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I have a windows server 2003 box that I want to virtualize for free if possible. My understanding is that VMware's ESXi is free. Is there a free way to create the image? What are the steps necessary to do this?

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up vote 4 down vote accepted

You want to use either VMware Converter Standalone or Visioncore vConverter to P2V your current boxes. The process isn't all that difficult - you'll need to:

  • Install ESXi on a decent brand-name server (not all white boxes are compatible).
  • Install the converter of your choice on your workstation.
  • Walk through the conversion.
  • Power off the physical server.
  • Power up the new Virtual server.
A few notes:
  • The conversion is run completely from your workstation. This is important, because the better your workstation the faster the conversion. It's all about the amount of data, but a decent estimation is about 5-10 minutes per gig of data on the physical server. That might even be a little high actually.
  • It's rare that a conversion is perfect. Generally, you will need to reconfigure the networking once you've powered up the virtual guest. If at all possible, I recommend the E1000 network adapter in the virtual machine - I've found that to be the most reliable. You get some goofy issues with the Flexible adapter, which I think is the default.
  • Don't forget to install the VMware tools! These are a must for decent UI performance on the new VM guest.
I could go into much more detail, but really before you do any of this, hop into VMware's site and dig around for infomration in the knowledgbase and communities - there's a ton of good info up there.

Best of luck!

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Good info, but one nitpick. Yes, the workstation coordinates the conversion, but the lion's share of the data actually goes from the agent on the physical server directly to the ESX(i) machine. – EEAA Mar 26 '10 at 0:20
is powering off the physical server a necessary step? – User Apr 5 '10 at 22:36
Keep in mind that your conversion is a clone. You can't have both on the network at the same time or you get name and possibly IP conflicts. After the conversion, you need to disconnect the physical server from the network, whether or not you power it down. Alternatively, you can rename and re-IP it so there are no conflicts, but that's potentially risky... – Jes Apr 13 '10 at 22:07

I think that VMware vCenter Converter Standalone 4.0.1 is free (have to admit I've only used the spendy one sorry).

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+1 - It is free. Personally, though, I prefer a box loaded natively as a VM rather than converted. Its just cleaner that way, IMO. – Evan Anderson Mar 24 '10 at 19:16
Here are the docs and other information: – xeon Mar 24 '10 at 19:16
@Evan, I could not agree with you more - converting is a short term thing in my mind, a quick win but not a strategy. – Chopper3 Mar 24 '10 at 19:22
If I may humbly disagree - I've converted several servers with the VMware Converter (Visioncore also makes a free converter BTW), and all of my P2V's running in production are as stable if not more so than when they were physical. I know it 'feels weird' to do this, but in my experience it's a solid and viable solution, and is a long term strategy for my company. – Jes Mar 25 '10 at 23:55
Sorry, I can't have been clear, what I (and possibly Evan) mean is that I'd rather have my VMs built from scratch than from a P2V conversion. I fully support that conversions can often be more stable than physicals. Hope this clarifies. – Chopper3 Mar 26 '10 at 8:55

If you want to avoid future limitations due to not being able to run the full version, it might be worth checking out VirtualBox. It doesn't have VMWare's full feature set but it's free software, and provides the bulk of the functionality you'd look for: snapshots, adding/removing devices, mapping share drives, etc. That being said, I've never tried to convert a functioning physical server into a virtual machine of any variety, so I'm not sure how well it would work for your specific use case.

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While it may work, virtualbox isn't really quite as suited for running servers 24/7 as VMWare or other server VM tools are. VirtualBox is fantastic for virtualizing testbeds and workstations, for things like having to run Visual Studio or Outlook on an Ubuntu workstation. For a mail server, I wouldn't do it. – Bart Silverstrim Mar 24 '10 at 19:33
I also realized — after I wrote that answer — that it's not really the same class of app as ESXi, in that ESXi alleviates the need for a host OS. I actually voted to delete my answer but I guess I don't have the unilateral power to do that. Thanks for the tip.. I've mostly used VMs as a development tool when debugging device drivers, and also to have access to windows apps or linux under the other host OS. – intuited Mar 24 '10 at 20:10
I don't think this needs to be closed. VirtualBox can be configured to run in a headless mode, with CLI. If installed on top of a lightweight server install such as Arch or Debian, it may provide a very similar experience to ESXi. Also, the full ESX actually includes a very light Redhat-based linux distro as a management interface. I'm not sure how the HW abstrations would differ, but I think it's a valid possible solution. – Joe Internet Mar 24 '10 at 21:11
Joe Internet - I'm not sure how much you've worked with ESX or ESXi, but I'm guessing not very much. I use both VirtualBox and a couple HA ESX clusters daily, and I can say, while VirtualBox is awesome for desktop virtualization, even in headless mode, it is an incredibly immature product when compared to ESX or ESXi. For the most very basic virtualization needs, yes, VirtualBox will probably work OK. One will run into the bounds of its ability very quickly, though. – EEAA Mar 26 '10 at 0:23
@ErikA : are you comparing it to the full or free version of ESXi? What are some examples of features that are lacking in VirtualBox? – intuited Mar 26 '10 at 17:39

A thing to consider is the Windows 2003 license. As far as I understand, OEM licenses are NOT capable to run on a VM.

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