How to install 3rd Party RAID controller drivers in VMware ESXi 6.0

I recently had to install VMware ESXi 6.0 on a server sporting an Areca RAID controller. Since Areca supplies VMware drivers on their site, and this is a well-established name-brand controller, you may expect it to be easy to get it working. It isn’t exactly easy, since VMware doesn’t natively support this controller, but I did get it working, and since this same basic procedure could be adopted for other models/brands/situations, I wanted to post how I did it, since I couldn’t find anyone else on the internet at the time who had useful instructions for someone who hadn’t done it before (or with this version of VMware).

Ok, first of all, we may be more than 15 years into the 21st century, but you wouldn’t know it when you’re trying to install a driver in VMware’s latest 6.0 version of ESXi, which hasn’t even been out that long.  For some reason, if you have a 3rd party driver to install that doesn’t come natively in VMware, it all needs to be done using arcane command line syntax with multiple 3rd party programs. Why they don’t just have a place in the GUI to click on that allows you to easily install drivers in VMware, I don’t know.  To make matters worse, you can’t even get to the GUI if you haven’t installed VMware yet, so that’s the first problem you’ll run into if you try to install it onto drives attached to your new RAID controller. (This particular model was the Areca ARC-1214-4i.)  Sure, you can download drivers from Areca’s web site, but it doesn’t do you much good when the VMware installation screens never once offer you a chance to install a 3rd party driver (like Microsoft has done since the NT4 days when you could always hit F6 during installation, and then give it a floppy disk, etc.).

No, instead, the way they recommend you do it (assuming you’re only running a few physical VMware servers) is to install it to a USB flash drive, and THEN once its installed, you can install the RAID controller drivers. (And I do mean USB flash drive – I tried installing it to an external USB HDD first, and it wouldn’t see it. When I plugged in a little 2GB USB key though, it came right up!)  So yes, you’ll install VMware to a USB flash drive, and THAT will be your boot drive forevermore, so make sure it’s a drive you don’t want back ever again! ;)

Ok, so now you’ve installed VMware to your USB key and booted it up, and it’s working fine, but when you connect from the vSphere Client, it tells you there are no datastores defined, and it asks if you’d like to add one.  But, when you try to go ahead and create a datastore as it suggests, it gives you NO WAY to add a new controller/drivers to create the datastore on!

So here’s what you do:

First, go to the server’s physical console/monitor, and go into Troubleshooting, and enable ESXi Shell and SSH.

Then, back at a workstation, download your driver file and look inside to find the *.VIB file that is for your make/model card.

Use the freeware WinSCP program to copy the VIB file to the VMware server in /tmp/.

Now use the freeware PuTTY to bring up a terminal window giving you basic command line access to your server. (Don’t be alarmed if it moves slowly logging you in.)  At the PuTTY prompt, run this command:

esxcli software vib install -v /tmp/<yourVIBfilename> --no-sig-check

For a file that’s only 30kb it takes a long time to complete doing whatever it’s doing behind the scenes after you enter that command. I didn’t time it, but it seemed like I waited a good minute or more before I finally got some kind of response from the server. If it worked, it will give you a message that it was successful, and will probably have a line saying something like “reboot needed: true” which of course means you need to reboot the server.

At this point you can close PuTTY and WinSCP, and reboot the server (I do it from the physical server’s console/monitor). After its rebooted (and assuming you’ve already correctly set up a drive/volume in a RAID array on the controller), then you should now be able to create a datastore and can move forward using VMware as usual.

Whew!  What a pain!  VMware obviously knows that major manufacturers make cards that people use with their stuff, so I don’t know why it’s so difficult to install a 3rd party driver. Areca doesn’t help the situation, by giving a vague indication in their nearly useless README.TXT included with the driver download that basically just tells you to manually install the VIB file. Couldn’t THEY at least point you in the right direction?!?  Anyway, hopefully you found this blog post before spending too many hours banging your head against a wall trying to put all of the pieces of this puzzle together yourself…