My VMWare ESXi build – Part 2 – Building ESXi

This is the second post in a series about running ESXi on a home server. See the first part, here.

ESXi is a free download from VMWare. You just need to register an account and install it. Simple huh? Well, not all the way. Two main issues:

1) I didn’t install an optical drive (intentionally, although with hindsight it would have been a bit easier to have one)
2) The Broadcam NetXtreme BCM57781 LAN card on my ASROCK board is not supported by ESXi. D’oh.

However, there are ways around this. If you’re running the same build as me, you should be able to follow these steps. If you’re using different hardware, substitute in the relevant bits!

Creating a custom ESXi image

The first thing you need to do is to create an ESXi image that includes the NIC driver. This sounds complicated but is actually surprisingly easy. The easiest way to do this is to use a free piece of software called ESXi-Customiser, and then follow the instructions provided by loadingsysadmin. I’ve copied them here with some amendments in case that site goes down. Note: I followed this for ESXi 5.1 with no issues.

Update – whilst the below method works fine for ESXi 5.1 I’ve since tripped over an issue. At the time of writing, the current Virtual Machine Converter (5.0) does not support converting machines for use in 5.1. So if you’re like me and you’re moving VMs from VMWare Fusion which you don’t want to recreate manually, then you’re probably out of luck. I tried using VMWare Converter 4.3, and this failed as well. So, in the end, I had to downgrade VMWare ESXi to 5.0U1 (using the method below). Seems crazy…

Further update – two things I’ve since discovered. 1. The software RAID controller on the ASROCK Extreme4 motherboard is not supported by ESXI. That sucks. No sign of a driver either.

2. VMWare Converter is a bit of a pig to run. I’ve been trying to convert some VMs from my VMWare Fusion 5 and it is dog slow to copy. There is some info out there about disabling SSL. Even after doing this, I had a small performance increase, but was still only copying at around 5-6mb/s. On a gigabit LAN! Rubbish.

3. I also had issues with VMWare Converter 5.0 copying VMs with multiple virtual hard drives. The first drive (C:) was copied fine, but the other two drives, whilst appearing in the guest OS were showing as offline. You can bring them back online by:

1. Open a command prompt, and type DISKPART
2. Type DISK LIST
3. SELECT DISK {#}
4. ONLINE

You may also find it comes back read only, in which case, you can type

ATTRIB CLEAR READONLY

Anyway, moving on… to how to create the disk image:

1) Download ESXi 5.1, ESXi Customizer and the Broadcom driver

2) Extract ESXi Customizer and the Broadcom driver to a directory of your choosing

3) Run the file called ESXi-Customizer.cmd located in your ESXi Customizer directory

4) In the first field, select your ESXi 5.1 ISO you downloaded earlier

5) In the second field, change the file type filter to Offline Bundles (*.zip), browse to the Broadcom driver directory, and select tg3-3.120h.v50.2-offline_bundle-547149.zip

6) In the third field, select the directory you would like to save the final ISO to

7) Check the Create a (U)EFI-bootable ISO (ESXi 5.0 only) box before clicking Run! to create the new ESXi 5.0 ISO

8) After ESXi Customizer does its thing, you’ll end up with an ISO image of ESXi 5.1, Broadcom driver support and non-broken onboard SATA ports. Burn it to a disc and you’re done!

Note the bits with strikethrough. This will work fine for burning to a disc, but if, like me, you want to use a USB flash drive to install from, do not do that. Instead, do not check the “Create an EFI bootable…” option, and instead….

1) Get Unetbootin for your client (I tried in both Mac and Windows with no issues.)
2) Plug in your flash drive. I reformatted it just to be sure (FAT32 seemed to be fine.)
3) Select the image that ESXi-Customiser created and target it to your flash drive.
4) Let it do its thing.

At the end, you’ll have a bootable flash drive with ESXi 5.1 ready to go.

So, what’s next?

Put the flash drive in to your server and switch it on. When prompted, go in to the BIOS (F2 or DEL in the EFI bios.) Switch to the boot options page. You should now see three options – AHCI, USB and EFI. Change the boot order so that EFI is first. Save your changes and exit, and let the machine reboot. Your server should now pick up the installer on your flash drive and the ESXi installer should start.

Fill in the blanks as it prompts and let it finish. Remove the flash drive and let it boot – you should now boot in to ESXi. Awesome. Hit F2 to enter setup and the key thing here is to check the network settings. If you’re on a DHCP network then in theory it will have already picked up an IP address. I switched mine to a static IP address and ran the network tests – all went OK.

Now install vSphere Client on a Windows machine somewhere (I had to do it inside a VM running on my Mac…!) and see if you can connect to your ESXi Server. Note that if you’re using the free ESXi license then you don’t get a lot of cool functionality against if you had a paid version. The two things you can’t do (which would be awesome) are:

1) Use the VMWare Web Client – this requires vCenter which is not free
2) Use the vCMA Web appliance with the iPad – OK, you can actually install the appliance and connect to your host using the iPad app – but in a read only state only – i.e., you can’t start/stop virtual machines.

Now you’re ready to start deploying VMs!

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