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

Choosing a virtualisation tool can be tricky, so we've pitted two of the most popular head-to-head

Graphical depiction of virtualisation with bright lights emerging from servers

Virtualisation and containerisation software has rapidly grown over the last few years, with many different providers and systems available to today's businesses. It can be difficult to assess each system's difference and value, as many of the pros and cons are not necessarily made clear when buying. 

However, there are two standout packages that most businesses opt for in this space: VMware vSphere and the open-source Proxmox. IT Pro has looked at both to weigh each system's good and bad points and help you make the right decision for your business.

What is VMware vSphere?

vSphere is the most popular virtualisation software in VMware's portfolio and is now in its seventh iteration. It was originally launched in 2009 as 'VMware Infrastructure', but has changed substantially over the last 12 years. 

The product includes hypervisor software and a management platform. The Type 1 hypervisor, also known as ESXi, is a bare-metal version that includes the OS kernel. It has vCentre server management system, previously known as VirtualCenter, that offers a centralised view across all ESXi hosts. 

The hypervisor is similar to your average operating system in that it is directly installed into the physical hardware. This way, customers can create multiple virtual machines (VMs) and run systems like Windows, Linux, macOS, Solaris, and more on a single device. This means there is a layer of storage handled by virtualisation.  

Somebody placing a CPU component onto a circuit board

Another bonus of ESXi is it can run on Intel processors (Xeon and up) and AMD Opteron and Epyc 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.

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. Naturally, the free version provides only limited functionality and can’t be managed by Center (see below). vSphere is currently on its 7th iteration, first announced in March 2020, and is the first version to feature vSphere with Kubernetes, formerly known as Project Pacific. 

VMware vCenter is a software suite that manages the whole of the VMware virtualisation infrastructure, acting as a single window. From here, the assignment of VMs to hosts is 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 up to 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.

With the latest version of its virtualisation software - vSphere 7 - VMware has added full integration with Kubernetes, which it's touting as the "biggest vSphere innovation since the launch of the ESXi hypervisor". This means administrators can provision, run, and manage Kubernetes clusters on top of vSphere via the Kubernetes interface. Supporting both containers and VMs on a single platform allows vSphere 7 to run Kubernetes pods on VMs using the vSphere POD Service. VMware vSphere PODs can be managed like existing VMs.  

What is Proxmox?

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

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

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 VMs 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 VMs 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.

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 VMs and containers only.

vSphere vs Proxmox

So, which one of these would be the optimal virtualisation tool for your company? It mostly depends on what features you are looking for and how much you are willing to spend.

For instance, business users might find ESXi to be quite limited when it comes to the variety of tools it offers in its free version, and is known to use proprietary technology to support virtualisation (VT-x for Intel processors and AMD-V for AMD processors). The closed off, proprietary product might not be the best match for organisations that are looking for more advanced offerings.

This is why larger companies might want to consider VMware vSphere Enterprise Plus, which is the new version of the programme following VMware’s decision to sunset the original vSphere Enterprise in 2019, with support for Enterprise licensing having ended in 2020. VMware vSphere is also more often used for business-critical applications and infrastructure as a service (IaaS). However, it does come at a higher price than other virtualisation tools, with costs depending on quantity as well as the level and duration of support, with customers being able to choose between one and three years.

For those looking for a more affordable tool, Proxmox might be a better option to consider. As a free, open source product based on other free, open source products (KVM, LXC, etc), it has all of its features enabled. As opposed to the other two tools, which are most often used in cloud computing and server consolidation, Proxmox is more suited to virtualised server isolation and software development. Although it might not have the same scope of available tools as VMware vSphere, users tend to find the features it does have more useful. The tool can also be automatically configured to allow nodes to use the same shared storage when added to a cluster, which many will find more helpful than ESXi’s insistence that users do this manually.

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