VMware has made vSphere 6.5 generally available on November 15th, and this includes the core hypervisor platform ESXi 6.5. In the What's New and Release Notes documents you can read all about the exciting new features, but most of them require paid licenses and a vCenter server to centrally manage your ESXi hosts.
This blog post is my first try to explain what free license users and owners of unsupported ("white box") hardware need to know when they are going for an upgrade or installation of ESXi 6.5 ...
How to upgrade
There are various methods to upgrade a standalone ESXi host. I list them here in the order of my own preference:
1. Using esxcli software profile update with the VMware Online Depot
This is probably the easiest way to patch or upgrade your ESXi host, but unfortunately the ESXi 6.5 GA bits are not yet available in the VMware Online Depot, and that means you cannot use this method right now. This will change at the latest when VMware publishes the first patch for ESXi 6.5. My ESXi Patch Tracker service will inform you once ESXi 6.5 hits the Online Depot. On its help page you will also find instructions on how to use this method.
2. Using esxcli software profile update with the Offline Bundle
One alternative to using the VMware Online Depot directly is to use the ESXi 6.5 GA image in Offline Bundle format. Its file name is VMware-ESXi-6.5.0-4564106-depot.zip, and if you are able to download it from the My VMware portal then you just need to upload it to a datastore of your host and run esxcli like this:
esxcli software profile update -p ESXi-6.5.0-4564106-standard -d /vmfs/volumes/your_datastore/VMware-ESXi-6.5.0-4564106-depot.zip(Replace your_datastore with the name of the datastore where you uploaded the bundle to)
The issue now is that you will only be able to download the ESXi 6.5 Offline Bundle if you have a paid ESXi/vSphere license under subscription. If you only have the free ESXi license registered then you will be able to download the ESXi 6.5 image only in ISO format. That means you must use the third option:
3. Upgrading ESXi with the ISO image
Download the ISO file (VMware-VMvisor-Installer-6.5.0-4564106.x86_64.iso) from the vSphere Hypervisor Download Center. You need to log on with a MyVMware account here, but this time it's only a free registration.
Burn the ISO file to a CD media and then just boot your ESXi host using this media. This is basically the same process that you would use for new installs. Just follow the on screen instructions and be sure to choose "Upgrade" instead of "Install" when asked.
Legacy network drivers are still blacklisted
With ESXi 6.0 VMware introduced the nasty concept of blacklisting unsupported legacy network drivers to prevent their installation and usage. If you are not aware of this then please read my ESXi 6.0 White box upgrade guide (section 2.) for a detailed explanation. In ESXi 6.5 VMware continues to use this blacklisting method.
If you are upgrading from ESXi 5.5 and need to use one of the blacklisted drivers then you must follow the workaround described in my above mentioned post and install an alternative driver from the V-Front Online Depot before upgrading to ESXi 6.5.
If you already use ESXi 6.0 then you either have already implemented this workaround or you just don't need it. Either way you don't need to worry then.
Legacy and Community network driver compatibility
In KB2147697 VMware declares that all drivers built and certified on ESXi 5.5 and 6.0 are also supported with ESXi 6.5.
Technically even drivers that have been compiled for ESXi 5.1 can still be installed and used on ESXi 6.5. However, drivers that have been compiled for ESXi 5.0 can definitely no longer be installed on ESXi 6.5.
This affects the following drivers from the V-Front Online Depot: net-atl1, net-atl1e, net-r8101, net-8139too, net-skge, net-tulip. They can no longer be installed on and used with ESXi 6.5.
Improved support for SATA AHCI Controllers - sata-xahci patch no longer needed!
Until ESXi 6.0 the builtin support for SATA AHCI controllers was limited to certain controller models, and I developed the sata-xahci patch package to make the builtin sata-ahci driver usable for additional controllers that are officially unsupported.
Good news is that ESXi 6.5 includes a new native AHCI driver (vmw_ahci) that generically supports any controller that identifies itself as a SATA AHCI controller (PCI device class 0106). That means with ESXi 6.5 every AHCI controller will work out-of-the-box, and my sata-xahci patch is no longer needed here.
I was very excited about this until I saw Anthony Spiteri's blog post about a serious performance issue that he had with ESXi 6.5 and the new native driver ... That does not mean that this is a general problem of the vmw_ahci driver. So you should definitely give it a try on your own system!
If you currently rely on my sata-xahci patch and want to try the new native driver then you need to uninstall the sata-xahci package after upgrading to ESXi 6.5. Use the esxcli command
esxcli software vib remove -n sata-xahcito do this and reboot the system.
If you experience any problems with the new native driver then you can disable it with this command:
esxcli system module set --enabled=false --module=vmw_ahci(see KB2044993) and re-install the sata-xahci package if you relied on it before.
After you have tried it please leave a comment to this post and describe how the new native drivers works for you!
Goodbye, vSphere Client!
With vSphere 6.5 VMware made true what they announced a long time ago already: The Windows based legacy vSphere Client (also known as C# Client) can no longer be used to manage an ESXi 6.5 host!
But no worries: Recent versions of ESXi 5.5 and 6.0 already came with an HTML5 based Embedded Host Client that is now also included in ESXi 6.5. It was first introduced as an unsupported so-called fling, and is still further developed as this, but the versions that are shipped with ESXi are fully supported and provide all the functionality you need.
If you haven't tried the new Host Client before then just point your web browser to
to access it. It's really great, you won't miss the old vSphere Client!
Is it worth upgrading?
For free license and white box users there are only few reasons to upgrade from ESXi 6.0 to 6.5: The new native AHCI driver (if it works for you) and improved support for NVMe storage. Maybe overall better support for the latest motherboards and CPUs ...
You can always try and roll back if you run into an issue!
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.