Intel 8th Gen NUC, ESXi 7U2 and the Community NIC Driver

Like many, I’ve found that the power consumption and heat generation of a decent, modern rack server is too much to reasonably handle these days, especially when space is at a premium. That’s why the 8th generation Intel NUC, specifically the ‘NUC8i5BEH’ model, fit my needs perfectly. Being small, quiet (most of the time) and power efficient mean that I barely notice a server running in the bedroom anymore. Quite the difference from the Poweredge R420 that I was running previously! I’ve gone from consuming 100 watts from the wall to just 20!

This SFF size and power usage comes at a cost though. That is to say that ESXi now no longer comes with complete support for the hardware out of the box. With 6.7U3 I was able to grab the generic ISO from VMware’s website, install it and have ESXi running without issue straight away. With the driver changes in vSphere 7, which involved the ridding of VMKLinux drivers from the OS, we now have to bundle in the community NIC drivers when we install ESXi to get the network chip working as intended. For my own NUC, the network chipset is listed in the OS as “Intel Corporation Ethernet Connection (6) I219-V”. A consumer-level chip. This simple process of adding new driver packages to the ISO has been explained by many blogs before so you’ll hopefully forgive me if I skip it this time around.

As can be seen in the below screenshot, trying to install the OS results in a PSOD that I’ve never encountered before. This screen is displayed before the installer even loads.

A sight no vSphere admin ever wants to see…

Now a quick google search has forum posts suggesting that the drivers aren’t compatible, however I know this to not be the case as I’ve seen reports from other people with very similar hardware that the community NIC fling works for them without any issues. I had also made sure the ISO generated by PowerCLI was using the correct acceptance level of ‘Community’. So I dug deeper and took a jump into the local debugger. It was in here that I found a single line mentioning secure boot, unfortunately I forgot to nab a screenshot for the exact error, but in my mind having secure boot enabled but using unsigned drivers in the ESXi image could potentially cause an issue when it came to loading said drivers upon startup.

So with this new-found information in mind, I rebooted into the BIOS and disabled secure boot as can be seen below. Apologies for the phone-taken pictures, ’tis a consequence of not having any out of band management on these things!

Completely disabled secure boot

With this option now disabled, installation went through without a problem! Although in my case, it seems the old ESXi 6.7U3 install on the USB stick has become corrupted, meaning a complete reinstall for me! 🙁

Fully recognised NIC using the community driver

Hopefully this post helps someone else out there, using these great bits of engineering to run newer versions of ESXi. It’s a shame we have to jump through a couple more hoops to get it running correctly but if they’re good enough for Chick-Fil-A then they’re good enough for me. Speaking of food… 🥪

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