I was recently made aware of this article in which the author, Karim Elatov, had successfully demonstrated the use of a Sonnett Thunderbolt 2 to 10 Gigabit Ethernet Adapter with ESXi running on an Apple Mac Mini. As far as I am aware of, this may be the first public confirmation that such a device would work with ESXi, not to mention having it functional on the Mac Mini. I know in past years, there have been unconfirmed reports on various forums mentioning a Thunderbolt to 10GbE solution that works with ESXi but it was unclear on whether custom drivers were needed or if it would even work with newer versions of ESXi.
This topic has been popular amongst our customers who virtualize Apple MacOS on vSphere. In fact, several years back I had written an article on Thunderbolt Storage for ESXi, which includes a number of solutions that our customers have implemented to provide remote storage for their vSphere infrastructure running on either an Apple XServe, Mac Pro or Mac Mini. Questions around a functional Thunderbolt to 10GbE has definitely been asked about, but I had never heard from any customer who have had a successful story to share, at least until now.
From Karim's post, it looks like he was able to get this working using ESXi 6.0 but it was unclear if there was anything he needed to do to get the device recognized. I reached out to Karim and he was able to confirm that the Thunderbolt device was recognized by ESXi without any additional driver installation. In fact, if you look at this console output on his blog, you will see that it simply uses the inbox Intel ixgbe driver. I had also asked if Karim tried this with the latest version of ESXi, which is currently at 6.5 Update 1. Karim was kind enough to perform one additional test for me which was to confirm the device would still work with the latest ESXi release, which you can see for yourself in the screenshot below.
While awaiting for Karim's response, I also reached out to Sonnett Tech to see if they could confirm their Thunderbolt devices are supported with ESXi, especially as I found that they have multiple Thunderbolt 2 and 3 to 10GbE (RJ45 and SFP+) devices on their website. The folks at Sonnett got back to me and confirmed that all four of their Thunderbolt to 10GbE devices are in fact supported with various versions of ESXi and simply uses the ixgbe driver, as their controllers are all Intel based.
Below is a quick table that summarizes the four Sonnett Thunderbolt to 10GbE devices and their respective Intel Controllers which are claimed by the inbox ixgbe driver within ESXi. I have also included direct links to Amazon as they look to be much cheaper than the MSRP.
|Twin 10G Thunderbolt 2 (10GbaseT)||Intel x540||$482.89 on Amazon|
|Twin 10G Thunderbolt 3 (10GbaseT)||Intel x550||$570.21 on Amazon|
|Twin 10G Thunderbolt 2 (SFP+)||Intel 82599||$574.86 on Amazon|
|Twin 10G Thunderbolt 3 (SFP+)||Intel 82599||$599.00 on Amazon|
If we take at look at the VMware HCL, we can see hat the x540 works with ESXi 5.0+ and the x550 works with ESXi 5.5+. Respectively, you will also find 82599 on the HCL for the two SFP+ devices.
In addition, Sonnett also shared that both their RackMac and Thunderbolt to 10GbE solutions are commonly used by many of their large Enterprise customers who virtualize MacOS on vSphere for development purposes, especially for Continuous Integration/Continuous Development (CI/CD) use cases. If you are interested in how other customers are leveraging Sonnet's solution, you can check out one of their reference customers, Ecole cantonale d’art de Lausanne (ECAL), a top-ranked visual communication, art, and design university in Switzerland which you can read more about here.
For customers who currently have either a Mac Pro or Mac Mini which includes either a Thunderbolt 2 or 3 interface, you can now take advantage of this high speed interface and easily add 10GbE connectivity to your infrastructure. You can imagine, for something like VMware's VSAN, you can use the Direct-Connect feature between two ESXi hosts without requiring additional 10GbE switches. I think as Thunderbolt 3 becomes more prevent beyond Apple hardware, things could get very interesting and being able to leverage these interfaces for either storage and/or networking. We have already seen the Intel NUCs include Thunderbolt 3 interfaces and Intel also has the NUC Industrial line which caters to customers who need higher levels of reliability for the NUC platform. Perhaps one day, we will see TB3 interfaces on servers running in our datacenter ... In the meantime, this is a pretty slick solution and can even help folks who wish to have 10GbE in their personal home labs, I can imagine this is a great solution for folks wanting to run VSAN!