Top 10 things to know about vCenter Server Appliance

Here's how VMware's vCSA differs from its Windows-based counterpart -- and why it's the wave of the future.

VMware has no interest in creating applications that run in Microsoft Windows. This is undoubtedly one reason why VMware has been steadily enhancing the vCenter appliance, which doesn't run on Windows. There are pros and cons to this vCenter deployment option. In the list below, we'll cover those and the other crucial things you need to know about the VMware vCenter Server Appliance (vCSA).

1. How vCSA is different from vCenter for Windows

Appliances, in software deployment terms, are prepackaged, self-contained VMs that you download, import into your virtual infrastructure and turn on. The OS, applications, database and configurations are already in the appliance. There is no OS to buy, no OS to install, no application to install and no database to install and configure.

With a vCenter for Windows deployment, you may still be able to use a VM template with a Windows OS inside, but you'll have to install vCenter and a vCenter database. There is a cost associated with that Windows OS being installed in the vCenter VM: The Windows OS has a greater attack surface and more patches to apply than a vCenter VM running Linux has.

The vCSA includes Autodeploy, syslog collector, ESXi dump collector and vSphere Web Client services.

What's not included with vCSA is Update Manager, vCenter Converter Standalone, vCLI and vSphere PowerCLI.

No matter which version of vCenter you choose, you'll still need to purchase vCenter from VMware. That vCenter license will allow you to download either edition.

2. What vCSA looks like

The VMware administrator using the vSphere Web Client to manage a vSphere infrastructure wouldn't be able to tell the difference between a vCenter for Windows deployment and a vCSA deployment. This is because the vSphere Web Client looks the same no matter which edition of vCenter manages it.

Managing vCSA
Managing vCSA and a Windows-based vCenter Server looks identical in the vSphere Web Client.

There are a great number of visual differences between the vCSA and vCenter Server. For example, vCSA doesn't have a traditional Windows-based administrative console to Remote Desktop Protocol, or RDP, for troubleshooting or services management. Instead, vCSA offers a Web-based appliance management interface to manage the appliance network configuration, time configuration and vCenter services, and to perform vCSA upgrades. Deployment of vCSA is very different from a Windows-based vCenter deployment, as vCSA deploys a virtual appliance instead of installing a Windows-based application.

The vCSA Web-based appliance management interface
The Web-based appliance management interface in vCSA manages the appliance network configuration, time configuration and vCenter services.

3. How vCSA is deployed

One of the big benefits of using a virtual appliance is the rapid deployment. With vCSA there is no OS, application or database to install. This saves a tremendous amount of time and allows you to get running much faster. Because you're not required to install a Windows-based OS, you also don't have to purchase it, which saves your company money. With vCSA containing the vPostgres database, this also saves you time on deployment, because the vCenter installation would have to wait until MS SQL Express was installed. Also, vPostgres is much more scalable than MS SQL.

Additionally, vCSA includes an already-installed vSphere Web Client, unlike Windows vCenter,  where you have to install the application separately.

4. Why vCSA still requires the vSphere Client to deploy

Keep in mind that vSphere and the vSphere Web Client need the "legacy" vSphere Client for Windows to create a new deployment. This client is required to deploy the vCSA OVF virtual appliance file to the first ESXi host. Once vCSA is deployed, you can use the vSphere Web Client from then on. I suspect that in future editions of vSphere, VMware will embed at least a simple Web-based client in ESXi to perform basic tasks on a host, like starting or stopping a VM, and to deploy the vCSA for centralized vSphere management.

5. What works well with vCSA

VMware vCSA 5.5 is more scalable than previous versions and can support up to 100 hosts and 3,000 VMs on a single, self-contained vCSA appliance. Thus, vCSA is now compatible with both SMBs and many midtier enterprise virtual infrastructures. You can go beyond that level if you use an external Oracle database.

Other new features of vCSA 5.5 are much faster response and improved usability, drag-and-drop and filtering features; support for VM hardware version 10; the ability to use Mac OS X with the vSphere Web Client for deploying the OVF appliance and accessing the VM consoles; and support for vFlash, App HA, big-data extensions and low-latency VM settings.

In general, vCSA is the way to go for just about any vSphere installation, but there a few limitations.

6. What doesn't work well with vCSA

There are a number of traditional VMware services that aren't included or aren't compatible with vCSA:

  • vCSA does not support IPv6.
  • vCSA doesn't support vCenter linked mode because Microsoft Active Directory Application Mode dependency is provided by Microsoft Windows-based platforms.
  • MS SQL is not supported as an external database option for vCSA. The vCSA 5.0 Update 1b, vCSA 5.1 and vCSA 5.5 all use an embedded vPostgres database. For an external database, vCSA can connect only to Oracle.
  • VMware's Update Manager is not available for vCSA. Instead, you must create a Windows VM, install Update Manager on it and connect it to vCSA. There is, however, a vSphere Web Client plug-in for Update Manager status reporting.
  • vCenter Linked mode is not supported.
  • vCenter Server Heartbeat is not supported.
  • VMware Site Recovery Manager must be installed on a separate Windows server.
  • VMware View Composer must be installed on a separate Windows server.

7. Where to download vCSA

VCSA is included as part of any vSphere evaluation or via the vCenter Server download center links. Simply put, it's an alternative form of vCenter.

You can download either the single OVA file or the OVF file, system disk file and data disk file. I recommend the single OVA file, but you have to tell the vSphere Client to look for an OVA file because, by default, it looks for OVF files only.

The official VMware vCSA minimum requirements can be found here, and you'll find the vCSA download and deployment instructions here.

8. How to access vCSA

Once the virtual appliance is deployed, either you'll know the IP address because you configured it statically or you can look at the VM properties in the vSphere Web Client and see the VM's IP address. The two addresses you need to know are these:

  • The vCSA appliance administration page, which can be found at: https://vcsa-ip:5480
  • The vCSA vSphere web client login page, which can be found at: https://vcsa-ip:9443

The default login for vCSA is root and the default password is vmware.

9. Resources available for vCSA

VMware has published numerous resources for vCSA. Here is some of the best documentation:

10. What the future holds for vCSA

At some point I predict vCenter Server for Windows will be discontinued and the only edition of vCenter Server will be vCSA. I think all VMware applications, such as View Composer, SRM and Update Manager, will be compatible with vCSA soon. I expect there will be a "light" version of vCSA that is included in each ESXi host so you don't need the vSphere Client for Windows for new vSphere deployments. I also believe that features of vCloud Director will be included in future versions of vCSA and that third parties will continue to convert their vSphere Client for Windows plug-ins to be compatible with the vCSA.

This was first published in July 2014

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