The cat is out of the bag and it wears the number 6. VMware has announced its much anticipated new major version of their flagship product vSphere, and right now the virtualization blogosphere is humming with the news about vSphere 6.0.
Since this is an enterprise product most of the exciting new features are interesting for large installations using paid licenses and vCenter managed hosts: The long awaited ability ro use the Fault Tolerance (FT) feature with VMs that have more than one vCPU (SMP FT) is something that you can try out in your home lab if you have multiple hosts and use vCenter with an evaluation license, but the new support for virtual storage volumes (vVol) requires a modern SAN array with proper hardware support - nothing that you will find in the average home lab (at least not today). The ever increasing VM scalability now allows you to run VMs with 128 vCPUs and 4 TB RAM on physical hosts that can have up to 480 pCPUs and 12 TB RAM. Even in enterprise production environments it will be difficult to find setups that come even close to these numbers...
But what's in vSphere 6 that is useful for users of the free ESXi license and home labs?
Features for free license users
The first good news is that vSphere 6 still includes a version of the legacy vSphere Client.
According to hardware support there is one feature that will become more and more important in the future: the NVMe driver that ESXi 6.0 includes out-of-the-box. NVMe (NVM Express) is a new standard for attaching SSD storage directly to the computer's PCIe bus (instead of through a SATA AHCI interface). This allows for new (much smaller) form factors and much improved performance for SSDs. Patrick Schulz over at vtricks.com has a nice detailed write-up about NVMe, and he also points out that an NVMe driver is already available for ESXi 5.5, but needs to be installed separately there.
If you are using NFS storage for VMs (either on a hardware NAS box or hosted on a VM) with your ESXi hosts then you might be interested in the new support for NFS version 4.1. Version 4.1 has superior new features (state management, improved locking, Kerberos authentication) and can be much more efficient and performant than 3.0 (which was exclusively supported with ESXi 5.x), but that depends very much on the client implementation. Time and the performance tests to come will tell how much you can gain from it with ESXi.
About driver compatibility and community supported drivers and tools
One thing that I tested very early during the vSphere 6 beta phase was ESXi driver compatibility with earlier versions. The good news is that you can still install and use device drivers from ESXi 5.x with ESXi 6.0! So the NIC drivers and driver map files (including sata-xahci) that are available in the V-Front Online Depot can still be used with ESXi 6.0. I have not yet tested all of the other packages that you can find there (e.g. ProFTPD), but will do that during the coming weeks and add appropriate information to the VIBSDepot Wiki.
The bad news is that - although the ESXi 5.x drivers are technically compatible - VMware has made it difficult to install some of them, namely the VMware supplied r8168, r8169 and sky2 drivers that were dropped in ESXi 5.5. However, I have already developed and tested a workaround for this ...
From a tools perspective nothing has changed in 6.0 when it comes to installing custom drivers or creating customized installation ISOs. So the methods described in the VIBSDepot HowTo still apply, and my ESXi-Customizer-PS script will continue to work. The legacy ESXi-Customizer may or may not work - please don't ask about it, because I won't update it anymore.
As soon as the vSphere 6.0 bits are generally available for download I will post instructions on how to update your stand-alone host to 6.0 and how to build customized ESXi 6.0 installation ISOs for your white box hardware. This will include a workaround for the driver installation issue mentioned above. So stay tuned ;-)
This post first appeared on the VMware Front Experience Blog and was written by Andreas Peetz. Follow him on Twitter to keep up to date with what he posts.