How to install VMware VSphere ESXi 4 on a desktop PC

Trying to figure out how to install VMWare Vsphere ESXi 4.0 on a home desktop computer but now sure how? Neither was I but I finally figured it out and I’ll tell you how!

Over the last year, I’ve been getting very involved in VMware ESX installations and rollouts at work. It started with doing several hundred P2V’s (physical machine to virtual machine conversions) then onto the server side and actually configuring the servers. We started with ESX 3.5 then upgraded to ESXi 4.0 which is now known as VSphere.

I took a couple of VMware training classes and realized that there was a lot of capabilites in VSphere that we weren’t using at my company. Unfortunately, since it was a production environment, tinkering and experimenting on the ESX clusters at the office wasn’t an option. I’m the type of person that when I get into a technology, I want to know as much about it as possible. It also helps to learn as much as possible as it makes you more valuable at work and to potential (higher paying) employers.

RESEARCH

My research began to find out what it would take to build a VMware VSphere ESXi 4.0 server at home.

A quick google search showed it was very possible to build a home ESX server, but unlike Windows servers there were very specific hardware requirements. Even tougher, VMware doesn’t list what desktop class hardware you can run it on since they don’t officially support running ESX on desktops. There are a couple of sites out there like UltimateWhiteBox.com that list various components that people have reported success in using, but obviously there is a huge range of possible hardware combinations out there on home machines, so a lot is not covered. The other issue is that it seems that the sites aren’t updated that often, if at all anymore.

Continuing my research, I looked into what processors were compatibile with ESXi 4 and settled on the Intel Quad Core. I specifically wanted a quad core processor since I was going to have several virtual machines running on it and didn’t want the processors pinned at 100% utilization from having too little cpu. I also wanted a lot of RAM for the same reason.

I was debating whether to buy all the components and build the machine myself, but every time I started pricing out components, I realized it would cost me the same or more than just buying an off the shelf desktop pc plus all the time involved in building it.

I ultimately settled on buying an HP Pavilion with an Intel Core i7 and 8gb of RAM. This would be a very solid machine at a decent price. I headed over to Amazon.com to see what they had since I could get it tax free and with free shipping.

THE BUILD

The machine arrived and I was impressed with the look. It looked like it was made to be a server with smooth glossy paint and even a cool arctic blue glowing power button. I gleefully started out trying to install ESX. First I tried ESX 3.5 and that failed since it couldn’t find my SATA controller. Next I tried ESXi 3.5 with the same result. I was getting worried but crossed my fingers and installed ESXi 4.0 and it worked! The only hiccup was that it couldn’t see the onboard network controller, which I knew would probably happen as VMware generally only recognized broadcom and Intel based NICs and the HP came with an onboard Realtek NIC.

I was bummed that I wouldn’t get to start playing immediately but was still happy that it was going to work. I headed back over to Amazon and picked up an Intel Gigabit Ct Desktop adapter for about thirty bucks. Two days later it showed up and I popped it into the machine. *Presto!* I have a fully functioning ESXi 4 VSphere server! **YAY!!**

After creating a couple of test VM’s and contemplating what type of home virtual universe I should start building, it occurred to me that the single drive in the Pavilion was not going to be big enough. I then started having my usual internal debate where my geek side fights with my cheap side over whether to buy larger drives or cheaper drives. I found a good compromise in the $119 Western Digital 2TB Caviar Green hard drives. They have an outstanding amount of storage and variable speed which allows them to spin down to a slower speed during the day while I’m away but ramp back up to full speed when I’m banging away on them doing Windows 2008 server installs.

I bought two of the drives and in another two days they arrived. I popped them in (replacing the original drive that came with the Pavilion) and reinstalled ESXi 4. Luckily the VMware installation is only about 15 minutes total. The drives worked like a charm out of the box and are drop dead silent which made me happy since I hate having the jet engine like whir of multiple hard drives in the background while I try to work.

THE RESULT

I am happy to report that over a month later, this machine is rock solid. I have two workstation VM’s and two server VM’s running 24 x 7 on it and haven’t had a hiccup. I’ve retired the hardware that my Windows Home Server was on as I’ve successfully virtualized it. I’ve found so many cool uses for it that I hadn’t even thought of before. For example, I loaded up a generic Windows XP vm that I remote control from my Apple iPad over wifi. I have another that I use when I am downloading from suspicious websites that may contain malware. When I’m done with the download and have scanned it for viruses, etc, I just power off the vm and restore it from a pristine image.

I can’t say enough about how happy this setup has made me (I know, I know, super geek)!

WHAT YOU’LL NEED

Here’s my final shopping list for this setup:

-  HP Pavilion with an Intel Core i7 and 8gb of RAM
- Intel Gigabit Ct Desktop adapter
- Western Digital 2TB Caviar Green hard drives

Let me know if you’ve had success with a similar configuration or have questions about setting up your own by leaving a comment below.

** UPDATE FOR ESXi Vsphere 5:

I performed the upgrade from ESXi 4.1 on my desktop pc build to Vsphere 5. The upgrade was pretty easy in that I just downloaded the ISO file from vmWare, burned the CD and booted my ESXi 4.1 server from the CD. It gave me the option to upgrade, I selected it and followed the prompts. The whole upgrade probably took about 15 minutes which included the time it took to upgade the vSphere client and vmware tools on my VM’s.

From my experience, you can dive right in and upgrade your ESXi 4.1 box to vsphere 5 without too much concern. Check out this link for screenshots of the upgrade process on another site.

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11 Responses to “How to install VMware VSphere ESXi 4 on a desktop PC”


  • Thank for article.
    Did you raid the drives?

  • Nice write-up. I am glad to know I don’t need to do a custom ESXi build after I get the Intel NICs I found on eBay.

  • Great article, I’ve been thinking of doing something like this for a while. Does the machine h/w support dual monitors and if so does ESXi also work on dual monitors?

  • Thanks for your write up.

    This article really helped me. I was thinking off buying a server to run ESXi until I came across your article.

    I built a desktop with Intel Sandy Bridge CPU 17-2600, 16GB RAM and Intel NIC Adapter.

    It’s all working now running 4 VMs for my SharePoint Project.

    If anyone needs help, just post it here and I’ll reply

  • I’m thinking along exactly the same lines you are.
    Trick is, the HP Pavilion you link to is out of stock at Amazon.

    If I wanted to find another desktop that would play the game,
    what are the vital features? What is it about that HP that made you think ESXi would work?

  • Hi Robert, the main specs you’ll want to go with are Intel Processors. I went with the Quad Core just to be able to support more simulaneous VM’s.

    Right now I’d suggest the Quad core i7 version of the machine. I’ll update the link to a machine that’s in stock that has similar components for compatibility.

    Let me know how it shakes out for you!

  • Hi there,

    I have a HP Pavilion Quad Core2 (not i series) with 4Gb of Ram. I downloaded the latest vSphere ISO image, put it on a disk. When i start with the CCD, it goes fine up to the point where you can Enter to install. Almost immediately it hangs with mention that vmfs3 module can not be loaded. From this point on I’m stuck. I hope someone has a clue for me.

    About the disks:
    The harddisk is a SATA SSD of Intel, the other two disks are 1Tb Western Digital. They are installed on SATA port 3, 5 & 6, the DVD drive on SATA port 4. 1 & 2 are currently unused. (I doubt if the problem is this, a windows config did boot properly, and it has booted from DVD – In the Setup menu of the BIOS it refers to a harddisk group to boot from, with the Intel drive specified as boot device in that group)

  • Hi Richard. The vmfs is the vmware file system so it sounds like it is having trouble with your drives.

    I’m not sure about the drive grouping. I have my drives set up as separate drives and do all of my spanning within the vc console.

    Lastly, just to clarify, I’m running ESXi as the full blown esx gave me too much trouble trying to install.

    It also helps as vmware is phasing out esx in favor of ESXi.

    Let us know if this helped at all and what you end up doing to get it to work.

  • Interesting replies, but other than trial and error does anyone know if ESXi will work on a Dell XPS 8300 Quad-Core i7 8GB. I’m currently running VMServer 2.0 on it and it has some serious limitations. I want to wipe it clean and put ESXi either 4 or 5 on it. However, without them publishing desktop compatibility, it is hard to find out. The box is in a PROD state right now, so I don’t get the chance to play with it and test.

  • Hey, it is good to know stuff like this. I am currently experiencing with virtualbox running windows 2008 64 bits server and multiple station joined to domain. Actually, I have internal network and works perfectly…also I have Exchange server set up and my clients can send and receive emails….all this in one single PC. Anyway, my next step is to setup a VMware server and virtual clients. My question would be, can I emulate virtual client and have more server on VMware Sphere in the same pc? I only set up view 5 clients at work and not know much about the server side. I saw another guy that installed VMware sphere in a VMware client pc.
    Can I write you if I have any question?
    Thanks.

  • Dual Monitors ? Is it possible when running ESXI ? What are the pros and cons ?

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