ESXi 5.5 Free Hypervisor: Will Home Labs Survive?

cloud-iconESXi 5.5 is finally here, and brings with it a lot of good, new features. Especially interesting, is that early tests seem to indicate that the USB passthrough issues that people were seeing on 5.1 have somewhat resolved themselves (although there are reports that USB 3.0 is working, but not USB 2.0). In addition, however, an interesting tangle for those of us with home labs relying on the free hypervisor has cropped up.

VMWare is moving is to get rid of the traditional vSphere Client that we know, and use only the platform-agnostic vSphere Web Client. The problem here is that the vSphere Web Client requires the use of a vCenter Server Applicance, which is a licensed, paid for product. It does, like ESXi, come with a 60 day evaluation period (and there is also the 365 day corporate trails), but after this, it needs a license to continue working, and when it goes, so does your control of the hypervisor.

ESXi 5.5: vSphere Client Error, Cannot Use

Trying to edit a VM via the vSphere client on a ESXi 5.5 Hypervisor with a free license gets you this error: You cannot use the vSphere Client to edit the settings of virtual machines of version 10 or higher.

You cannot use the vSphere Client to edit the settings of virtual machines   of version 10 or higher.

You cannot use the vSphere Client to edit the settings of virtual machines of version 10 or higher.

Managing ESXi 5.5 with VMWare Workstation 10

An alternative is to use VWare Workstation to connect to the ESXi host and edit the settings of the virtual machine from there. However, this method is fairly restrictive, and provides little access to configurations that you would need for a home lab, networking configuration, iSCSI, or anything else. In addition, vApps are inaccessable.

Managing an ESXi 5.5 Host w/VMWare Workstation 10

Connected to an ESXi 5.5 Host w/VMWare Workstation 10

Managing an ESXi 5.5 Host w/VMWare Workstation 10

Editing the Settings of an ESXi 5.5 Host w/VMWare Workstation 10

Managing an ESXi 5.5 Host w/VMWare Workstation 10

View of VM Details on an ESXi 5.5 Host w/VMWare Workstation 10

Managing an ESXi 5.5 Host w/VMWare Workstation 10

Editing the Settings of an ESXi 5.5 VM w/VMWare Workstation 10

Using VMWare Workstation, you can do the following when connected to an ESXi host:

  • Create new Datacenters on a vCenter Server
  • Check the power status of virtual machines
  • Power on and off existing virtual machines
  • Create new virtual machines
  • Modify virtual machine settings (hard disk, CD-ROM, etc)
  • Upload virtual machines to the server using the OVF tool

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.

How do you intend to deal with this if licensing stays the same? Leave your comments below!

Update 9/27/2013: Paul Braren also has a great article on this over at entitled Best parts of VMware’s ESXi 5.5 free hypervisor rely on vCenter, which isn’t free. Uh oh?

Update 11/12/2013: After needing to update my vSphere client to access some ESXi 5.5 nodes at work, the client now comes up with the following explanation.  If taken as read, this seems to indicate that only the new ESXi 5.5 features will be blocked, not the entire VM.  I’ve written my VMWare account manager for some clarification on this, but one of the workarounds is to change the version number of the VM in the VM’s config file.  This has been reported to work with no apparent side effects immediately noticeable.

vSphere Client, ESXi 5.5 Update

vSphere Client, ESXi 5.5 Update

  • mrjaytee

    Have you tried using the iommu features with vsphere5.5? I plan on setting one vsphere 5.5 server up for a lab server but also want to use a chunk of it for HTPC with dedicated hardware. thanks for great site

    • No, I have not personally done it, but there are a number of reports on the VMWare forum thread about HTPCs that USB 3.0 is working (although 2.0 seems to be a random pot-shot) and that video card passthrough is working fine and surviving through a reboot. Just keep in mind the manageability issues that I spoke about above, although I hope this changes.

      • Chris Germano

        Just setup ESXI 5.5 with VT-D enabled and a Radeon 6450 + USB controller passed through to Windows 7 64bit. Using it with Windows Media Center for a HTPC (HD Home Run Prime CableCard). After installing vmware tools and catalyst drivers the HDMI out on the host is enabled and it fells like a real desktop!

        However my final problem remains that whenever I tried to go to live tv / play a protected recorded it gives the error “Display driver error – The video playback device does not support playback of protected content”. I think it’s having issues when it checks for HDCP compatibility and perhaps it’s the vmware virtual SVGA card that throws off WMC.

        Tried the “CyberLink BD HD advisor tool” which comes back failed for HDCP because it picks up the vmware SVGA card and not my ATI. I’ve tried disabling the SVGA card in windows device manager but this stops the radeon from working on next boot for output.

        Any ideas? Have you ever tried to playback a source that requires HDCP like a blu ray?

        • Your line of thought sounds right here, although I will admit I have never tried to play protected content through one of my VMs, whether it be live TV or otherwise. If you find anything out on this, I’d love to hear an update.

