ESXi 5.0 and 5.1 all worked fine with the common Realtek 8111/8168 series of network adapters, typically found in a variety of consumer-class motherboards. What to do for ESXi 5.5 in the home lab? Suddenly you can't even install ESXi, even though you have a perfectly workable system that happens to already have Realtek on board. Such as my very own vZilla. Yes, with 5.5, you'll get the dreaded “No compatible network adapter found please consult Hardware Compatibility Guide for supported adapters” message. Even though you likely won't find this chipset on the HCL, and you have no official support from VMware on Realtek, this article may help get you clear of the installer hurtle, offering two distinct approaches.
For the Realtek 8111 (8111E, 8111G, etc.), there may be some gotchas.
The Realtek is similar enough to the 8168 series that for many folks, the below software procedure works out fine. That doesn't mean it'll work for you though. Your results may vary. My 8111E based NIC dropped from the network after a solid month, so I simply rebooted, and have had no further issues in many months since. Other folks report issues with getting various Realtek NICs going at all, seen in the conversation below this post, including this comment, and similar comments elsewhere, including Realtek 8111G, nic identified but no flow and ESXi host keeps disconnecting.
How's simply adding the driver from 5.1 back into your installer ISO image sound. You know, the driver that VMware has apparently taken away from 5.5. While this fix could be seen as a slight hack, it's hardly dangerous, and can be convenient if you just want something that works. You're likely unsupported in the home lab anyway. You're basically just front-loading a VIB (driver bundle) that VMware's own procedure talks you through the same approach, Installing async drivers on ESXi 5.x (2005205), Jul 24, 2013. It's just that the VIB is about a year old, and hasn't been tested by VMware on ESXi 5.
The demand for info on this is clearly there, with 2 excellent conversations going on right here at TinkerTry, and numerous discussions around the web on this common issue. The fix is pretty straight forward. I found a timely article just yesterday which has nicely explains how the ESXi Customer tool does its gentle massage of the ISO, even from Windows 8.1. It's titled Adding Realtek R8168 Driver to ESXi 5.5.0 ISO by Erik on Sep 23 2013, where he points us to the correct file.
Here's a copy of the exact file you'll need (right-click, Save As):
(Sorry folks, I don't have the VMware_bootbank_net-r8169_6.011.00-2vmw.510.0.0.799733.vib file)
That file above is the exact file I used for my RTL8111E, thanks to erick at bussink.ch/?p=1228!
While Erik is talking about the 8168, it's the same driver family as the 8111, as seen on Realtek's site. I've tested that this injection method works fine with 5.5 and my ASRock Z68 Professional Gen3 motherboard and it's 2 RTL8111E ports in my 2011 vZilla virtualization whitebox. See screenshot I just took above. Injection took mere seconds, and I then used Rufus to take the ISO and a make bootable USB flash drive out of it, in about 2 minutes, demonstrated here. That same flash drive is used to boot from USB, then chosen as the installation target. Elegant, quick, no CD/DVD burning needed.
Use ESXi-Customer GUI to inject multiple driver VIBs into your ESXi installer ISO by Paul Braren Dec 16 2013.
How to add the missing ESXi 5.0 drivers to the ESXi 5.5 installation ISO by Andreas Peetz Sep 24 2013.
Finally, and alternative injection technique that uses just PowerCLI 5.5:
Installing VMware ESXi 5.5 on the Gigabyte Brix by Phil Wiffen, Sep 23 2013.
Assuming you somehow got ESXi 5.5 going already, say with another brand of NIC, then the below article should get you through simply adding the VIB
Realtek 8169 NIC in ESXi 5.5 not detected by default – install a VIB by Vladan Seget on Sep 30 2013.
If using injection leaves you uneasy, then investing in a NIC that's likely to stay support for many years to come might be another way to go. Such as the much newer Intel I350T2 Dual Port Ethernet Server Adapter on Amazon or Newegg for around $135 USD, with specs nicely laid out on Intel's comparison grid. It's moderately pricey, but has a small form factor, 2 ports, low watt burn, and all the latest virtualization features. Intel lists the specs here, and the VMware Compatibility Guide is over here. I've tested the I350T2 with 5.5, (also pictured at right) and it works well. While it's unlikely I'll be fully leveraging the advanced virtualization features like SR-IOV, at least driver support probably be one less thing to worry about for years to come, since this chip was relatively recently released in 1Q2012. Can't know for sure, though. Honestly, this is all just a stop-gap until 10 gigabit is affordable, on affordable motherboards, and on VMware's Hardware Compatibility list...Hmm, then again, that could be quite a while. Just some food for thought.
Oct 01 2013 Update
Very relevant, spot-on post by Vladan yesterday (with new software fix section added above). You'll want to read the whole article
Realtek 8169 NIC in ESXi 5.5 not detected by default – install a VIB by Vladan Seget on Sep 30 2013, where he states:
VMware did strip down many drivers from the ESXi 5.5 ISO, and additionally, they do not provide the Offline bundle for ESXi 5.5 free version.
VMware provides full list of hardware which is “deprecated” in the ESXi 5.5. Here is VMware KB listing all unsupported NICs – Devices deprecated and unsupported in ESXi 5.5.
Hopefully this post help someone who was in the same situation. Good option is to go for Intel based NICs which in most cases are supported. The best option is to check the VMware HCL before buying a NIC, still.