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VMware vCenter Deployment and Best Practices

As organizations grow with their VMware vCenter deployment having possibly started out with the features found in the free edition of VMware ESXi, gaining access to the enterprise features and functionality in a vSphere environment requires deploying a VMware vCenter server. What is a VMware vCenter server? How is it deployed? What are some of the best practices in deploying it along with other considerations? Let’s take a look at the process of deploying a VMware vCenter server and consider the aforementioned questions/aspects of the product as we think about growing our VMware infrastructure in an enterprise.

What is a VMware vCenter Server?

VMware’s vCenter product is the core product required to turn on the enterprise features. This includes, but isn’t limited to the following:

  • Centralized management including Single Sign On (SSO) authentication
  • Centralized permissions management
  • Centralized logging of tasks events
  • Resource management
  • Central location to perform management and administrative tasks across ESXi hosts
  • High Availability
  • Distributed Resource Scheduling
  • Fault Tolerance
  • Centralized updating via the update manager
  • Provides the central functionality to unlock other VMware products including the vRealize suite of products, Site Recovery Manager (SRM), NSX network virtualization, and others.

While you can certainly spin up virtual machines with the free ESXi product, as you can see to gain access to the true enterprise features that most will want to utilize in their mission critical environments, the vCenter server is a requirement. Most, if not all other add-on products from VMware, require vCenter.

VMware vCenter Installation and Options

There are two options for deploying a vCenter server. It can be installed on a Windows Server either physical or virtual, or can be deployed by way of OVA Linux appliance inside the virtual environment itself. The appliance is known as the vCenter Server virtual appliance or VCSA as it is referred to in short most commonly. In the early days of vCenter, it was preferred to install it on a Windows server as this was at the time the better performing platform for vCenter. However, as time has moved on and development on the virtual appliance has taken off, now VMware is taking the stance of saying the VCSA appliance is just as robust as the Windows appliance. In fact, it has been noted that VMware exclusively uses the VCSA appliance internally for managing their virtual machine resources.

Also, keep in mind that since VMware seems to be leaning toward the appliance for future releases of vCenter, this may weigh in your decision to go that direction now so it will be less painful later if the Windows version goes end of life.

vCenter Server Virtual Appliance Deployment

Let’s take a look at deploying a typical vCenter Server Virtual Appliance VCSA in our virtual environment. The first thing we need to do is download the VCSA appliance which is in the form of an ISO and not an OVA file. We need to mount this ISO image to a Windows machine and deploy it with a web browser.

As you can see, we have mounted the ISO image and we can now view its contents. We want to launch the vcsa-setup.html file in our web browser of choice. To do that, you can simply right-click on the file and choose the open with dialog if we want to be able to select a web browser if we have multiples installed.

Download VCSA Appliance

Once the web page opens, we will see a page where we can choose to kick off either the Install or Upgrade of an existing appliance.

vCenter Server Appliance

We are choosing to Install a new appliance so once this is chosen, the VMware vCenter Server Appliance Deployment wizard begins in the browser session. The first thing we encounter is the EULA. Simply check the box in the “I accept the terms of the license agreement” message and click Next.

VMware End User License Agreement

The next configuration screen we have is the Connect to target server configuration screen. This prompts us to fill in connection information to connect to our host ESXi server which will be the host where the appliance VM is actually provisioned. We can enter an IP address or FQDN, then the user credentials needed to connect to the host.

vCenter Appliance Deployment - Connect to Target Server

You may receive a warning about the certificate of the host. This can simply be accepted and move on.

Certificate Warning

Now we can get more into the specifics of setting up the virtual machine itself. Here we configure the appliance name and OS password.

vCenter Appliance Deployment - Virtual Machine Setup

In the deployment type configuration screen, we choose whether we are going to install the Embedded Platform Services Controller or the External Platform Services Controller. The Platform Services Controller contains shared services such as Single Sign-On, Licensing, and certificate management. In smaller environments, you can choose to simply house this all on the same appliance (vCenter server AND Platform services controller). In large environments, you can scale out by separating these roles onto separate VMs.