        • Philippe Olivier

          Hi Chris, Which USB Card did you use? Brand/type if possible. I have to buy one because my onboard H77 USB controllers won’t passthrough. I use an Asrock H77 Pro4-MVP motherboard with i5-3570 CPU. Btw Don, great site!

          • Chris Germano

            I used the onboard usb3 controller (GA-X58A-UD3R mobo).

          • Philippe Olivier

            So weird, with ESXi 5.0 update 3 all controllers pass through and I can connect an iPhone, USB Sound Card (M-Audio Fast Track Pro) and several USB sticks. Under 5.5, not a chance. I was able to pass through my onboard sound card (5.0U3) but I get stuttering playback. Passing through from the Ati HD5770 didn’t work either. Maybe it’s better to create a topic in the forums…

        • jeffshead

          I apologize for raising a very old thread but there are very few people who have enabled VT-D support on the GA-X58A-UD3R. Chris, I have this board and was wondering if VT-D actually works on this board and if you encountered any issues with pass through. Is FH1 the only BIOS version that gives the option to enable VT-D support? Is this version of the BIOS stable?

          • Chris Germano

            I’ve been using this for years 🙂 yes it’s been stable. 24/7. I think that’s the only version I found that would enable it. I’m actually planning to build a new server right now to replace this one.

          • jeffshead

            Awesome! Thanks so much for responding. I currently use this PC as my main workstation and was hesitant to turn it into an ESXi server, but based on your experience, I’ll give it a shot. Wish I could purchase better parts but money’s tight so I have to work with what I have. Good luck with the new build and thanks again!

  • JDR Hosting

    Alright, so no upgrading for us now. Will stay with 5.1 for a while.

  • deputy

    I have edited my VMX file, changed the hardware version to version 8. removed the vm from my inventory, added it again (by browsing to the vmx through the datastore browser) and I can edit it again. Probably not the official way, but it works!

    • A very cool and interesting run around. Can you give us an update and let us know if you run into any issues with this? Official or not, it works, and this would be a great work-around.

      • deputy

        I have been running the machine fornsome days now, without issues. The guest is a Windows Server 2012. It didn’t even complain about a change in hardware and editing works perfectly well again.

  • Hi, while researching some information about a vSphere Home Lab I found your website and I am very happy that I found it 😉 I’ve got one question regarding the free hypervisor. In my home lab I have now 5 servers. Do you know if I am able to manage all the servers via vCenter Server if I buy the vSphere Essentials edition or is there the restriction to manage only the 3 vSphere nodes, which are included? Thank you and greetings from Germany! 🙂

    • Essentials covers 3 nodes, with however many VMs you have on those nodes. Unfortunately, the licensing on vSphere Essentials caps you at those 3 servers. Look at this link under the “Compare vSphere Essentials Kits”

      • Thank you very much for your answer! One further question: at the moment I use the vCenter Server Appliance as a VM. Now I want use the Windows version on one of my physical servers. Is there any possibility to migrate all the settings? Thanks!

  • Daniel: sorry for the late reply, I was on vacation this last week and then work was smashed when I got back. Thank you for the information on the forum: I’m setting up a stand-alone SMF forum right now, and will have it rolled out by the end of the week and that will fix that.

    Sure, I can expand, and have been working on a post on my physicalization stuff. Got roped into a couple of UI design projects at work, and that’s been eating up my time (Kickstrap and Bootstrap are great, though), so I just haven’t been able to write much.

  • Also, I probably wasn’t clear, but although my son and wife use the same brand/model card, it’s two different cards.

  • carl

    i’ll stay below 5.5 then…
    thats a pretty clear restriction to move to a purchase

  • marcusmarcus2

    I plan on updating my ESXi host from 5.0 to 5.5 in the next week or 2.I have been having trouble passing through the video card and getting it working correctly. I was able to get it passed through and get video but it is not running at full speed. I can use it to browse the Internet but cannot play any videos or games. If I try and install the fuull catalyst package the VM stops and wont boot back up. If I just install the drivers only from the catalyst package. It shows that it is using the driver but I am not getting it to to work beyond basic video out. Not sure if having the vmware tools may installed as well may be causing an issue. I’ll try and not install that next try and if that does not work I’ll upgrade to 5.5.
    I did some testing and you can manage 5.5 ESXi with the vSpchere client as long as you don’t update the virtual machine version. When you create a virtual machine with the vSphere client it creates a hardware version 8 VM. You can manage that just fine. Seeing as I am on hardware version 8 anyway with ESXi 5.0, I mine as well upgrade the host and continue using hardware version 8 and continue managing through the client.
    If anyone has a how to on how to get video passthrough to work, I would love to get a link or help with it. I’m using a RadeonHD 6570.

  • mbreevoort

    marcusmarcus2 maybe my comment of 30 september will help:

    Or mij remark in this sheet : “Used tightvnc (not console) to install ati catalyst drivers 13.4 (Custom install only the first 2 or 3 check boxes, not installed control center, video playback, AMD drag and drop).”

