With the decision to make ESXi a free release to the public, VMware was able to bring many new people into the world of virtualization. Naturally everyone wants to download, try, and play with it because of the great things being said about VMware, however there is one big problem; ESXi is an enterprise level solution that requires enterprise level equipment.
There are floods of new questions asking why doesn’t ESXi install on my desktop or laptop or why does it install but not see the disk drives? There is a perfectly good, logical explanation for it. VMware ESX and ESXi are enterprise level solutions built to run on enterprise level hardware and controllers which are heavily tested and listed in a Hardware Compatibility List (HCL). So one would ask why did VMware make ESXi free, if people couldn’t install it on their own spare computers lying around to test it out? What makes ESX fast and able to run tons of virtual machines on one set of hardware is that it is a light operating system which only worries about scheduling and assigning resources to virtual machines when they need them. If VMware was to add every driver for every controller and chipset into their build, it would become massive and would slow down the very thing that sets them apart from their competitors. Not to mention the testing time it would take to make sure a five year old Dell laptop works with ESXi is just crazy to ask any company to do.
This isn’t to say that ESX or ESXi won’t install on non-supported hardware, because it does – it just becomes very hit or miss. There are several websites including http://www.vm-help.com that have lists for tested but non-supported hardware and specifications of user created “whiteboxes” that can run ESX/ESXi. The issue here is that you run the risk of a machine becoming unstable, even unusable as new updates are released and a legacy driver is removed or a later version of a current driver is inserted. The very test lab I use isn’t on the HCL and as new releases have come out, I’ve had to update drivers or BIOS to make it work. At the bottom of the article, I have listed some websites that might be of some use to help find non-supported hardware which does work.
Another solution besides a “whitebox” setup is to have a PC and run VMware Workstation 6.5 on it. From there you can create ESX or ESXi virtual machines where you can run everything inside VMware Workstation. The only drawback to this is that it’s pretty slow. Even though it might be slower than running it on its own hardware, it can be a cheaper solution then having to go out and buy all new hardware. This solution is also an excellent sand box for testing configurations before doing it in production environments.
In closing, if you are building out hardware to run ESX or ESXi for a production environment, you should always use hardware that is on VMware’s HCL. There is no reason to buy non-supported hardware only to have to replace it down the road because it no longer works or is supported by VMware. Nor is it a conversation you want to have with your boss or owner of the company about why they spent all that money for hardware and it no longer works. If it is just for testing, then by all means try your old hardware out; but just know that if it doesn’t work you will have to find different hardware or take a different approach such as using VMware Workstation.
HCL Search – http://www.vmware.com/resources/compatibility/search.php
Ultimate Whitebox – http://ultimatewhitebox.com/
Tested ESX / ESXi Whiteboxes – http://www.vm-help.com/esx/esx3.5/Whiteboxes_SATA_Controllers_for_ESX_3.5_3i.htm
Low Cost ESXi Solutions – http://communities.vmware.com/thread/119976?tstart=0&start=0
ESX inside Workstation – http://knowledge.xtravirt.com/downloads/ESXonWKS65118166.pdf