Monday, November 20, 2023

ESXi on Lenovo ThinkCentre M75q Gen 2 part 2 - Adding supported network cards

To follow up on my previous blog post, I've made a few changes to the M75q Gen 2. It can run vSphere 7.0 and 8.0, but is unable to use the onboard NIC as it is a Realtek 8168, which doesn't have a supported driver. With the recent removal of the VMware Flings webpage (archive still exists), the move to supported network adapters is becoming more prudent. While 10Gbe networking is nice, I'd like to expand to perhaps a quad port 2.5Gbe card if possible. If unable to do so, I could perhaps utilize the onboard A+E M.2 slot for a supported gigabit card.

I've optimized the 3D print to allow for a more open air approach to the previous "box" design. This should allow for optimal airflow, at the expense of being able to stack boxes on top of each other. 

Tested and working

As previously mentioned, using the M.2 to PCI-e adapter enables the use of a PCI-e 3.0 x4 slot, with some limitations. The AQC107 based SYBA network card works without issue, establishing a full 10Gbe connection. This card is natively supported as of ESXi 7.0 Update 2.

Tested, limited or uncertain capability

I tested the zimaboard 4x 2.5Gbe i225 network card on the same slot. I was only able to get three of the four ports to work. The fourth port showed link lights even when a cable wasn't connected. I suspected that the issue was with the card on it's own, as the power consumption should be similar to the 10Gbe card. Testing the card in a proper PCI-e slot yielded the same result. DOA parts happen, but I haven't bothered purchasing another to test. If I work up the nerve to try again, I'll order another and post an update, or will try a different brand altogether.

I then tested a Lenovo OEM Intel X550-T2. This is a PCI-e 3.0 x4 card with dual 10Gbe ports. It isn't detected during POST, but works in other systems, which leads me to draw two conclusions:

  1. The power draw of the card is too much, which could be worked around with a different adapter that allows more power (such as a M.2 to Oculink converter with external PSU).
  2. The card has OEM pins that prevent it from being detected during POST, which could be worked around with a tape mod. I'm less inclined to believe this is the case, as it's a Lenovo card going into a Lenovo system, and works in non-OEM machines seamlessly.
As of right now, the card is being used in another system. I might test using the Oculink converter at a later time. The benefit of the Oculink card would mean more compatibility with GPUs, as well as PCI-e 4.0 support for Ryzen 5000 series processors. The downside is that I'd need an external PSU for that purpose.

Tested, not working

The last card I tested was a sketchy looking M.2 A+E to gigabit network adapter. This was a best effort attempt as I have several machines that could use this card. Unfortunately, the M75q Gen 2 did not detect this card at all. If you're going to test this in a compact system, I would suggest getting a A+E extension cable, as the card is wider than most WiFi adapters and may not fit. If/when the Orange Pi 5 Plus supports PCI-e for the ARM fling, I plan on testing this adapter with the extension cable for that purpose.

Overall, I like the Ryzen based, 8 core, 64GB of RAM system for ESXi 6.7 as I can still use the community Realtek driver for it. Nothing in my homelab is essential, but if you wish to learn the capabilities of the latest versions of ESXi, I would suggest against trying to hack a machine to do so. The USB network card fling can be utilized for gigabit to 2.5Gbe connectivity with some success, but for general reliability, stick to Intel based onboard networking with real PCI-e slots or Thunderbolt capabilities. 

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