Best parts of VMware's ESXi 5.5 free hypervisor rely on vCenter, which isn't free. Uh oh?

Posted by Paul Braren on Sep 25 2013 (updated on Mar 11 2016) in
  • ESXi
  • HomeLab
  • I tend to stick with technical articles and how to guides. But there's something else I've been worrying about for months now. How will VMware be handling the move toward vSphere 5.5 and eventually 6.0, where the vSphere Client will be entirely gone, completely replaced by the vSphere Web Client. That means you will have to have a vCSA (vCenter Server Appliance) to attach to, making vCSA is no longer just optional. This vCSA is largely pre-configured, a great match for the home lab, and finally a decent performer (on SSD). But it needs a license to go longer than 60 days. So, where's this leave the free hypervisor user, who abides by EULAs and license restrictions, legitimately avoiding the time bombs?

    We can already see the inevitable progression toward Windows 32 bit client oblivion in the current 5.5 release. You only need the client to get the vCSA quickly deployed. After that, all the good stuff is only gotten from the vSphere Web Client. This is a rude awaking for many who may not have tried ESXi before. Examples of this good stuff include VMs with greater than 2TB drives, mapping USB 3.0 ports to VMs, better GPU handling, and vSphere Flash Read Cache. These compelling features are locked to hardware version 10 VMs, which cannot be managed from the vSphere Client, and cannot be run on ESXi 5.1. Hmm. See the issue?

    A VMware Community post went up a few hours ago, that really highlights the frustration and uncertainty at play here:

    Esxi 5.1 pci passthrough broken jgkurzSep 24 2013 7:03 PM

    The good news: I upgraded to 5.5 and now my USB 3.0 adapter works. I connected it to my Win7 x64 VM and so far it's functioning as expected. My adapter is a NEC based chipset marketed as the StarTech 2 Port PCI Express SuperSpeed USB 3.0 Card Adapter Model PEXUSB3S2

    The bad news: I am a home user and have uncovered an unfortunate issue with the free version of ESXi 5.5. vSphere client no longer supports editing VM settings of a version 10 machine. You must use vSphere Web Client which requires vCenter. I downloaded a trial copy of vCenter Appliance and vSphere Enterprise Plus so that I could make the required pass-thru edit from vSphere Web Client.

    I'm not sure how I'm going to administrate my host after my eval licenses expire.. : (

    Good question, isn't it?

    Many of us have legitimate access to 365 day corporate use trials, or full blown vSphere license keys, but I realize most folks don't. Despite Signs of Life for the VMware VMTN Subscription Movement (Chris Wahl, Aug 29 2013), right now, we have no VMTN. And vSphere 5.5 has arrived. With Microsoft recently pulling back on TechNet, it'll also be interesting to see how VMware reacts, given a good numbers of consultant types that can't afford MSDN may wind up losing their easy access to Hyper-V.


    Licensing of vSphere has never been simple, and 5.5 is no exception. See the 402 hits for "licensing" in the vCenter online manual here, and pictured at right.

    This sort of thing really is a deterrent for folks that otherwise might be interested in ESXi, like literally everybody I met at the MSDN/TechNet heavy home server enthusiast crowd I spent the past weekend with.

    This article is just meant to start to openly discuss the elephant in the room, posing the tough questions weighing on many IT Pro's minds these past 2 days of "playing" with the generally available vSphere 5.5 (ESXi + vCenter).

    1) How are you handling the vCenter requirement?

    2) Does it matter that vSphere 5.5 Datacenter can be rebuilt in under an hour, preserving all your VMs, side-stepping those 60 day time bombs, even though the only thing spent in this scenario is your valuable time? (up to you to follow your EULAs)

    VMware vCenter Server Editions pricing

    I honestly don't have answers, or any insight about where things are headed for the already entirely unsupported home virtualization crew. But I do know that I'm very curious to hear what you all think, my valued TinkerTry visitors. Don't worry, I don't give out homework often!

