At Home with VMware ESXi

Can you use VMware ESXi in a home or small office environment? In short, absolutely! What started out as a simple experiment to help me learn more about VMware ESX has now turned into a full blown experiment running my current Windows Home Server setup, along with two Linux servers used for an online FEAR Combat gaming server (for the kids of course) and a private WordPress website development environment.

In summary, it all works extremely well on a single low cost Dell server and I am now able to create and tear down “server sandboxes” right next to my “leave alone” server setups (i.e. Windows Home Server) given the relative ease with which I can now create new virtual servers. More experimentation is necessary to get to streaming high definition videos which seem to struggle, but standard resolution and audio seem to work fine so far. This certainly seems like virtual servers are now well within the reach of the tekinerd and small business operations.

Here’s what I now have running after a few weeks of learning and experimenting:

Hardware:

  • Dell T110 server (2x 160G drives in my particular setup), 2G DRAM (~$399 special at Dell)
  • VIA Artigo A2000 for the iSCSI storage box with 2x WD 500G drives (~$350 all in)

(Note – the other Artigo shown in the picture is running the dedicated server for the Earthquake monitor project)

Software

  • Dell: VMware ESXi v4 (free download from VMware)
  • Dell: Client OS#1: Microsoft Windows Home Server ($99)
  • Dell: Client OS#2: OpenSUSE 11.2 ($0) setup as a FEAR Combat Server ($0)
  • Dell: Client OS#3: OpenSUSE 11.2 ($0) setup as a WordPress Development Server ($0)
  • VIA Artigo A2000: Openfiler v2.3 ($0) configured with 2 iSCSI targets (317G + 465G available)
  • Laptop: VMware vSphere Client software ($0)

Setting Up the VMware Host Environment

This was relatively straight forward. The ESX software was downloaded as an ISO image file from VMware who emailed a free license key, which I burnt to a DVD and loaded onto the Dell T110. This took very little time and pretty much self-configured. The only change I made directly on the Dell ESX installation was to change the VMware management IP address to a static one vs. one assigned by my home router automatically. Once complete, I downloaded the also free vSphere client software onto my laptop, installed it and made sure I could log into the VMware ESX host over the LAN. This required I knew the IP address of the ESX server running on the Dell which was displayed clearly on the Dell VGA screen directly attached (Dell’s T110 built in remote server capability, iDraq, for this price doesn’t support console redirection as with the SuperMicro reviewed here). This was the last time I needed a monitor on my Dell. Once up and running, the vSphere console allowed me to view the hardware configuration, create virtual server setsups, carve out the various memory and hard drive resources on the Dell and also allowed me to remotely install the operating systems required for the next phase.

Linux O/S Install

I downloaded the open source version of OpenSUSE 11.2 from the Novell site as an ISO image onto my laptop hard drive. Using vSphere, I created a new virtual machine or VM (under File/New or simply right click on the ESX server IP address) and selected the Linux generic 32 bit operating system. I was also asked to assign the virtual machine to a local hard drive store and choose how much of the hard drive (or datastore) I wanted to allocate for the new VM and it’s operating system, which in this case I set to 30G for the relatively simple setups required for FEAR or WordPress. Rather than burn the ISO image to a physical DVD, when firing up the virtual machine (VMware provide the equivalent of “play” button as you find on your everyday DVD, iPod or CD player to start up the VM), I was able to mount the downloaded ISO file on my laptop as a virtual DVD/CD ROM through the vSphere console interface which represents the virtual VGA screen output from the new virtual server just created. For some reason, VMware doesn’t allow you to mount the host file as a virtual bootable DVD drive until you’ve started the virtual machine up (“Connect to ISO…” is grayed out while the VM is powered off), so by the time you’ve assigned the ISO file, the VM will most likely have passed the point where it can boot from the virtual DVD drive. To get around this, with the console still open after the failed boot attempt (as shown in the screen capture), after mounting the local SUSE ISO file as a DVD drive, simply reboot the VM using the VM/Guest menu option “Send Ctrl-Atl-Del” (or if you click in the console window, you can press “Ctrl-Alt-Ins”). The regular Linux install screen should then appear in the console interface as desired.

The process was repeated for the second Linux server and the FEAR Combat Linux server downloaded and installed for one, and the WordPress/XAMPP environment for the other (installation/setup of these environments not addressed here).

