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I've got an unsupported SATA card that I want to use under esxi.

Not really a problem -- I'm not planning on asking for support for this system; it's mostly a basement computer that I'll use for fiddling around with esxi or olive or opensolaris or whatever other fad-of-the-month comes along.

A little googling turns up articles describing building a new oem.tgz file to add drivers for stuff not originally included in the esxi distribution. One describes adding support for a marvell ethernet card, this link even describes getting my sata card working under esx 4.0.

In fact, there is even a site that has all sorts of community contributed oem.tgz files compiled to include all sorts of drivers.

The problem is that each article seems to describe a different build environment (centos 5.3 or centos 5.4) and targets an older version of ESXi (4.0 vs the current 4.1).

Is it as "simple" as downloading the opensource components of the current version of vmware and compiling the necessary drivers? Will any up-to-date centos/redhat distribution be suitable?

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You can try the method described in your first link and pray that it works. Frankly, I'm not sure if it's even worth the effort. Wouldn't it be easier to just buy a compatible card. vmware esx/esxi will basically take the compatible linux drivers with some modifications but you have to know what those modifications are and sometimes you might even have to modify the source quite a bit.

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