VMware vSphere vs Proxmox: Which is best for your business?

Choosing a virtualisation tool can be tricky, so we've put two of the most popular side by side

Customers are faced with a host of considerations when it comes to trying to decide on what virtualisation and containerisation software to use, and the differences between vendors are not always clear.

In order to better inform buyers, we've decided to take a look at two of the best-known software packages out there, Proxmox and VMware vSphere, and break down what it is they do and how they may benefit your business.

What is VMware vSphere?

There are many different versions of VMware virtualisation software, but VMware vSphere is arguably the most popular.

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Formerly known as VMware Infrastructure, this flagship product comprises two main parts: the hypervisor and the management platform. ESXi is a Type 1 hypervisor (bare metal hypervisor which couples with the OS kernel), and vCenter Server (formerly known as VirtualCenter) is used for infrastructure management, providing a single pane of glass view across ESXi hosts.

ESXi is installed directly on physical hardware in the same way Windows or Linux operating systems do. This software allows you to create multiple virtual machines running operating systems such as Windows, Linux, Solaris, macOS, and others on a single piece of physical hardware.

This has the advantage of providing a virtualisation layer that takes all the storage, networking, compute, and memory resources of the physical host and adds them to virtual machines. There’s also the Virtual Machine File System, a tool that provides a high-performance cluster file system for VMs.

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Another bonus of ESXi is that it can run on Intel processors (Xeon and up), as well as AMD Opteron processors - this crosses both 32-bit and 64-bit guest operating systems, although 32-bit processors aren’t supported - ESXi uses a 64-bit VMkernel. 

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The hypervisor, which can be installed on a hard disk, USB device or SD card, can support the following resources per host: 4,096 virtual processors, 512 VMs, 4TB of RAM and 320 logical CPUs.

VMware’s ESXi is available as a free download or as part of a paid package. As you might have guessed, the free version provides only limited functionality and can’t be managed by vCenter (see below). At the time of writing, the software is operating under version 6.7.

VMware vCenter is a software suite that manages the whole of the VMware virtualisation infrastructure, acting as a single window. It’s from here that assignment of VMs to hosts are managed, as well as the assignment of resources to tasks, based on policies set by the administrator. A single instance of vCenter can manage up to 1,000 hosts at a time, across a maximum of 10,000 active VMs or 15,000 registered VMs

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It also enables the use of features such as vSphere Distributed Resource Scheduler (DRS), vSphere High Availability (HA), vSphere vMotion, and vSphere Storage vMotion. It also provides the API for vSphere and manages ESXi.

It can be installed on a supported version of Windows or used as a preconfigured Linux version known as vCenter Server Appliance. vCenter Server also permits Host Profiles, allowing users to define rules for specific ESXi hosts.

What is Proxmox?

Proxmox is a complete open source server virtualisation management software. It was developed by Proxmox Server Solutions in Austria under the Internet Foundation of Austria and is released under the GNU General Public License.

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It's a Debian-based Linux distribution with a modified Ubuntu LTS kernel. It enables the deployment and management of virtual machines and containers, such as KVM (Kernel-based Virtual Machine) for virtual machines and Linux Containers (LXC) for containers, an OS-level virtualisation tool that has been included in Proxmox VE since version 4.0.

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The software also includes a bare-metal installer, web-based management interface and many command-line tools. There is also a REST API to support third-party tools.

Admins can carry out all management tasks with the integrated graphical user interface (GUI). This interface is based on the ExtJS JavaScript framework and works with any modern browser.

Proxmox can be clustered across multiple server nodes for high availability. When deployed, the resource manager called Proxmox VE HA Manager monitors all virtual machines and containers on the whole cluster and automatically gets into action if one of them fails.

There is also an integrated live/online migration feature, this enables the movement of virtual machines from one Proxmox VE cluster node to another without any downtime. The process can be initiated by administrators with either scripts or the web interface.

The Proxmox Virtual Environment supports a maximum of 12TB of RAM and 768 logical CPUs per host. It also supports Intel EMT64 or AMD64 with Intel VT/AMD-V CPU flag.

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It also features a built-in firewall that is customisable allowing configurations via GUI or CLI. Firewall rules can be set up for all hosts inside a cluster or define rules for virtual machines and containers only.

Comparing the two

ESXi is a mostly closed off, proprietary product that has a free version with limited features. Most enterprise features are not available in the free version.

Proxmox is a free, open source product based on other free, open source products (KVM, LXC, etc) with all features enabled.

vSphere has more features overall than Proxmox, although Proxmox's features are more useful. Proxmox can automatically enable nodes to use the same shared storage when the user adds them to a cluster. While ESXi obliges the user to manually configure a node to use the shared storage from its cluster.

While both technologies are used for cloud computing and server consolidation, the typical usage profile of Proxmox is in virtualised server isolation and software development. VMware vSphere is more likely to be used for business-critical applications and infrastructure as a service (IaaS).

ESXi also uses proprietary technology to support virtualisation (VT-x for Intel processors and AMD-V for AMD processors). Compare this with the situation with Proxmos; its KVM uses generic x86 virtualisation technology.

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