Choose this option wisely as you can’t go back and easily change this. To go from embedded to the external configuration, you have to do a fresh install of vCenter.

vCenter Appliance - Deployment Type

Next we have the Single Sign-on SSO configuration. The SSO configuration allows vSphere to authenticate user sessions to a number of different security authentication services including Active Directory, local security, or another SAML security authentication service. Even if you don’t plan on using any of these other sources, you must setup SSO to install vCenter. Also, make sure your SSO domain is different than your Active Directory domain name.

VMware vCenter Deployment

Next, the select appliance size screen is a crucial part of our configuration. Below the combo box is dropped down so you can see the options available. By selecting the different options, differing amounts of resources are allocated to the VM that is provisioned for vCenter.

  • Tiny (up to 10 hosts, 100 VMs)
  • Small (up to 100 hosts, 1000 VMs)
  • Medium (up to 400 hosts, 4000 VMs)
  • Large (up to 1000 hosts, 10000 VMs)
vCenter Appliance Deployment Size

Now we go back to the options we need to configure for the ESXi host to provision the VM. The next configuration screen configures the target datastore where our vCenter appliance will be deployed.

vCenter Appliance Deployment - Select Datastore

Next, we have (2) options with configuring a database for vCenter. We can select either to use:

  • Embedded database (PostgreSQL)
  • Oracle database
vCenter Appliance Deployment - Database Configuration

Next, we have a very important step in deploying vCenter, the network configuration. Let me emphasize here, it is crucial that you have a working DNS record for your system name FQDN as the install will fail every time, if the FQDN is not resolvable. Make sure you verify this before you move forward.

vCenter Appliance Deployment - Network Settings

Next, you can choose to participate in the VMware Customer Experience Improvement Program.

VMware Customer Experience Improvement Program

Finally, we have a summary of the vCenter deployment configuration and operations to be performed to provision the appliance VM.

vCenter Appliance Deployment - Configuration Summary

Once you click Finish the deployment operation to deploy the OVA to your ESXi host will begin and you will start to see the progress indicator move noting progress along the way.

Downloading and Deploying vCenter Server Appliance

If there are no issues in the vCenter deployment process, especially with DNS, you should eventually get an installation complete message noting the appliance has been deployed.

vCenter Server Appliance Deployment Complete

Best Practices and Things to Think about Before Deploying VMware vCenter

  • Do think about the platform you want to install on – either Windows or the Linux appliance.
  • Keep in mind that VMware seems to be moving forward with the appliance so they may end of life the Windows Server install in the future.
  • Do make sure that you have your ESXi target host provisioned properly along with accessible datastores, networking, etc., as these are prerequisites to deploying vCenter using the wizard process.
  • Do make sure you have SSO domain and information required decided upon before installation. It needs to be different than your Active Directory domain name.
  • Do think about your size requirements and resource needs before installing vCenter.
  • Think about the database type that you want to move forward with. There are many options here even between the Linux and Windows installs.
  • Also, if using Microsoft SQL server, will you use the SQL express install or full blown SQL server?
  • Make sure you have DNS setup correctly to resolve the FQDN of the vCenter server name you plan to configure. The install will fail if this isn’t setup properly.
  • In thinking about installing vCenter as a VM appliance, be sure to think about your high availability of that VM as you essentially are in a chicken/egg scenario running vCenter in your virtual environment. Make sure you have a way either with 3rd party tools or built-in clone jobs, to keep a copy of the vCenter server safely stored elsewhere (DR facility, etc).

Thoughts

VMware vCenter is an integral part of the VMware core infrastructure model. Without it, you can’t really build on top of existing VMware infrastructure. The vCenter core brings all of the enterprise features to the table as well as centralized management, logins, and other features. The VMware vCenter appliance is a great way to quickly introduce vCenter into your environment and it is also the preferred means of moving forward for VMware in the future. For the vCenter install to be successful, make sure you have thought through many of the aforementioned topics and not only consider what your VMware environment looks like now, but also plan for what it may look like in the future.