When it comes to VMware vSphere as a whole, VMware ESXi, or the VMware vSphere Hypervisor is a critical component. Often people ask me “Is ESXi free?” The answer may surprise you, because it is “Yes!” Let’s take a closer look at the requirements and features of the free version of ESXi, and some use cases for it.
VMware ESXi Free Requirements
If you want to install the free version of VMware ESXi, you will need a server that meets the same requirements of any paid version of ESXi.
As of ESXi 6.7, your physical server will need at least a single socket processor with at least two cores, at least 4 GB of RAM, storage, and network connectivity. This would be a pretty bare bones installation, but it would get ESXi up and running for you.
ESXi is Free, But You Still Need a License!
After you have ESXi installed, you will still need a licence, even though it is free!
Remember, when you install ESXi, by default the evaluation license is active. The evaluation licence gives you access to all ESXi features, but after 60 days will stop working.
This means after 60 days you will start seeing all sorts of problems in your environment had you not applied a licence. To get a license, you will need to visit the VMware vSphere Hypervisor download center, create an account and request your free ESXi license.
You can see how to apply a vSphere license here. Once you apply your free ESXi licence, you will notice there are some differences between ESXi free and the evaluation version of ESXi, which is equal to vSphere Enterprise Plus.
ESXi Free Limitations
While there are no limit to the underlaying infrastructure your are licensing for ESXi free (your host can have as many CPUs and cores as you can find), you are limited to a logical number of CPUs on your ESXi host, which is 480. You are also limited to a maximum of 8 vCPUs per virtual machine.
This is not such a big deal, and will suit many purposes. There are a couple of other major limitations when it comes to ESXi free, however.
First of all, there is no support. If you were to run ESXi free in production and had an issue, you would need to purchase per incident support from VMware, which could get expensive.
Secondly, you cannot manage an ESXi free host with VMware vCenter Server. Besides VMware vSphere Hypervisor, VMware vCenter Server is the main management component for VMware vSphere, and adds many features such as clustering (and HA and DRS) and vMotion.
This may be a show stopper for many, which means you will need to use VMware vSphere. VMware vSphere Essentials is the entry level of VMware vSphere, and a great choice for many organizations. It comes with a vCenter Server licence, and six vSphere ESXi CPU licensees for up to 3 ESXi hosts.
VMware ESXi Free Use Cases
So if you can’t use vCenter server, what are some use cases for VMware ESXi free? Great question, so here are a couple of examples.
Because of some of the limitations of the free version of VMware’s hypervisor, you can get away with things that you normally would not do in a production vSphere environment.
For example, I can use a physical server with a couple of really big hard drives to store my virtual machines, and get away with a single 1 gig NIC card, neither of which would normally be advisable in a production ESXi environment!
This means that any old server that is on the VMware Compatibility Guide would be a good candidate for installing ESXi free on.
ESXi Use Case 1: The Home Lab
Earlier I mentioned that a vSphere evaluation licenses lasts 60 days, which is enough time to play around with the VMware vSphere features. After 60 days you will either need to install a valid vSphere ESXi license, or start over.
One strategy to limit the impact of this in a home lab would to have one host running ESXi free, and run a second vSphere environment with a couple of ESXi hosts and vCenter nested on the free ESXi host.
While you would still have to worry about the 60 day evaluation issue the nested ESXi environment, anything supporting it like AD or DNS could be a virtual machine on the free ESX host.
You could automate your nested ESXi build process yourself, or simply use William Lam’s vGhetto Automated Lab build.
ESXi Free Use Case 2: Getting Started with VMware
If everything I just said seems scary or intimidating, and you are just getting started with VMware, ESXi free is a great place to start.
Using ESXi free will allow you to really understand how the VMware vSphere Hypervisor works before moving on to advanced topics like vSphere clusters.
VMware ESXi free does include VMware vCenter Converter, which allows you to turn a physical machine into a virtual one. This is great for those getting started with VMware to get a good understanding of what the conversation process is like, and to get used to working with virtual machines with a minimal uplift.
Is VMware ESXi Free?
As you can see, the answer to this commonly asked question is yes, with a few caveats. The biggest drawbacks of free ESXi are the lack of vCenter management and the lack of support. While this would not work in many production environments, VMware ESXi free is a great product if you are getting started with VMware at work or at home.