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VMware vCenter and vSphere licensing and pricing explained

VMware vSphere and vCenter are licensed and priced in various ways depending on the desired support, the size of the environment and the required functionality.

VMware offers dozens of products, but at its core are vSphere and vCenter. Understanding VMware's vCenter and vSphere...

licensing is critical to determine whether VMware virtualization is right for an organization.

VSphere, which uses the ESX/ESXi hypervisor, acts as VMware's virtualization platform. ESXi is a type one hypervisor -- also known as a bare-metal hypervisor -- that abstracts memory, CPU, storage and network resources from the underlying hardware to VMs. VCenter is a centralized management tool that virtualization administrators use to manage VMs and ESXi hosts.

Support configurations

VMware products are priced with support configurations. In general, options are separated by basic or production support, with one- or three-year lengths of service.

Basic support is tiered for noncritical applications or platforms, with 12-hour daily technical support from Monday through Friday. Production support is tiered for mission-critical environments and includes 24-hour technical support seven days a week.

Free VMware ESXi

VMware's free ESXi offering is a compelling option to try out virtualization for the first time. Admins can install ESXi directly from VMware's website and upgrade to a vSphere version as their needs dictate.

The hypervisor included in the VMware free ESXi download is the same as the one in the paid versions of vSphere. ESXi 6.7 is available with no hardware limitations with the exception of maxing out at two physical CPUs. However, hardware minimums are required, such as two CPU cores, a 64-bit x86 processor released after 2006 and at least 4 -- preferably 8 -- GB of RAM.

The free version of VMware ESXi comes with additional restrictions. It's designated for single-server use, so admins can't use vSphere client to manage more than one ESXi host at a time. The reason for this restriction is that ESXi doesn't include vCenter Server Agent, its APIs are read-only and admins can't execute against them. The restriction also precludes third-party scripts from changing ESXi hypervisor settings. This option also limits use to eight vCPUs per VM.

Upgrading a free ESXi host to vSphere licensing provides vCenter Server Agent and unlocks the ESXi APIs, enabling admins to manage the tool via interfaces such as the vSphere Command-Line Interface, the vSphere Management Assistant, the Perl Template Toolkit and the PowerShell Toolkit.

Support for free ESXi is available via self-service web offerings per incident or annually. Per-incident email and phone support are available in per-incident packs of one, three and five. The one pack is $299.00 per single incident, the two pack is $749.00 for three incidents and the three pack is $1,149.00 for five incidents. Per-incident support is valid for one year during the general support phases.

VSphere editions and versions

Admins can choose between four VMware vSphere editions, but support for vSphere licensing with Operations Management Enterprise Plus is due to end on Feb. 1, 2019. Admins can configure paid editions with either the full ESX hypervisor or the light ESXi. The free edition is available only with ESXi.

VSphere Standard

VSphere Standard Edition is an entry-level version of vSphere that enables a basic level of management of any number of physical host servers. This vSphere licensing option includes a choice of ESX or ESXi, Virtual Machine File System (VMFS), vCenter Server Agent, vStorage APIs or VMware Consolidated Backup, vSphere Update Manager, vMotion, High Availability (HA), and vStorage Thin Provisioning.

Standard Edition is priced anywhere from $1,268.00 to $1,847.72, depending on the support configuration.

One benefit of vSphere Standard is that smaller businesses just starting to explore virtualization can use it and scale up with no limitation on the number of physical hosts.

A common criticism of vSphere licensing when it comes to the Standard Edition is the expense. Additionally, some users have issues with the web interface speeds of vSphere editions compared to the older desktop interface. Users might also encounter a steep learning curve if they are new to virtualization software.

VSphere Enterprise Plus

VSphere Enterprise Plus enables resource management with higher availability and performance than vSphere Standard. Enterprise Plus is licensed per physical processor, but VMware places no restrictions on the number and kind of VMs admins host on a server.

This license is available for anywhere from $2,495.00 to $5,802.36.

The vSphere Enterprise Plus Edition includes all the features of the lesser edition, plus Host Profiles and the vNetwork Distributed Switch. It can also include the Cisco Nexus 1000V virtual switch. VSphere Enterprise Plus is ideal for mid- to large-sized enterprises.

VSphere Platinum

VSphere Platinum is a package that includes vSphere Enterprise Plus and VMware AppDefense. AppDefense protects data, infrastructure and user access against possible threats with monitoring and machine learning. As such, Platinum is a more secure hypervisor than Enterprise Plus.

VSphere Platinum also includes a vCenter Server plugin that tightly integrates both Enterprise Plus and AppDefense. The base price for vSphere Platinum is $4,595.00 with a one-year AppDefense subscription and $5,395.00 with a three-year AppDefense subscription.

VSphere Essentials

For SMBs, VMware offers the vSphere Essentials and vSphere Essentials Plus bundles. The VMware vSphere Essentials and Essentials Plus Kits enable small businesses to virtualize their physical servers and centrally manage those servers at a lower price.

Although the Essentials and Essentials Plus price points are seen to be much more affordable, as business needs for virtualization grow, the need to upgrade to a more expensive vSphere license will arise.

For $495.00 -- or $260.00 for one year -- and $4,495.00 -- or $2,740.00 for one year -- respectively, only including the license cost, both bundles also provide six processor licenses for vSphere and a license for an instance of vCenter Server Essentials.

Admins can't manage groups of more than three hosts licensed with Essentials or Essentials Plus in the same vCenter cluster. Features of the Essentials bundle include a choice of ESX/ESXi, VMware vStorage VMFS, support for four vCPUs, vStorage APIs, vSphere Update Manager and vCenter for Essentials.

The Essentials Plus bundle builds on those features and adds vMotion, HA and vSphere Replication.

Although the Essentials and Essentials Plus price points are seen to be much more affordable, as business needs for virtualization grow, the need to upgrade to a more expensive vSphere license will arise.

VCenter Server editions

VCenter Server provides a centralized vSphere management console where administrators can configure, provision, monitor, troubleshoot and update their virtual environments. It's also a prerequisite for many other VMware and third-party management products.

vCenter Server capabilities
Key capabilities of vCenter Server Foundation and vCenter Server Standard

There are three vCenter Server editions: the version included in the vSphere Essentials bundles, vCenter Server Foundation and vCenter Server Standard. The vCenter Server Standard license doesn't impose limits on the number of physical hosts admins can manage, but the vCenter Server foundation license only provides management for up to four vSphere hosts.

The following features are included across these three vCenter Server offerings for managing vSphere: a management server, a database server, a search function, a vSphere client, the web access portal, vCenter APIs and a .NET extension to provide remote access and integration with other systems.

How to choose the best license for your needs

VCenter Server Foundation is ideal for smaller environments, as it's limited to four hosts and is priced anywhere from $2,095.00 to $3,282.68. VCenter Server Standard is ideal for most environments, as Standard adds two advanced features for managing vSphere: vCenter Server Linked Mode for connecting multiple vCenter instances, and vCenter Server Orchestrator for automating the environment. VCenter Server Standard is priced anywhere from $7,472.00 to $10,251.16. Users have similar issues with vCenter Server as with vSphere in terms of web functionality and a learning curve.

This was last published in November 2018

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Which vSphere license makes the most sense for your organization, and why?
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I purchased ESX Essentials Plus 4.1 years ago. I neither upgraded nor contact support. Am I responsible for paying for yearly maintenance and support, if I don't upgrade or need support?
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