    Closely related threads:

    Sep 26 2013 Update

    In my original post above, I didn't call out, why VMware? We each have our own answers to that one. For me personally, it's simple really. ESXi is at a vast majority of my customer's sites, and as far as I know, it's the only bare metal hypervisor that lets me test all the other big names in hypervisors. Testing by nesting, on just one Core i7 system I affectionately call vZilla. Invaluable for self training purposes, and very relevant to my career in IT. See also:

    Which hypervisor for your home lab, VMware ESXi, Microsoft Hyper-V, Linux KVM, or Citrix XenServer? by Paul Braren on Mon Sep 02 2013.

    VMware ESXi 5.1 can run Microsoft Hyper-V Server 2012 VMs, nice! by Paul Braren on Mon Sep 24 2012, You heard all about guestOS = "winhyperv" here first!

    Sep 27 2013 Update

    Back on Sep 25, Josh R noted VMware Workstation 10 based workarounds in the comments below, see also ESXi 5.5 Free Hypervisor: Will Home Labs Survive? published Sep 26 2013, where VINTAGEDON summarizes:

    You can read more concerning this in VMWare’s support article, Connecting to a remote ESX / ESXi / vCenter Server from VMware Workstation

    As it stands, unless something changes, what you end up with is a free product that can only be managed by a paid, licensed product. At least this is how it stands at the moment.

    Oct 01 2013 Update

    Very relevant, spot on post by Vladan yesterday, you'll want to read the whole article,
    Realtek 8169 NIC in ESXi 5.5 not detected by default – install a VIB by Vladan Seget on Sep 30 2013, where he says:

    VMware did strip down many drivers from the ESXi 5.5 ISO, and additionally, they do not provide the Offline bundle for ESXi 5.5 free version.

    VMware provides full list of hardware which is “deprecated” in the ESXi 5.5. Here is VMware KB listing all unsupported NICs – Devices deprecated and unsupported in ESXi 5.5.

    Hopefully this post help someone who was in the same situation. Good option is to go for Intel based NICs which in most cases are supported. The best option is to check the VMware HCL before buying a NIC, still.

    Dec 07 2013 Update

    Good news and bad news.

    The good news is, in under 2 hours, I got my ESXi 5.5 lab rebuilt, as a sort of exercise, to be sure my instructions are still accurate. It included me injecting Realtek NIC support into the ISO, using the Andreas Peetz ESXi-Customizer, which I explained in my very popular post here. I then went on to fix ASMedia drivers for full access to all SATA3 ports on my mobo, also care of Andreas. Finally, I got the health of my LSI-9265-8i seen again, by injecting a VIB. None of this was that hard, but I will write all that up separately, especially for the folks out there who invested in a vZilla-like build. I've already recorded a long video of all of this, but it'll take days of edits to get it all into a consumable, sensible form to publish.

    The bad news is this somewhat worrisome post, by the same Andreas Peetz:

    The Good and the Bad of the new Native Driver Architecture in ESXi 5.5 Oct 30 2013

    I recently became aware of that with vSphere 5.5 VMware introduced a new Native Driver Architecture for ESXi. William Lam has written an excellent blog post describing the motivation behind and the benefits of this new architecture. I will shortly summarize it here, but also add some concerns about the way it is introduced, because - in the future - it might severely limit the ability to run ESXi on white box and commodity hardware.

    Dec 17 2013 Update

    I'm happy to announce my handy new post that'll help you inject those driver VIBs right up front, for a nice clean install experience.

    Use ESXi-Customer GUI to inject multiple driver VIBs into your ESXi installer ISO Dec 16 2013

    Mar 07 2015 Update

    Newly announced EVALExperience might make things much better for the home lab soon, see more about a possible way to license for 1 year at a time, for $200, described here at TinkerTry:

    VMTN reincarnated! EVALExperience is to VMware Professionals what MSDN/TechNet is to Microsoft Professionals. Jan 15 2015

    Also, the C# vSphere Client isn't gone in the vSphere 6.0 betas I've been using. It's actually become more capable (before it eventually gets eliminated?), with a key feature added back in 5.5:

    Using vSphere 5.5U2 Client to edit the settings of virtual machines of version 10 or higher

    Mar 11 2016 Update

    The ESXi Host Client seems to be the HTML future of the vSphere product line:

    but we still have that awkward issue of getting vCSA installed in the first place. Then again, perhaps marrying the two together might be an indication of more to come: