easy options include NAKIVO Backup & Replication 7 and Veeam Agent for Microsoft Windows v2.
    2. approximately every 5th reboot of the Windows 10 VM that is also my Windows 10 triple-monitor workstation, I encounter an issue with the VisionTek AMD 7750 GPU card not being passed through at all for mysterious reasons, requiring me to reboot the SuperServer's ESXi itself, using vSphere Client on another network attached PC
    3. on my attached triple monitors, I can't easily view BIOS screen and early Windows boot issues, such as BSODs, requiring me to use VMRC on another system for problem determination
    4. currently I've disabled AMD's sound over DisplayPort and HDMI, to avoid nuisance default sound reassignment to one of those devices, since I don't use my monitors for sound
    5. occasionally, 2-3x per-constant-use-hour, my mouse seems to drop some packets randomly for about 1/3 of a second, no big deal, and this isn't associated with any CPU or disk IO load
    6. can't snapshot or vMotion the VM, the same old restrictions ESXi VMs have for RDM users
    7. adding USB 3.0 devices a little clumsier than simply plugging in, need to take steps to map it to the VM as well, sometimes the VM needs to be shut down for this to work, gladly these mappings persist through reboots of VM or ESXi host, this guy has an easier way, see Running a virtual gaming rig using a Xeon D server, a GFX 750Ti, PCI passthrough and a Windows 10 VM, but it's USB 2.0 only, and only tested on ESXi 6.0
    8. can't sync iPhone with iTunes via a physical USB 3.0 connection attached to the host/server, mapped to the Win 10 VM using the ESXi UI (Apple device seen in Device Manager, but not in iTunes)
    9. avoid RDM mappings of the C: drive for this UEFI VM for much more robust booting, I'm quite happy now with thick provisioned 1.7TB virtual drive that lives on my VMFS 6.81 formatted Samsung 960 PRO 2TB M.2 NVMe SSD
    10. if you turn SR-IOV on or off in the BIOS, you'll need to reconfigure passthrough in your ESXi host, reboot, then re-add the PCI devices back to your VM settings, so they'll show up again in Device Manager as the expected 'AMD Radeon HD 7700 Series' video device and the 'AMD High Definition Audio Device', and for me, I just right-click disable the audio device, as I don't use my monitors speakers


    These are the latest AMD Radeon Settings, using AMD Radeon Software Crimson Edition 17.1.1 Driver for Windows® 10 64-bit on my Windows 10 Creators Update Workstation VM.


    Apr 30 2019 Update


    Everything is still working just great with vSphere/ESXi 6.7 Update 2, and the latest VM version 15 for my daily driver Windows 10 Build 1809 VM that is also my workstation. When upgrading to this hardware version, I did have to configure pass through of the PCI device again for my VM, but gladly, I didn't have to fiddle with the 2 AMD PCIe devices for ESXi itself, those persisted through the upgrade.

    I also noticed that my Windows 10 Build 1809 wound up with AMD Software 18.12.2 version, with driver version 25.20.15002.58 dated 12/6/2018 working fine.

    There's an excellent article at VMware Digital Workspace Tech Zone that gets into much more detail than my article about. It includes the three types of Graphics Acceleration:

    • Virtual Shared Graphics
    • Virtual Shared Pass-Through Graphics
    • Virtual Dedicated Graphics

      Virtual Dedicated Graphics Acceleration (vDGA) technology, also known as GPU pass-through, provides each user with unrestricted, fully dedicated access to one of the host’s GPUs. Although dedicated access has some consolidation and management trade-offs, vDGA offers the highest level of performance for users with the most intensive graphics computing needs.
      The hypervisor passes the GPUs directly to individual guest virtual machines. No special drivers are required in the hypervisor. However, to enable graphics acceleration, you must install the appropriate vendor driver on each guest virtual machine. The installation procedures are the same as for physical machines. One drawback of vDGA is its lack of vMotion support.

      Supported vDGA cards in Horizon 7 version 7.x and vSphere 6.5 include

      AMD FirePro S7100X/S7150/S7150X2
      Intel Iris Pro Graphics P580/P6300
      NVIDIA Quadro M5000/P6000, Tesla M10/M60/P40
      For a list of partner servers that are compatible with specific vDGA devices, see the VMware Virtual Dedicated Graphics Acceleration (vDGA) Guide.


    In this article, you'll also find this excellent features table (scroll down a little).

    So it's vDGA that we're using in my Bundle 2 SuperServer Workstation, so I have a look half way down the page in the section entitled Virtual Machine Settings for MxGPU and vDGA, but it seems that only steps 2 (add PCI device) and 3 (reserve all guest memory) apply to my situation, followed by the Guest Operating System section step 3a (install GPU device drivers in Windows).

    Mar 22 2020 Update

    Last month, I had a long 4K video that apparently had HVEC content in the timeline. It was time for a re-render, and it was time to see if any of these newer GPUs happened to work with VT-d passthrough under the latest VMware ESXi 6.7 Update 1. No joy, no bueno, no worky still, none of them besides the original VisionTek that I still use for my daily driver SuperServer Workstation.

    See also at TinkerTry

    Excellent comments left by Vic T here:

    Nice write-up, as always. Your site has always given me inspiration and keeping me up-to-date with what's possible in my home lab - a small-chassis x10sri-f on xeon e5 L v4, and a sys-e200-8d "frankensteined" with a 60mm fan to reduce the stock fan noise.

    Just wanted to share what I have with regard to GPU and USB3 isochronous, FWIW.

    On GPU, I managed to find an older Grid K2 card which has 2 GPUs on board - I passed through one of the GPUs to a VM for demanding tasks, and the other GPU can still accelerate other VMs vSGA (via VMware tools' 3d acceleration via Xorg on host) for lower requirements with the added advantage of being vMotion-able. The Grid K2 requires good cooling, so I ended up having to add a few more fans and so far the noise has been bearable. As opposed to the newer Grid, the K2 doesn't require the newer Nvidia software licensing which can get very expensive.

    On the USB, I've tried 3 USB-to-IP devices (yeah, part of work eval to passthrough USB-to-serial console and Rainbow tokenkeys): Digi's AnywhereUSB, SEH's UTN2500 and the Silex DS600. The AnywhereUSB is USB2.0 only and doesn't support isochronous and had driver issues. So far I've been having good results with SEH and Silex, both support isochronous and managed to run a USB-based DVD drive successfully.

    How to install the VisonTek 7750 4K UHD GPU card into a Supermicro SuperServer 5028D-TN4T Mini-tower.

    See also

    Suddenly, the 12 core Supermicro SuperServer isn't looking very pricey, even when fully loaded with 128GB of RAM!

    • Apple unleashes 18-core iMac Pro with 128GB RAM, bumps other Macs to Kaby Lake

      The biggest surprise was that Apple announced a new "space gray" iMac Pro that can be configured with up to an 18-core Intel Xeon CPU, 128GB of RAM, and a 4TB SSD drive. Keep in mind that the base model of this beast will feature an 8-core Xeon, 32GB of RAM, and a 1TB SSD and it will cost $4999. So, the price of the fully configured version is going to be astronomical, likely in the $8K-$10K range, when it arrives at "the end of the year."

    This excellent article details a different approach that leverages ESXi 6.0 and USB 2.0 passthrough: