June 7, 2021
Licensing ESXi 6.x/7.0.x and vCenter Server 6.x/7.0.x
When you decide to start using VMware vSphere to run virtual machines on ESXi hosts in your environment, you need to define which license to buy and understand how to apply the ESXi license. VMware provides different editions of vSphere and vCenter for customers who deploy VMware vSphere to run VMs and build virtual environments. This blog post covers the principles of VMware ESXi licensing and explains how to install VMware licenses.
General vSphere Licensing Information
There are two main VMware licenses in VMware vSphere: vSphere licenses for ESXi hosts and licenses for vCenter Server. If you use standalone ESXi hosts, buy the needed VMware vSphere license and install it on each ESXi host. If you have multiple ESXi hosts, it is better to manage them centrally. In this case, I recommend that you install vCenter Server.
VMware vCenter Server allows you to manage ESXi hosts, create data centers that are logical structures to group ESXi hosts, create clusters, migrate virtual machines between hosts, and so on. VMware vCenter requires a separate vCenter Server license installed on your vCenter Server. A version of your vCenter Server must at least match or be higher than the highest version of an ESXi host running in your environment that you want to manage by vCenter. Older versions of vCenter Server cannot manage newer versions of ESXi. For example, you can install vCenter 7.0 to manage hosts running ESXi 6.7 and ESXi 7.0, but you cannot install vCenter Server 6.0 to manage hosts running ESXi 6.5.
VMware licenses are 25-character strings that contain letters and digits, divided into 5-character blocks with the “-” symbol. License keys contain encrypted information about the purchased product edition and are not tied to hardware. You can assign the same VMware ESXi license key (the vSphere license) to multiple ESXi hosts until the total number of processors exceeds the CPU (central processing unit) capacity allowed by the license.
ESXi hosts are licensed with VMware vSphere licenses on a per-processor basis. A vSphere license has a certain CPU capacity and can be used for an ESXi host whose CPU number doesn’t exceed the capacity of the license. This provides flexibility if you use one license for licensing multiple ESXi hosts. For example, if you have a vSphere license whose capacity is 8 processors, you can license two ESXi hosts with 4 processors each, or four ESXi hosts with 2 processors each. You can also license two 2-processor servers and one 4-processor server. A multicore CPU is counted as one CPU if the number of physical CPU cores is not higher than 32. If a CPU has more than 32 cores, then an additional CPU license must be applied. The amount of RAM and the number of running VMs are not limited by VMware licenses.
There is also a free ESXi license with limited functionality that allows you to run VMs on a standalone ESXi host. For more information, read about Free ESXi in this blog post.
The Evaluation Mode
After installing ESXi and vCenter, the 60-day evaluation starts for each product. The set of features available for the evaluation period is the same as that available in the highest edition of VMware vSphere for ESXi hosts and vCenter Server accordingly. Thus, the full set of all possible features is available for 60 days. It is recommended that you install a license until the evaluation period expires.
When the evaluation period ends for an ESXi host, the host is disconnected from vCenter (if the host was added to the vCenter inventory). VMs continue to run, but after shutting down the VMs, you cannot start them. You cannot change the configuration of features either. When the evaluation period expires for vCenter, ESXi hosts are disconnected from vCenter.
If you install a license, the countdown of the evaluation period is not terminated. You can switch the license back to the Evaluation license after installing a paid license within 60 days after product installation. For example, if you assign a license 10 days after the evaluation passes, you use the paid license for 20 days and the you can switch back to the Evaluation license. In this case, only 30 days of the Evaluation license are remaining (not 50). Temporary switching to the Evaluation license makes sense if your license (edition) for vSphere is lower than vSphere Enterprise Plus. When the evaluation period expires, you can use only a paid license.
VMware vSphere Editions
Unlike VMware vSphere 6, there are no VMware licenses for vSphere Enterprise in vSphere 7. Below is an overview of VMware licenses and editions for the version 7.
vSphere Standard is the entry-level edition that is good for smaller businesses that don’t have large virtual environments. There is no support of the distributed virtual switch, host profiles (auto deploy), VM encryption, Distributed Resource Scheduler, accelerated graphics for VMs, and some other features in this vSphere edition.
vSphere Enterprise Plus is the top edition that provides the full range of vSphere features and is recommended for large organizations that have many ESXi hosts, need the best scalability, and require the full feature set.
vSphere Acceleration Kits are all-in-one bundles that provide more convenience for customers who want to buy all necessary components to deploy the VMware virtual environment, including ESXi hosts and vCenter. One acceleration kit contains a license for 6 processors and a license for 1 vCenter instance (vCenter Server Standard). There are two acceleration kits – vSphere Standard Acceleration Kit and vSphere Enterprise Plus Acceleration Kit.
vSphere Essential Kits are all-in-one solutions for small virtual environments that provide a license for 6 processors and 1 vCenter instance (vCenter Server for Essentials). There are two editions: vSphere Essentials Kit and vSphere Essentials Plus Kit. VMware Essential Kits are good for small organizations.
vSphere Scale-Out contains all core vSphere features needed for high-performance computing and big data for an attractive price.
Read the blog post about VMware vSphere editions to learn more about all vSphere editions.
VMware vSphere Upgrade
You can always pay for a higher edition of VMware vSphere. In this case, you have to deactivate the old license key and apply the new one. If you upgrade the ESXi version that starts with the same number, you can continue to use the assigned license. For example, if you upgrade ESXi 6.0 to ESXi 6.5 or ESXi 6.5 to ESXi 6.7, you can use your existing vSphere license with all provided features. If you upgrade a major ESXi version to a higher version that starts with a different number, the ESXi host starts a new 60-day evaluation period. For example, if you upgrade ESXi 6.7 to ESXi 7.0, your existing vSphere 6 license will not work on ESXi 7.0, and you have to assign a new vSphere license for this ESXi host. License keys for vSphere 5.x, 6.x, and 7.x are different.
How to Assign ESXi Licenses
Now when you know the licensing principles of VMware vSphere software, let’s learn how to assign a license for an ESXi host. You can assign the vSphere license in two ways: in the web interface of VMware Host Client on the ESXi host or in the web interface of VMware vSphere Client in vCenter. If you assign a license on an ESXi host and then connect this host to vCenter, the license for this ESXi host is displayed in vCenter licensing settings automatically. VMware vCenter displays information about the utilized CPU capacity of the assigned license and the remaining number of unused processors that you can license on other ESXi hosts. If you assign a license to an ESXi host in vCenter, but for whatever reason, the ESXi host is disconnected from vCenter, VMware ESXi licensing information is saved on the ESXi host. In this case, the license remains valid even after a reboot of the ESXi host. After adding an ESXi host to vCenter, the ability to change a license in the web interface of VMware Host Client (directly on the ESXi host) is blocked. The workflow for ESXi 6 licensing in vCenter 6.7 and ESXi 7 licensing in vCenter 7.0 is similar.
Adding a license on an ESXi host
To open VMware Host Client, open your web browser and enter the IP address of the ESXi host that you want to license (https://192.168.1.30 in this example).
In the navigation pane, click Manage and go to the Licensing tab. Information about the current license is displayed on this page. On the following screenshot, see information about the 60-day Evaluation license used after installing ESXi. The key for the Evaluation license is 00000-00000-00000-00000-00000. The expiration date and the set of available features for the current license are displayed.
To change the license, click Assign license.
The Assign license window opens in the web interface. Enter your license key and click Check license to check whether the license key is valid. If the license key is valid, the green icon is displayed, and the Check license button transforms into the Assign license button. Click Assign license to apply this license for this ESXi host.
Now you can see updated information about your new license for the ESXi host in the Licensing tab. On the following screenshot, you can see that the VMware vSphere 7 Standard license is assigned on this ESXi 7 host, and the appropriate list of supported features is listed for this license. Now the ESXi host is licensed for an unlimited time.
Adding ESXi licenses in vCenter
Enter the IP address of your vCenter Server in a web browser to open VMware vSphere Client. In my case, I’m using https://192.168.101.207 to open VMware vSphere Client.
Go to Hosts and Clusters, select your Datacenter, and select an ESXi host that must be licensed (22.214.171.124 is the IP address of vCenter Server 6.7 in my case).
Click the Configuration tab to check information about the current license for the selected ESXi host, including supported features, license name, license key, expiration date, and the number of used CPUs.
Click Assign license to assign another license.
The Assign License window opens in the web interface. If you added multiple license keys to vCenter, click Existing licenses and select a license that has unused CPUs. In my example, I will assign a new ESXi license to the vCenter server.
Click New license.
Enter your license key and a license name that is convenient for you, for example, License 6. If the license key is valid, the appropriate notification is displayed in the Assignment Validation section. In my case, I have a green icon and information about the product edition (VMware vSphere 6 Enterprise Plus), expiration date, and CPU capacity. Click the (i) icon to see the list of features that are supported by the current license.
Hit OK to save this license in the vCenter inventory.
The license you have added is now displayed in the list of existing licenses in VMware vSphere Client. Make sure that the needed license is selected, hit OK to assign this license to the needed ESXi host, save settings, and close this window.
The ESXi license is now assigned. Similarly, you can assign ESXi licenses to other ESXi hosts by using the vCenter Server.
This blog post has covered VMware ESXi licensing for vSphere 6 and vSphere 7. You should buy a license for the needed vSphere edition to license ESXi hosts. The ESXi license is assigned in VMware Host Client for a standalone ESXi host and in VMware vSphere Client for ESXi hosts that are managed by vCenter Server. ESXi hosts are licensed with vSphere licenses on a per-CPU basis. You can re-assign licenses that have been already assigned.
No matter which ESXi license you use, you should back up your virtual machines regularly to protect your data and be ready to recover in case of failure. Use NAKIVO Backup & Replication to back up your virtual machines running in VMware vSphere and ensure that your workloads are recoverable. The product supports all editions of VMware vSphere 7.0 except ESXi hosts using the free ESXi license (VMware vSphere Hypervisor) due to disabled VMware APIs. Download NAKIVO Backup & Replication and install the product on a Windows machine, Linux machine, VMware VM as a virtual appliance, and NAS devices to protect your data.