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I would like my VMWare ESXi 5 server to have a USB-attached HDD datastore which I'd be able to detach, attach to my laptop and browse files on it. As far as I understand, the hard drive is to be formatted in VMFS. How can I browse such on a Linux or a Windows PC?

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You can attach any old USB-connected drive to a VM. You don't need to format it into VMFS or make it a VMDK, and it certainly doesn't make things easier. –  HopelessN00b Aug 23 '12 at 19:40

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(It strikes me as a bad idea to work under this setup, but) Yes, There are VMFS drivers out there, as well as the vmfs-tools Debian package. Here are two articles describing their use:

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Not sure if VMFS is a requirement or the the browsing of VMDKs.

If VMFS is not required, a better option would be to store those VMs on an NFS server. You can then mount that NFS server on your Linux or Windows PC and look at it to your hearts content.

Supported solution that will work out of the box without downloading VMFS drivers.

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