My Sunday Afternoon: Fun with VMWare ESX 3i

Summary:As soon as I heard the announcement from  bright and bushy-tailed VMWare CEO Paul Maritz that the company was shortly going to be releasing their ESX 3i enterprise-class embedded hypervisor for free, I was absolutely thrilled. Given the pace of technology reporting, I knew that I had to get it running on my test equipment right away.

As soon as I heard the announcement from  bright and bushy-tailed VMWare CEO Paul Maritz that the company was shortly going to be releasing their ESX 3i enterprise-class embedded hypervisor for free, I was absolutely thrilled. Given the pace of technology reporting, I knew that I had to get it running on my test equipment right away. Click on the "Read the rest of this entry" link below for more. What I didn't realize, however, what a pain in the neck it was going to be getting it to run on commodity PC and Server hardware. Oh, I knew from my previous experiences designing enterprise VMWare clusters for corporate clients that you needed enterprise-class hardware that was at least certified for use with ESX, but I decided to throw caution to the wind and try to get it running on the stuff I had lying around. I eventually did get it to work, and now that it's working, it works great, but not without more than a few headaches. Currently, the biggest limitation with ESX Server 3i and its big brother, ESX 3.5 is that due to VMWare's "closed kimono" stance on software development, the storage drivers are way behind in terms of hardware support when compared with competitive solutions from Microsoft, Citrix and the various Linux distributions/vendors. There isn't a single system, whether it be a PC or an entry-level server which use embedded SATA2 RAID chipsets that will work with ESX 3i or ESX 3.5 out of the box. If you boot ESX 3i on any of these systems, you'll be presented with a  message that no suitable storage device has been found. Doh! Game Over, man. EDIT 7-29-08: It appears there is a small list of of SATA-based servers and mainboards that will "work" but are not on VMWare's ESX 3i HCLs. Your Mileage May Vary. Typically, ESX 3i and ESX 3.5 are used on enterprise-class systems which support boot-from-SAN host bus adapters (HBA) , UltraSCSI and SAS drives. But if you want to piece together an ESX 3i system on a budget, you'll need to do a deep dive on VMWare's I/O compatibility  and systems compatibility list. However, I'm going to save you some time and trouble right off the bat -- if you're doing it on a budget, you'll want to make sure you have a PC or Server that can accommodate a supported PCI-Express SAS controller. A good candidate for this is the Adaptec 2405 series, which streets for about $200-$250. The base-level Adaptec 2405 can handle up to 4 SAS or SATA2 disks and up to 128 drives with SAS expanders, so it's not a huge investment if your mainboard can already handle PCI-Express and you have some cheap SATA2 storage lying around. I also tried AMCC/3Ware's new 9690SA, another PCI-X SAS/SATA RAID controller designed for higher performance applications, which streets for about $300 and is listed as supported for the more expensive ESX 3.5 product, but it doesn't yet work on ESX 3i as of the July 25 ISO currently available for download from VMWare's site. Given 3ware's excellent multi-platform OS support, we expect this to change shortly.  Be it as it may, the AMCC 3Ware does work phenomenally well on Linux-based hypervisor solutions such as ProxMox, Red Hat oVirt and Xen, and absolutely swimmingly on Windows Server 2008 with Hyper-V, so don't discount this excellent SAS/SATA controller value if you're not going ESX 3i. For network interfaces, you'll want to make sure you are using Broadcom, Intel or nVidia nForce chipsets. There are a number of other supported NIC chipsets, but you'll be safe with any of these, and are quite common.
Once you have your hardware ducks in a row, getting ESXi installed is a breeze. The software is distributed on a 250MB ISO file, which can be burned to a CD or bootable USB key. The actual installation is totally automated using a text-based interface (no mouse needed) and takes under five minutes -- once ESX 3i loads its drivers, it attempts to connect to your network via DHCP, auto configures an IP address on the first detected interface, and displays the address on the screen for you to connect to. Once ESX 3i is running, you then test its connectivity using a web browser on a client Windows-based machine (XP, Vista or Server) and you can download the VMWare Infrastructure Client 2.5 over the web. Unlike VMWare's other free virtualization solution, VMWare Server 2.0 ESX 3i doesn't currently support VMWare Virtual Infrastructure Web Access, so management is limited to Windows systems only.

Click Here for a video tour of VMWare Virtual Infrastructure 2.5 Client managing ESX 3i.

For those of you already familiar with version 2.5 of the Virtual Infrastructure client for Windows, there's nothing new here. It's the same, polished, sophisticated interface that you get with the high-end VMWare products. There is a "gotcha" here, however. Without purchasing a license to VirtualCenter, VMotion and HA/DRS (in which case you are getting into the thousands of dollars) you won't be able to use any of the advanced features such as live migration, clustering and high availability. However, if you are standing up ESX 3i in a lab or testing environment, you will be able to prototype on the same exact platform that you will run in a VMWare enterprise production environment -- no more testing on VMWare Workstation or VMWare Server, and porting the images over. While not Open Source, this is a big step forward for VMWare as a company and its worthy of my applause. Still, even with the free release of ESX 3i, VMWare is going to face many challenges. Hyper-V and KVM will be significant players in the future, and are already poised to be the higher performance alternatives to ESX 3i. Are you going to be standing up an ESX 3i system on commodity hardware in your test lab? Talk Back and let me know. The postings and opinions on this blog are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

Topics: VMWare


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet is a technologist with over two decades of experience with integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer... Full Bio

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