  • Glenn Snead

    Does anyone things this is the shape of things to come as it is with M$’s SBS platform — Higher costs pushing lower end (and lower margin) customers out in favor of cloud based services? If so I may turn away from ESXi in favor of something like OpenStack/KVM. Heck some of my customers are already moving towards this configuration for Big Data projects.


    • robc1972

      As a jack of all trades network admin for a Mid Sized business I have to agree with you here. Lately vendors like MS and Vwmware are making it very difficult for the SMB to Mid Level businesses to host their own services. Given that recent financial regulations basically exclude Cloud services due to security concerns makes this trend somewhat disturbing. I am not a big fan of cloud services and prefer the private cloud concept. Its under your control and can be secured easy enough.

  • argg

    i tried 5.5 clean install with asrock 970 extreme3 build and initially it loads ok, but the next reboot esxi gets stuck on Loading AMDiommu, if i disable NB IOMMU in bios esxi just gets stuck on loading iomd.

    I gave up quickly and now trying with 5.1 :/

    • Odd; I run ESXi 5.5 on that board with an FX-8350 with no issues. Feel free to start a thread over in our forums for any additional help. Be aware that with 5.1 much of ESXi’s passthrough functionality is broken. 5.0 Update 1 (which is the first version allowing 2012 VMs) may be a better choice for you.

      • argg

        *EDIT* could it be that i lose signal when graphic card is “detached” from esxi to allow pass-through ? xD in 5.1 i see that the screen is stuck but i can use esxi it remotely, i’ll go back to 5.5 and check it again.
        Anyway i’ll go to the forums when i do further tests and fails. thanks for your reply

        • Actually, that’s exactly it. I mention it in one of my posts, but they are pretty long, and even I’d miss some stuff 😀 This is why I have a cheap, PCI VGA video card (can get them for $7 off eBay) to serve as the local monitor. If you have the video card passed to a VM, once AMDiommu loads, it grabs the video card and assigns it, and whatever screen is there is officially stuck with that image. ESXi, however, continues to boot and do it’s thing. So you’ll either need to administer it headless or get a video card.

          • argg

            LOL I bought a Matrox G200 2xAGP!! just to try the pass-through as I learned the hard way that Nvidia crashes with BSO*F*D, that geforce 7600 gt returns to dust colletion task again. Back to 5.5 jerking xD

      • Chris S

        Don – excellent site! I’ve been prepping to build a multi-purpose home ESXi system for a while now and all my searches keep leading me back here. Thanks for having so many answers in one place. Anyway – seems like 5.0 is still the way to go… VMware site has update 3 available. Is update 1 still the preferred option or is update 3 a safe bet nowadays? Thanks in advance.

  • Magden Falconrod

    Isn’t the VCSA (Suse based) free? It’s only the Windows vCenter server that requires licensing. They both provide web GUI.

    • noc007

      VCSA is not free. The Linux OS it runs on is free, but vCenter is not. One can load it and it will run 60 days without putting in a license.

  • Looks like VMWare is really working at pushing themselves in to irrelevancy. If they don’t give workable free versions to technical users for home use we’re all just going to install HyperV for free, and then it’s only a matter of time till we’ll want to replace VMWare with HV at the CoLo too. :s

    Not to say that HV is ready for prime time yet – trying to roll out a HV cluster right now really just underlines what an amazing product VMWare is, BUT if the progress from HV2008 to HV2012 continues at the current pace then the next version will be ready for large scale deployments. VMWare should be very very scared, and working hard to engender loyalty, not working hard to alienate their lab users.

    With Citrix basically bowing out of the Hypervisor race, VMWare had a huge opportunity here – I hope they don’t squander it away.

    • noc007

      Nail. Head. You hit it. They need to understand that they aren’t the only hypervisor in town and hypervisors aren’t the only the only solution either.

  • Joel

    Hi, any update? have you received a reply from your account manager?
    I have a home lab in vsphere 5.1 and am eager to upgrade to 5.5 but not if I require to purchase vcentre, may you let me know know your findings please?
    so I want to know, if I can upgrade to 5.5 and still do all the traditional function using vsphere client but only the new functions will be accessible using webclient?

  • Discus__user

    Seems to me that VMware is determined to follow the Novell path to irrelevancy by making a machine that cannot be fully managed by its own console.
    Here’s my scenario, which is worse than “free doesn’t work”, it’s “paid doesn’t work”. The infrastructure is a fully licensed, 3-host-and-SAN config. Testing the UPS, the guests shut down, the hosts shut down… and the standalone backup server/DC shuts down. Hosts power up, but not the guests. One guest is VCenter. So I need to connect to each host, and power up the guests including VCenter. Oh, physical server is a DC so can’t run the newest (5.5) client. (WTF??) There is no web management to hosts, just (down) VCenter. Eventually forced to download (non-web) client onto a workstation to connect to the hosts and power up the guests.