Creating a Virtual Windows Home Server

Installing Windows Home Server (WHS) was a little more complicated as VMware ESX doesn’t natively support the older IDE disk driver required by the WHS install environment as it is based on Windows 2003 Server. It is still possible to install however using the LSI or older BusLogic SCSI drivers which can be downloaded at LSI’s web site. You can also find more information on where to find the driver at a useful blog post here or use the version I created: [lsi scsi driver ZIP file]. Before starting the installation, the floppy disk image file needs to be mounted as a virtual floppy so it is ready for when the WHS installer requests a driver for the install hard drive.

When creating the virtual machine for WHS, the minimum memory and allocated disk space need to be 1GBytes and 70G respectively, otherwise the install will not work. Also, during the VM creation, the operating system type selected should be Microsoft Server 2003 Standard 32 bit selection. For the O/S install, I used the Microsoft WHS installation disk loaded into my laptop DVD D: drive, which I mounted using the vSphere console interface (press the CD ROM icon) as a virtual DVD once the VM had been started. You may have to wait a few seconds before restarting the VM after mounting the virtual DVD so it is recognized correctly prior to the VM searching for a bootable DVD image. Depending on the speed of your LAN connection, the install may be a little slower than normal as the VM is reading the DVD over the home or small office network rather than directly.

Once the installation loads completely, it will reach a point where it reports “Hard drive capable of hosting Windows Home Server was not found….” which is where the LSI floppy driver comes in. With the mouse clicked on the console so it is active in the window shown, answer yes and navigate to the floppy drive or A: and select the .inf file showing on your virtual floppy disk. If you don’t see a file, recheck that the virtual floppy drive is setup correctly or that the .flp mapped to the virtual floppy drive is the correct version.

If all goes well, the Windows installer should proceed as expected and the virtual WHS can be configured per the regular installation instructions via a client PC using the WHS Connector software utility or via Windows Remote Desktop Connection to the newly created home server .

Setting up the Optional iSCSI Storage for WHS

For the WHS bulk storage requirements (70G is insufficient to backup most home PC environments), my first preference was to simply connect my old USB drive from the standalone WHS to the Dell T110’s USB port and reuse it directly. Unfortunately, VMware ESX does not natively support USB drives in the v4 installation I was using. However, ESX does support an iSCSI device natively quite well. So I decided to build a low cost iSCSI storage device given there were a number of free open source options out there. The one I used was OpenFiler (www.openfiler.com) which is a very nice unified NAS/iSCSI solution based on Linux rPath, and more importantly has a relatively straight forward remote web based configuration tool allowing it to be configured as either a NAS or iSCSI SAN storage device. More information on Openfiler as a low cost iSCSI solution and attaching to ESX can be found here and other blogs.

Given I had a spare shoebox sized VIA Artigo A2000 box, I installed Openfiler onto the Artigo which housed two 500G WD SATA hard drives. The 1GHz CPU with 1G RAM was more than adequate to handle the iSCSI storage requirements for regular home server backup plus light weight file storage and audio streaming (e.g. iTune library). I had some trouble initially using the two WD drives (OpenFiler would allow me to create physical partitions or volumes) which I had used in a prior configuration under Windows. This was corrected after performing a low level quick erase on the drives using the free WD disk utilities which cleared the drives back to their factory/new state.Obviously Openfiler is a sensitive to this. Once installed and running, I used the Openfiler remote web admin console to create two iSCSI target devices of the max available 317G and 465G capacities presented, then via the vSphere ESX utility enabled the built in iSCSI software I/O adapter and attached it to the now visible iSCSI targets being presented on the home network by the Artigo/Openfiler box. The two new ESX iSCSI datastores were then assigned to the WHS VM via the Edit Settings option available when you right click on the WHS VM name in the left hand pane of the vSphere utility. 

Once the two devices were added to the virtual machine, moving across to the Window Home Server management console, I could now see the two new hard drives added and proceeded to add them to the storage pool that WHS uses for backup and general file shares, etc as illustrated. Note, ESX only allowed up to 256GB to be provisioned up to the client operating system as shown, so adding further amounts needs to be done in 256GB chunks which WHS will aggregate into a single large storage pool.

Wrap Up

In summary, VMware ESX is certainly a tool that can be used in a geek environment. The FEAR combat server has been pretty much thrashed by outside gamers for serveral weeks now and I like the fact it is not running on the same server as the primary WHS backup or Linux WordPress server. So being a VM where it can be self-contained, rebooted and isolated from the main servers has worked well so far with no visible signs of performance degradation operating via a virtual machine. The setup will not handle high definition video streaming as well as I’d like (though it was fine with the standard sample videos provided with Microsoft Vista). I am still in the process of moving my client PC backups over to the new virtual home server, but expect to do this over the next few months though still need to determine how to migrate my old backups without losing them. One thing for sure, once in the VM environment, moving virtual PCs and servers around my mini-cloud and upgrading to new hardware in the future will be so much easier in theory. Time will tell.

