ESXi vs. VMware Server

Wil van Antwerpen of PlanetVM posted yesterday about the future of VMware Server, specifically its rumored demise. That isn’t surprising at all, at least to me.

I know a lot of people will miss VMware Server when it’s gone, but in my experience that’s mainly because they were using it as a free copy of Workstation. They aren’t using the web interfaces. They aren’t scripting anything. They aren’t buying support. What I’ve seen people do is buy a $4000 workstation-class PC, install VMware Server on Microsoft Windows, and use Remote Desktop to manage it. Lame? Yeah, I know.

The thing is, for what they’re doing with it they’d be better served with a copy of VMware Workstation, or a copy of free ESXi. Workstation is $189, and has a lot of the features that VMware Server does, if not more. It has headless operation, remote VNC consoles, better snapshot options including automatic snapshots (AutoProtect),  etc. And if they are serious about virtualization, they should just be skipping directly to ESXi. It might be slightly more painful up front[0], and you might actually have to care a little more about the hardware you’re using, but it has a direct upgrade path to bigger and better things. VMware Server has no direct upgrade path to anything. ESXi performs better than the Type 2 hypervisors, so for the $500 extra you’ll spend on a machine with a HCL-compatible RAID setup you break even with the ability to virtualize more applications on the same hardware. Using ESXi is also good experience, as everything you learn about setting it up is directly applicable to the enterprise products as well. If I were an IT manager I’d want my staff learning to use the real thing, and not have to retrain or go through a lot of work to convert to the real thing later.

To me, using free ESXi instead of Server seems like a slam-dunk.


[0] Though not when you consider the pain people have been enduring getting Server to run on recent updates of host OSes, for instance.

7 thoughts on “ESXi vs. VMware Server”

  1. And you can always use the light weighted version of VMware Workstation for free… VMware Player. I’ve been using it on my laptop instead of VMware Workstation for months now and never missed Workstation a second.

  2. I had a client that had VMware server running on 2003, and it was slow and unreliable, as well as the web interface going down every now and then. Moved them to ESXi, and we’ve had no problems since (aside getting the ghettovcb script working properly).

  3. Agreed. Anyone who’s using VMware server over ESXi just hasn’t tried ESXi. The increase in performance and reliability has been amazing to me.

  4. I can see a reason for using Server, as you need a dedicated machine for ESXi, and it needs to be reasonable (although I’ve got a Proliant ML115 (Quad core 2.1, 4GB ECC DDR2) at home with cost £200. No RAID though :/

  5. It’s really easy to migrate a physical server onto ESXi using Raw Disk Mappings if you know what you’re doing. You first have to inject the VMware drivers into your physical image (I don’t have the article number handy, but it’s floating around VMware’s KB). You then install ESXi onto another disk (even a cheap USB thumb drive will do), configure a new VM image using the RDM for your physical disk, fire it up and go. The only thing needing manual configuration afterwards is probably your network settings, since your physical NIC has been replaced by a vNIC and Windows won’t move your IP over automatically.

    The most reliable way, assuming you have compatible drives, would probably be to run ESXi on another machine, run VMware Converter to suck the box into a proper VMDK, and then transplant the disks back into the old physical server.

    I’ve never been happy with the disk I/O supplied by VMware Server. You’re almost universally going to be happier with ESXi, as long as you have a decent way to back it up.

  6. Here’s a use case that nothing but Server seems to handle: for testing, I want multiple, independent networks of machines (only a few of which are running at a given time, but the combination changes), and I need the machines to be shared by multiple users simultaneously.

    Workstation does not allow two users to connect to a console at once – and I believe you even have to shut the machine down to transfer ownership – and doesn’t allow the console to be run from a remote machine.

    ESXi, because it doesn’t have a host OS, doesn’t let you set up the necessary NAT, routing and so on between virtual networks.

    A workaround to this is to have a small router VM in each network, which is what VMLogix do with Lab Manager, but it’s nowhere near as neat as being able to do all the networking on one machine. If a guest machine could have unlimited virtual NICs, that’d probably solve it, but there’s a limit of either 4 or 10 NICs per VM, depending on what you read :-).

    We have a Linux VMWare Server host which theoretically fulfils all our needs perfectly, apart from the “web interface doesn’t crash all the time” bit. Grrr.

    • You are an idiot… Host-Only networking is easy. Create a new vSwitch without any network adaptors… ::blam:: instant private network that VMs can communicate on. Need multiple Host-Only networks? Create another vSwitch. Sounds like ESXi is still the clear winner.

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