(Failing to) run VMware ESXi on a notebook computer

In an attempt to re-acquaint myself with some of the VMware product set (it’s now over 3 and a half years since I studied for my VMware Certified Professional accreditation and I’ve hardly touched a VMware product since), I decided to have a play with VMware ESXi.

In fact, one of my colleagues wants to have a system whereby his colleagues, who get supplied with images from EMC in VMware format and Microsoft in VHD format, can dual-boot between hypervisors. I couldn’t see why that wouldn’t work (I suggested just using VMware Server and Virtual Server on the same box but he was worried about future-proofing the solution), so I set about trying to dual-boot Microsoft Hyper-V Server 2008 and VMware ESXi on the same machine.

First up, I downloaded ESXi 4.0 and started to run the installer, which detected my hardware but then returned:

Failed to load
Failed to load lvmdriver

It turns out that ESXi 4.0 requires that a compatible network card is available before it will install and, not surprisingly, the Marvell Yukon 88E8055 PCI-E Gigabit Ethernet Controller in my notebook PC is not the kind of server-class hardware that ESX is designed for!

So I gave up on ESXi 4.0 and tried ESXi 3.5. This installed pretty quickly but, of course the network card was still unsupported and my IP address was (no way of managing the box!).

As this is a notebook computer, I can’t upgrade the network card (unless I use a USB-connected NIC) but my plea for help on the VMware forums didn’t turn up anything useful. It seems I can run VMware ESX in VMware Workstation or I can run VMware Player from a USB drive. The long and the short of it is that, if VMware don’t provide driver support in ESX/ESXi, you are stuffed. No great surprises there but it’s really frustrating not to be able to get something working!

ESX for free… but is it really?

Starting from today, VMware’s ESXi hypervisor will be offered free, supposedly to counter the threat from Microsoft Hyper-V and there is an interesting article over at virtualisation.info. But dig a little deeper and, as James Staten at Forrester Research notes:

“This doesn’t really address the typical enterprise’s cost of VMware deployment – just the marketing threat of the low Hyper-V starting price.”

James’s article on the release of “free” ESX is worth a read – he continues by noting that:

“VMware has used this pricing strategy several times to help seed the market, grow its customer base and fend off competitors. VMware Player and GSX server were both made free to respond to the threat of open source and other competitors. Both Player and GSX served as nice onramps to try VMware but had performance penalties and limitations, so customers quickly upgraded when they were through experimenting – stopped a lot of customers from experimenting with the open source stuff. The same is likely to be true here; while free ESXi certainly isn’t crippled (it’s the same code as in the commercial versions) the fact that you can’t manage more than one at a time is the driving drawback.”

But the part I struggle with in James’ analysis is the the summary:

“If you want a more mature solution and the live migration and HA capabilities VMware brings to the table, the cost differential is worth it.”

Is it? Is anybody really failing live production workloads over between hosts using VMotion? Not with the change control processes that most of my customers use. That’s why Microsoft’s quick migration is fine for controlled fail-over – a few seconds of outage is generally not a concern when you have already scheduled the work. As for high availability, I can provide a highly available Hyper-V cluster too. Then there is maturity… VMware may have invented the x86 virtualisation space but dealing with the company can sometimes be difficult (in fairness, that criticism can be levelled at other organisations too).

There’s an old adage that no-one got fired for choosing IBM. More recently no-one got fired for choosing HP (formerly Compaq) ProLiant servers. In the virtualisation space no-one gets fired for choosing VMware – not at the moment anyway – at least not until the CFO finds out that you could have implemented the solution using Microsoft technologies for less money. For that matter, when did anyone get fired for choosing Microsoft?