18 thoughts on “At Home with VMware ESXi”

  1. An excellent write up indeed. I have been pondering on a similar setup(different hardware though) for sometime and your method here gives me a lot of encouragement to go ahead. Thank you.

  2. Thanks for the write up! You just saved by bacon for an
    implentation of WHS on esxi 4.1 for a “home” user. The driver for
    the LSI was driving me nuts. Have to have it done before xmas and
    it is the 23rd 🙂 Now I can go and relax starting in the morning.
    Merry HO HO everyone 🙂

  3. Is there any long term ill effects running WHS Drive Extender on top of Virtual HDD’s? In the event of system failure, how easy is it to recover the data from your ESXi virtual host?

    1. Charles,
      None observed. ESXi is a server class product and has been designed to support full blown enterprise class Win 2003 and 2008 level configurations, so I’m pretty confident with respect to the robustness. For user level data protection, I’ve always used the duplicate capability under the shared folders tab of WHS to ensure that my user level data is duplicated on a separate disk drive (you need to ensure that the virtual machine sees two virtual disk drives that map to different physical drives to protect from a single physical drive failure). On the complete system failure side (i.e. you lost the whole WHS OS), I have not done this yet for the free ESXi WHS configuration I’m running, but in my VMware desktop virtual players I’ve been successfully creating a complete back up of a development Linux host OS configuration by copying the raw ESXi virtual machine files to a backup location (USB drive or network drive) periodically. To restore back, you’d simply reimport back into a new install of ESXi on the new system, even if the hardware has changed from one PC vendor to another – one of the other benefits of using a VMware environment. When I get chance, I’ll see if I can run a basic bare metal restore test and post the results to confirm how well it worked.

      1. I am new to this WHS and Virtualisation of OS’s, but am thinking a WHS2011 under ESXi 4.1 would be great for the restoring of the system on new hardware, have you tried this yet? And how easy was it?

        Also how does ESXi/ virtualisation effect data on the disk, will it still be formatted as NTFS, i.e. can I remove the drive and put it in another machine and see all my info, this is probably the only area of Virilisation haven’t found any solid info on in my search??

        1. Yes you can move your OS to new hardware. I’ve been using the free VMware convertor utility for this which allows you to copy your virtual OS to another virtual server or workstation environment so long as it’s another VMware system. I’ll try to post something on this soon and my experiences.

          VMware uses it’s own file system, so once you create a Windows OS as a virtual machine on top of ESXi, it’s no longer compatible as it uses VMFS vs NTFS. You’d have to run the conversion utility to transfer data or simply copy over the network to a standard NTFS drive.

          I may be wrong here but an alternative if you want to retain NTFS compatibility may be to use Microsoft’s standalone HyperV hypervisor. Haven’t played with this too much yet so not sure how transferable this would be.

  4. It’s worth noting that you only get the 256GB size limit if you chose the incorrect block size when you create the datastore.

    If you choose a block size of 8MB you can actually add disks of 2TB if I recall correctly.

    I’ve just installed ESXi on an HP Microserver, and then installed WHS v1 as a Virtual Machine into it. Since I have 2 x 1TB disks I’ve set the block size to 4MB which allows me to add disks up to 1TB in size (actually by the time ESXi has played with it, it works out at about a 931GB disk.

    I’m writing an article on my site about it which should be up in the next day or so.

    http://www.forza-it.co.uk

    I’ll post screenshots of the block size stuff there.

    Tino

  5. am looking to set up a vmware environment at home , my goal is to be able to test vmotion, since this is for my home i dont want to spend money on a shared storage , what cheap alternative do you recommend ? btw am looking to set an esxi cluster by buying 2 computers and hooking them to a hub, do you have any experience with that ?

    1. So far, I’ve gotten away with doing a copy of the entire VM and its data set to my local desktop (can take a long time if your network is slow), then uploading to the new location – a poor man’s vmotion. I’ve also had a lot of success using the free VMware vSphere Convertor Standalone tool to convert and “migrate” VMs between machines, including moving a VM Player Fedora Core Linux machine to my ESXi server which worked perfectly. This takes a long time however as its all copy based.

      For shared storage, I have a very low cost DIY iSCSI shared storage system based on the free Linux based OpenFiler (see same article) running on a spare PC box. It’s been running with no issue since I set it up and has a reasonably good management capability, and being iSCSI/Ethernet based is visible to all my home network machines (though it’s only hooked up to my ESXi server). It can get a little overtaxed however if I push too much data to it, so I tend to use the local internal disks much more as a result to keep the performance at a reasonable level in the server.

