Free is an interesting term to use when we talk about virtualization platforms, especially the industry leading VMware ESXi. As hypervisors have become standard fare in the data center we are starting to see more questions come up about the costs. Microsoft made a decision to take the hypervisor out of the cost equation by providing Hyper-V as a free product which suddenly got the eyes of many CIOs onto the product. So, why isn’t everyone running Hyper-V? In addition, the free version of ESXi has always been around, but is not well known.
When it comes to hypervisors, VMware and Microsoft are often regarded as the big players in the “enterprise” virtualization space. That being said, there are many open source alternatives creeping into the enterprise market place such as KVM and Xen. It isn’t that KVM and Xen are new to the game, but they are relatively new to many organizations.
Why isn’t VMware vSphere Free?
One word: Starbucks. You can get a coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts for 50-60% of the price of a Starbucks coffee, or make it at home with your Keureig. I myself am guilty of this, and have been known to drink Americanos. When you ask Starbucks executives why they charge more for their product, there are two answers: “higher quality product” and “because people are willing to pay it”.
VMware holds this same view because they offer support on their hypervisor platform as a standalone product depending on the licensing level you choose. Even with a free ESXi hypervisor, you may still need support at some point. At this point, you may be better off with a version of VMware vSphere.
Now, let’s talk more about the use case for the free ESXi version.
All About ESXi Free
The free ESXi version of course is available to run in any IT environment if you want to leverage VMware’s virtualization technologies. Using the free VMware hypervisor provides the ability to run multiple guest virtual machines on a single physical host. You can actually run any number of physical hosts, each with a copy of the free ESXi VMware hypervisor and a new set of virtual guests. The challenge here is that you have introduced numerous single points of failure (SPOF) into your environment.
In the event of a physical host failure, all of the guests on that host will become unavailable. Load balancing will not be available. A single global view of your environment is not possible because you must view and manage the inventory at the host level one host at a time. This means that you will need to deploy vCenter to have an enterprise wide view of your virtualized data center, which costs money. You will want to add some redundancy and load management capability, which means upgrading to the paid hypervisor, or the VMware vSphere suite to be able to leverage VMware vCenter’s HA and DRS functionality.
Who Uses ESXi Free?
Since the free ESXi is installed and administered just like any other ESXi host, it really can be used by anyone for anything. The important thing to remember here is VMware support is not free, so the free version of ESXi is a good idea to use for any production workloads.
However, if you have some random server hardware at work or home and want to build a lab, the ESXi free edition is a great candidate to allow you to run some virtual machines.
Of course, we know VMware is not the only game in town when it comes to free hypervisors. Let’s take a look at some other candidates.
Hyper-V and Management Tools
Microsoft has a similar offering to VMware. You can deploy Windows Server 2012 R2 Data Center edition and run as many guests as you can squeeze into your physical host. What happens when you want to manage those guests though? Adding advanced features for management and orchestration have a tangible and intangible cost also.
In order to fully leverage all of the features of Hyper-V you will quickly find that the System Center suite of tools which has a capital and operational cost to it. Again, the focus is on building redundancy, protection, and performance into your data center. This comes at a very real cost.
Open Source is Not Free
KVM is the second most contributed to open source project on GitHub today behind OpenStack. KVM is entirely free to deploy, requires some sort of additional management package to gain the features many enterprises have grown accustomed to. We are being told that applications are supposed to not care about where they run which is a valid argument. Many organizations aren’t ready yet for that type of scale-out application architecture which has held back the adoption of KVM and Xen as hypervisor platforms in many cases.
In addition, many Wintel shops aren’t comfortable with running Linux as their core platform. This isn’t a slight against it as a platform, but these organizations are heavily invested and very comfortable with the Microsoft Windows platform as a guest platform, and don’t plan on changing anytime soon. Often times, when an organization introduces a second hypervisor in addition to VMware, the majority of the guest environment determines what it is. Linux? KVM. Windows? Hyper-V.
Tangible and Intangible Costs
There are real tangible costs to taking on free hypervisors including staffing or support contracts with external organizations. There is no reduction in hardware, so that cost is maintained in any case. Building out a redundant, always-on server platform requires tools that cost money both up front and on an ongoing basis for support and maintenance of the licenses.
Can you use more “free” tools for management? Yes. These tools are as free as the hypervisors though, so you have to be careful. This introduces some intangible costs also because of the ability for your current staff to be comfortable in their platform. Enterprise virtualization providers have a vested interest in maintaining a paying customer base with the offering of high-touch service in exchange. This will continue to be a value to many businesses who are already invested in the platform, and also new customers who are wanting to leverage that knowledge and support.
Know When Free is Free
When you evaluate a “free” option, be sure that you see the whole picture. Sometimes free isn’t really free, unless you are using the software for non-production workloads.
When we use the example of free ESXi, test labs can be a great place to take advantage of this offering, but always make sure that production level support is not required before using a free hypervisor.
Melissa is an Independent Technology Analyst & Content Creator, focused on IT infrastructure and information security. She is a VMware Certified Design Expert (VCDX-236) and has spent her career focused on the full IT infrastructure stack.