VMware vCenter Design and Installation Options

by [Published on 31 Jan. 2012 / Last Updated on 31 Jan. 2012]

There have always been questions around why, how, and where VMware’s vCenter should be installed and what design option is best. In this article, the author will tackle those questions revolving around vCenter installation so that you know why you chose the option you chose and why it was the best option for you.

What Editions of vCenter Are Available?

Most people would say that there are just 2 editions of vCenter – standard and foundation. However, another edition is built into the vSphere Essentials Kit (not upgradable to the other editions). Thus, there could actually be 3 different versions of vCenter with the most limited being the version in vSphere Essentials. Let’s compare standard vs. foundation:

  • Standard - the most advanced version of vCenter available that manages an unlimited number of ESXi servers. vCenter Standard provides large scale management of an enterprise virtual infrastructure. However, that virtual infrastructure should all be connected by a high-speed network. Thus, you can’t use one version of vCenter to manage vSphere servers (ESXi) that are spread across 10 locations, all connected by a T1-speed MPLS network.
  • Foundation - similar to vCenter standard but it is limited managing just 3 vSphere servers (ESXi). vCenter foundation also has a reduced number of features as it doesn’t include vCenter Orchestrator and vCenter Linked Mode.

Which one should you use? The answer is to use the one that is right for your business. To me, my greatest concern with vCenter foundation is that it is limited to managing just 3 hosts. The virtual infrastructure at most companies continues to grow as more virtual servers and desktops are consolidated. I would be very concerned that I would quickly exceed the maximum number of hosts that can be managed with vCenter foundation. On the other hand, it may be perfect for, let’s say, remote branch offices that likely will never go beyond 3 hosts.

What’s New in vSphere 5 Related to vCenter?

The latest version of vCenter, included with vSphere is vCenter 5. New features in vCenter 5 include:

  • vSphere Web-Client - this new web-based version of the vSphere client runs in most any web-browser. This version of the vSphere client is written in Adobe Flex and VMware has announced that this is the future direction of the vSphere client. Because it’s web-based, there’s no install and it works on any OS (including Mac OS and Linux) that has network connectivity to vCenter. Today, it doesn’t do 100% of what the Windows version of the vSphere client does but in the future it will. The vSphere web-client requires that you install the web-client server on the Windows-based vCenter server OR the new vCenter server appliance (which has the web-client server pre-installed).
  • vServer Server Appliance (vCSA) - this new way to install and use vCenter doesn’t change what the VMware admin sees from their vSphere client but it changes the way vCenter is installed and the potential cost to use vCenter (details below).
  • Enhanced VMware vCenter Server Availability - if you use (or are interested in using) vCenter Heartbeat, there are some benefits to using vCenter 5. vCenter heartbeat ensures that vCenter is always up. With vCenter 5, capabilities of vCenter heartbeat are improved related to using a single virtual IP address for management, a vCenter heartbeat plugin, and support of VMware Composer and View related to vCenter heartbeat.

For more information on what’s new in vCenter 5, take a look at this VMware whitepaper – What’s New in vCenter 5.

What are the Pros and Cons for the vCenter Server Appliance (vCSA)?

While I welcome the new vCSA, I also recognize that there are pros and cons to using it over the traditional vCenter Windows OS install. Here’s my pro and con list for vCSA:

Pros

  • Fast install because no Windows OS, vCenter application, or SQL installation needs to be performed
  • Lower cost because you don’t need to purchase a Windows license to use vCenter
  • Quick configuration because the vCSA can just obtain a DHCP IP address (not recommended for production) and in just a few clicks, you can have vCSA providing vCenter centralized management for a virtual infrastructure
  • The vSphere web client server piece comes pre-installed with vCSA
  • Many fewer patches to the vCenter VM as you aren’t running the Windows OS anymore
  • Scalability – the vCSA is more scalable than you might think. If set to the large inventory size, vCSA will scale to over 400 hosts and 4000 VMs.

Cons

  • No easy deployment path from an existing vCenter Windows server
  • While the appliance-based path is the way that VMware is going, this is still a “1.0” version of vCSA that isn’t mature. Thus, depending on the size and criticality of the virtual infrastructure, you may want to hold off and first use vCSA in a lab environment.
  • No SQL database support
  • vCenter Server linked mode doesn’t work
  • vCenter Server heartbeat doesn’t work

Should I Use vCenter for Windows or the vCenter Server Appliance (vCSA)?

In my opinion, the new vCSA is perfect for a lab or SMB virtual infrastructure. It gets vCenter up and running faster than ever before. While it does scale larger than the typical SMB environment, you should really evaluate closely whether you want to use it beyond that as it is such a new product. In the end, whether or not you use the vCSA is up to the type of environment you have and your comfort level with it.

To get started learning about the vCSA and how it works, checkout my article, Getting Starting with the vSphere 5 vCenter Server Appliance.

Should I Install vCenter on a Physical Server or as a Virtual Machine?

The question of whether to install vCenter on a physical or virtual server has been around as long as vCenter and virtualization. Initially, admins were concerned that if a virtual host went down that was running vCenter as a VM then they would lose all centralized management of the virtual infrastructure. While that is basically true, you should also know that if vCenter is down, that doesn’t mean that the hosts and virtual machines are affected at all. Also, if your vCenter VM was in a HA/DRS cluster then it should be started back up very quickly on another virtual host. Plus, with a virtualized vCenter, you can take advantage of advanced vSphere features like snapshots, vMotion, and svMotion for the vCenter VM.

Thus, I highly recommend running vCenter as a VM (your goal should be to achieve 100% server virtualization and vCenter should be no exception).

What Other Options can be Installed from the vCenter Server Media?

From the vCenter 5 for Windows ISO or ZIP media, you can also install:

  • vSphere Client
  • vCenter Server web client
  • VMware Update Manager
  • vSphere ESXi Dump Collector
  • vSphere Syslog Collector
  • vSphere Auto Deploy
  • vSphere Authentication Proxy

What is Required to use the vSphere Web Client?

To use the new vSphere 5 web client, you need to use one of these two vCenter options:

  • Use the new vCenter Server Appliance (vCSA) which, by default, includes the vSphere web client (server) service
  • Use the traditional Windows-based vCenter server install media and, after installing vCenter, also install the vCenter web client (server) service

To learn how to get started with the new vSphere web-client, checkout my article at - Getting Starting with the vSphere 5 Web-Client

For more information on installing vCenter Server 5 and optional components, read the official VMware vCenter 5 Best Practices and the vSphere 5 (vCenter) Installation and Setup Guide.

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