Ways to mirror vSphere networking with VMware Virtual Network Editor

Not every VMware vSphere networking option is available in Workstation, but it's a useful tool for users to mirror the ESXi network for tests.

At first glance, there aren't many similarities between an ESXi network and its counterpart in Workstation. Nevertheless, VMware Workstation's virtual networking tools offer everything you need to mirror a complex company network, with different internal networks connected to an external network and routing services. This enables test and development work without affecting the vSphere networking in production.

Replicating the vSphere network with Virtual Network Editor in Workstation allows you to test networking without interfering with the production environment. Bridged, network access translation (NAT) and host-only options help create production-like networks and even demilitarized zone (DMZ) networks.

Not all virtual networks are created equal

VMware vSphere admins take note: Virtual switches (vSwitches), where advanced network settings can be specified, are not available in Workstation. You cannot connect a vSwitch in Workstation. Also, Workstation makes no distinction between the management network and the production network, as you normally see in a vSphere environment.

Those features are missing for good reasons. VMware designed Workstation to work on desktop computers; the typical desktop computer just has one network interface card (NIC) available -- or two if it's a laptop with an Ethernet network card as well as a Wi-Fi network card. An ESXi server networked in a vSphere environment typically includes at least eight NICs, and in some cases even more.

VMware Virtual Network Editor
Figure 1. The Virtual Network Editor can create the networks you want to use in Workstation.

Within that limitation, Workstation has much to offer. Even if the physical host has only one NIC, you can easily create virtual machines (VMs) that have several network cards. The virtual computer routes traffic from the physical network, to which the host is connected to an internal host-only network. Now you can emulate a production setup that includes a DMZ.

VMware Workstation gives you very decent topology mirroring with this technique, and allows you to build a test ESXi networking topology. However, do not use Workstation to emulate advanced network features, like VLAN tagging on vSwitches.

Using the VMware Virtual Network Editor

To mirror vSphere network topologies, Workstation offers three different kinds of network adapters, all of which can be created with the VMware Virtual Network Editor. Three networks are already there by default. As an administrator, you can add up to a total of 10 virtual networks. That means that even if the host has only one network adapter, you can have as many as 10 different network adapters in any VM.

Bridged networks: NAT and bridged network types support direct connection to the external network. A VM with a bridged network adapter connects directly to the external network, such as getting an IP address from the DHCP server on the physical network. A bridged network interface won't work in all scenarios, though. The VM needs resources made available on the external network. If you use a network bridge on the network interface connecting the host to the Internet, for example, the Internet service provider (ISP) must be willing to hand out an additional IP address.

NAT networks: Use the NAT-type network interface if you don't manage the external network and no configuration is available to connect VMs directly to the external network. NAT has a disadvantage: While using NAT you cannot access services on the VMs from the external network. NAT is a common way for enterprise vSphere networks to add an extra level of protection to internal-only services. As such, NAT might be a welcomed addition to your network configuration.

Host-only networks: In the host-only network type, the virtual network card is in no way connected to a physical network card on the host. The host-only network card cannot be accessed from any machine outside of the host-only network. This may sound limiting, but host-only networks offer some real benefits.

Try configuring one VM with a public network interface, which is connected to the external network using NAT or bridged mode. At the other side of that virtual routing host, create one or more host-only networks that reflect your internal company network, and even a DMZ network. You'll need to configure routing processes on that public-interface VM to have it mimic a (virtualized) router in the production infrastructure.

In general, VMware Workstation offers more limited networking options than vSphere networking, but you can still mirror your ESXi networking state with Workstation's Virtual Network Editor options.

This was first published in April 2013

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