VMware ESXi Free vs Paid: A Look at License Limitations
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VMware ESXi Free vs Paid: A Look at License Limitations

VMware's ESXi is the world's leading virtualization hypervisor. IT professionals regard ESXi as the go-to hypervisor for running virtual machines — and it's available for free. VMware offers various paid versions of ESXi, but also provides a free version available for anyone to use.

Let's cover the limitations of the free version, what you can use free ESXi for and how you can download and license it. The free version is great for home or light usage but doesn't offer official support or load balancing, for example. But you do get access to a community of users for support and it never expires. You'll also get to test drive products and run disaster recovery, a smart idea no matter the scale of your operation.

What is VMware ESXi?

ESXi is a world-leading bare-metal hypervisor created and provided by VMware. A hypervisor is an operating system that lets you run many servers, known as virtual machines, on one physical server. We use the term bare-metal because ESXi is installed directly onto physical hardware, rather than an application on top of an existing operating system.

VMware ESXi is one component of many in the VMware vSphere suite, which contains other software such as vCenter Server for managing multiple ESXi servers. VMware ESXi is also known as the vSphere Hypervisor, highlighting the fact that it's part of the vSphere suite of products.

Free ESXi vs. Paid ESXi: A Detailed Comparison

VMware ESXi has two versions: free and paid. What's really interesting about ESXi is that the free and paid versions use the same installation media. That means with the free version you are getting the enterprise solution, with certain features locked out.

Here's a comparison of the features you get with free and paid:

Free vSphere HypervisorPaid vSphere Hypervisor
ExpirationNo time limits on free versionNot applicable
Evaluation time60-day trial of Enterprise Plus featuresNot applicable
Community SupportVMTN ForumsVMTN Forums
Maximum physical CPUs2768 (logical)
Maximum physical memory16TB16TB
Maximum vCPUs per VM8 vCPUs256 vCPUs
Maximum vRAM per VM6TB6TB
Official SupportNoVarious SLAs available
Central Management (vCenter)NoSupported
High Availability (HA)NoSupported
Storage/Backup API usage (VADP)NoYes
Live migration of VMs (vMotion)NoSupported
Load balancing of VMs (DRS)NoSupported

What the Free ESXi Version Doesn't Offer

Looking at the chart above, there are two key features missing that limit its use in a production environment: support and central management.

Support. Support is the biggest difference between the free and paid versions. What's not shown on this chart are the levels of support. VMware provides various tiers of service-level agreements from the budget-conscious to the luxurious.

Central Management. The free version of ESXi is perfect for development and testing of small sets of applications for development purposes. However, it doesn't allow central management. Within the paid version that service is called vCenter Server — it makes day-to-day administration, monitoring, and patching easier.

What's Great About the Free Version of ESXi?

Due to the limitations of the free version from a support and management perspective, it is not recommended for use in production environments. But there are some good uses for the free ESXi including testing, disaster recovery, and personal development.

Test Driving VMware Products

The free VMware ESXi is perfect for testing VMware products such as vSAN, NSX, and vRealize Suite. They have an ESXi Evaluation license for this very reason. In fact, if you have the right hardware, you can install ESXi on top of ESXi as a virtual machine to test different versions of ESXi in your lab environment before using them in production.

Professional Development with VMware

Another great use case of the free version is for professional development and training. Use the free version to learn the install and configuration procedure of ESXi, and also to run your own virtual machines. You might want to try out the latest version of Windows Server or Windows – and you can do all of this for free with ESXi.

Running Disaster Recovery on Free ESXi Hosts

Finally, you can run your disaster recovery virtual machines from free ESXi hosts. Remember that the free tier has no support or central management, though. If you are running a small business on a tight budget, some backup is better than no safety net at all.

When to Upgrade to the Paid Version

The free ESXi is great for a number of things. However, if you use it a lot, you'll likely feel its limitations at some point. When that happens, you'll need to invest in licensing your ESXi servers. Here are the top reasons for licensing your ESXi versions.

When the Number of VMs Get Out of Hand

If you need a central management view of all your ESXi servers, then you will want to purchase a license for your ESXi hosts and for vCenter Server. You can purchase a bundle that includes all the necessary licenses.

When You Want High Availability

If you need to backup your virtual machines without installing agents on the VMs, then you will need a paid version of ESXi. Any edition will do but without this, the APIs required for hypervisor level backups will not work.

When your number of ESXi hosts grows you might want to introduce some form of failover for your virtual machines, should one of the ESXi hosts fail. Upon upgrading your ESXi license and purchasing a vCenter Server license you will be entitled to vSphere High Availability. vSphere High Availability, or HA, works by rebooting your virtual machines on other ESXi hosts within a cluster should one of your ESXi hosts fail. Be aware that other technical requirements exist such as shared storage for this to work.

When Patching Becomes a Pain

An increasing number of ESXi hosts also means patch management becomes problematic. With vCenter server and paid ESXi licenses, you can patch your hosts from a central user interface without any manual intervention. VMware calls this technology Update Manager and it's included in your vCenter Server license.

If you are looking to upgrade to the paid version, you will likely also need a vCenter Server license. To simplify this process, VMware offer bundles, or kits, details of which can be found here.

How to Download and License the Free Version of ESXi

Before you install VMware's ESXi, be sure to check their documentation and hardware compatibility guide to ensure everything will work. You can find everything you need on the official VMware page here.

Downloading the free ESXi software and license is easy.

  • Navigate to https://www.vmware.com/products/vsphere-hypervisor.html and select Download Now. You might need to create a free account to continue.
  • Register for the download when prompted.
  • After registration you will be redirected to the license and download page:

  • Make a note of your license key (This is for the free version)
  • Select Manually Download to begin the download process

When you install ESXi, it will load into a free trial of the Enterprise Plus version. After the trial period ends, it will revert to the free version. Features such as the VADP storage and backup API will stop working, as well as the ability to manage the host from the vCenter server. At this point, the ESXi host will be running the free version of ESXi. Ensure your license key is correctly assigned at this point.

Final Thoughts

The free version of ESXi uses the same installation media as the paid version, which is used by the largest enterprises in the world. So, it's a reliable platform for a variety of use cases. Due to the lack of official support, it is not advised to run the free version in a production environment. However, do consider it for home use or testing and make use of the official VMTN forums for community assistance with setup and issues.

Happy hypervising!

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