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When default won't do: Customize VMs with free ESXi hypervisor

When a typical configuration isn't in the cards, you can create a customized virtual machine when dabbling with the free ESXi hypervisor.

Using VMware Inc.'s free ESXI hypervisor is a cheap way to create a virtual environment on available hardware -- though there are some limits to its functionality. Still, it's possible to create a custom configuration using free ESXi.

We'll look at how to perform a custom setup in the free ESXi version by working with the advanced configuration options. (A previous article detailed how to set up an ESXi host, so here we assume you have the ESXi host and a workstation with the vCenter client already installed.)

Getting started with customizing VMs

After logging in from the vSphere client to the ESXi host, you'll see a tree-shaped overview of all resources in your virtual infrastructure. This should contain at least one ESXi host.

To create a virtual machine, right-click the ESXi host and select New virtual machine. This opens a wizard to select the virtual machine properties. These steps build a virtual machine in the ESXi inventory. After completing the steps, the next portion of installing the virtual machine can start.

Custom configuration
Figure 1: Choose a custom setup if you want to use advanced options.

In the first window, you can choose between a typical setup and a custom setup. (See Figure 1.) Custom setup gives you more control over hardware configuration and presents some additional options. For less advanced users, you should select the typical setup where common virtual hardware devices and properties reside.

After selecting the installation type, specify a name for the virtual machine and the data store where the virtual machine will get its storage. (See Figure 2.) Normally this data store is connected to the ESXi server and consists of storage that is local on that server or available via a SAN that is connected to the server.

Destination storage
Figure 2: Selecting the destination storage for the virtual machine files.

If you selected custom setup, you will get an option to specify the virtual machine version. If you're in a big data center where you need virtual machines to be available on other virtualization platforms, you might select something else than the default virtual machine type. In all other cases, just select the latest virtual machine version type and click "Next" to continue.

The next screen asks for the operating system you want to install. (See Figure 3.) Be sure to choose the correct one, because this selection determines which drivers will be installed in the virtual machine.

Guest operating system
Figure 3: From a drop-down list, select the operating system.

Configuring hardware in a free ESXi hypervisor

Next, we'll configure the virtual hardware to allocate to the virtual machine. You can specify advanced hardware properties, like the amount of cores in use on the CPU or the type of controller used by the SCSI disk interface. If you have configured multiple networks on the ESXi host, you can also select the network adapter(s) the virtual machine needs.

When setting up the disk type for the virtual machine, you have a choice between thin and thick provisioning. Use thick provisioning for optimal performance, typically needed on servers. Use thin provisioning when setting up virtual desktops where disk performance is not a huge issue.

After selecting all the hardware properties, the virtual machine is ready to be added to the VMware inventory and you will see it from the vSphere client interface. At this point you are ready to start the actual installation of the VM. To do this, connect the optical disk station in the virtual machine. (See Figure 4.) 

Connect optical device
Figure 4: Connect the optical disk drive.

In vSphere client, click the Connect CD/DVD Drive button and select the optical disk station to connect. There are different options: You can use the local disk station on the workstation that runs vSphere Client, the physical station in the ESXi host or an ISO image on a data store.

Once the optical disk is connected, start the virtual machine by clicking the Playbutton. This starts the operating system installation for the virtual machine OS.

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