      Note, it is also possible to implement the shared iSCSI OpenFiler drive as a VM on the same ESX server which I plan to play with next. I haven’t tried the iSCSI box however in a vmotion context yet so can’t comment on how reliable (or capable) it is.

      I do have 2 ESXi machines (second is an experimental server) on the same hub but haven’t played with the clustering capability. Just got added to my list to try out when I get chance.

      Very interested to see how you get on with your vmotion experiment….

  6. As a noob to this, is the 8GB RAM ok if you are only running WHS2011 under ESXi 4.1 for future upgradability of hardware, or more RAM, or will it not help in moving the server to a new hardware much later down the road?

    Note: I brought an – AsRock Z68 Fatal1ty Professional Gen3, Core i5 2500k and 8 GB RAM, WHS 2011, will be buying some TV tuner cards soon as I find out more about the BG 3460..

    If I did later change my mind and end up running other things such as gaming servers (BF3), or find the media capability’s in WHS2011 to be not enough and use Windows 7 for media, or want to separate utorrent… would 8GB physical RAM be ok (seen as many say WHS2011 barely ever uses the MAX amount of 8BG)??

    Thanks for your thoughts, hope I am not hijacking this thread in any way…

    1. Matt, if I’ve understood your question correctly, then 8G should be enough but you may have issues with running any specialist video peripherals under VMware ESXi unless they come with specific VMware drivers. I haven’t researched this, but I’m not sure if tv tuners are even supported in ESXi… so definitely do your homework before pushing forward with a virtualization project involving multimedia especially.

  7. Matt, some video cards may work with vmdirectpath (passthrough), so it may be possible to achieve what you’re trying to do.

    I tested MSI and ASRock Z68 motherboards with the Intel Core i7 2600 (not the 2600k), and they work with passthrough (I’m using it for USB 3.0 passthrough to format the 5TB external RAID as one big NTFS lump, getting around 2TB virtual drive size limits of ESXi 5.0).

  8. I am very sorry to revive an old topic, but I have a couple of questions if someone wouldn’t mind answering…

    I currently run a Hp Mediasmart 470 WHS. I use it to back up my main pc, laptop, and brothers pc and laptop, as well ass for media storage.

    On my main PC(running windows 7), I run a minecraft server in a virtual box(a linux distro). My WHS box is severely underpowered, so I am looking to upgrade. In the upgrade, it would be nice to merge my WHS with my minecraft server. I am interested in esxi, and having a separate virtualization for each, but am concerned about how the backup works for WHS.

    Won’t my WHS hard drives be inside esxi, with its special formatting? If I end up losing a drive in the system, I understand that I can replace it and WHS can do its thing, but what about the data stored outside the WHS partition? So if I had say, my Minecraft data stored on 100 gigs of the disk, and 900 gigs in a WHS partition… How can I back up that 100 gigs of Minecraft data?

    1. It depends on where/how you typically backup i.e. using a USB drive, a second disk in your system or possibly a small NAS drive. In all cases, VMware’s own file system VMFS is totally transparent to your client OS so backup operates just as before using any drives provided they are correctly connected through to the virtual WHS or Minecraft app/OS virtual machines and you perform the backup from the OS itself.

      For example if you are using a USB drive and tyically copy the data manually, then you’d connect your USB drive directly through to your WHS server using the ESX managment utility (it usually will not directly patch through without you explicitly connecting it via vSphere), after which it appears as a regular disk drive under the virtual WHS. You’d then copy the data to it as you would in a regular non-VM setup. In the case of WHS, this drive should also appear in the normal fashion in the storage management pane which you can allocate as part of the storage pool or a standalone disk for the shared/user folder backups (assuming WHS 2003 version). Again, the ESXi layers and VMFS file system are totally transparent for this approach. Assuming your Minecraft is on another client OS, then you’d manually disconnect the USB drive from WHS using vSphere again and reconnect it to the virtual machine running your Minecraft app to use it in the same way.

      If you are planning on using a second disk inside the same server (e.g. a second 1TB disk drive), you can map all of part of that disk to any of the OSes running under ESXi, so can use it just like in the USB example above.

      The only time you need to be aware of the VMFS partitions is if you want to backup your entire VM or copy it. See http://tekinerd.com/server-pages/system-drive-backup-options-for-windows-home-server-on-vmware-esxi/ on the tekinerd site for some options in this area.

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