VMware ESXi Free License vs. Paid: Limitations and Differences

VMware ESXi Free License vs. Paid: Limitations and Differences

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Despite VMware ESXi being free, you can opt for a paid version and explore all the features the ESXi free license lacks.

VMware is a leader in the virtualization industry and offers several virtualization products spread across different licenses.

VMware ESXi is a bare-metal hypervisor that allows you to set up virtual machines and allocate hardware resources to said VMs. In addition, ESXi integrates operating system components, such as kernel, unlike a traditional type-2 hypervisor where the hypervisor itself is software. With all that said, VMware ESXi is a type-1 hypervisor and one of the main products of VMware.

As mentioned earlier, there is an ESXi free license and a paid license. Both are quite different, and explaining the differences will help you determine if using the free ESXi license is better than paying for the whole VMware vSphere hypervisor package.

This guide will cover the limitations and the differences between the paid and free ESXi licenses. So with all that said, let’s start.

VMware vSphere Hypervisor (ESXi) Free vs. Paid License

Despite being free, there aren’t many differences between the free and paid version of ESXi. Both paid and free versions include similar features, with some being locked out. In addition, the free and paid licenses are downloaded from the same media, alluding to the fact that even the free ESXi license provides an enterprise solution for multiple-server virtualization.

But with that said, what are the limitations of the free license?

ESXi Free Limitations

  • Maximum physical CPUs – 2;
  • Maximum CPUs per virtual machine – 8;
  • No official support;
  • No vCenter Server for ESXi host management;
  • No HA (high availability);
  • No storage/backup API usage;
  • No load balancing of virtual machines.

These limitations, although significant, don’t necessarily hinder your virtual machines in many ways. The free version shares plenty of features with the paid versions, and these limitations might not be enough for you to invest in purchasing a license key. With that said, we must dive a bit deeper into what these limitations mean.

  • VMware ESXi Free Offers No Official Support

This is a significant limitation to the ESXi free license. With no support means, there’s no way to contact VMware regarding issues. The only support available to you is in the form of forum posts. You can post on various virtualization forums or use the official VMware support forum.

Regardless, customer support is a luxury that only customers with a paid license key can access.

  • VMware ESXi Free Doesn’t Allow Central Management

Another significant difference is the lack of central management for developing large-scale virtualization applications. On the other hand, the paid version is perfect for testing smaller-scale apps where the user doesn’t require in-depth virtual infrastructure management. This is all due to the omission of vCenter Server. vCenter Server is a vital application of the VMware vSphere Hypervisor.

Although the VMware vSphere client offers some management level, the vCenter Server is integral for the day-to-day management of your virtual infrastructure.

ESXi Free vs. Paid – Differences

Now that you’re aware of the limitations of the free version of ESXi, let’s look at the differences between the free VMware ESXi license and paid version of ESXi.

  • The free version of ESXi has no expiration date, while the paid version is renewable. In addition, you get a 60-day trial of Enterprise Plus features the first time you try the free version of ESXi;
  • Maximum physical CPUs available – 2 compared to 768 (logical);
  • Maximum vCPUs per virtual machine – 8 vCPUs compared to 256 vCPUs;
  • The lack of official support – paid license includes various SLAs;
  • The commission of VMware vCenter Server – paid license includes vCenter Server;
  • No high availability for free license key – high availability included in paid license key;
  • No storage backup for free version – paid license includes storage and backup API usage;
  • No load balancing of VMs – paid license includes load balancing as a core feature.

Should You Use the Free ESXi License Key?

So that brings us to a fundamental question: “Should you use the free ESXi license?” The answer to the question depends on several factors. Here are the scenarios where a free ESXi license is better compared to a paid license:

  • You don’t need to purchase license keys so long as you’re running a single server;
  • You don’t need to purchase a license key if you’re planning on running a smaller virtualization infrastructure at the moment;
  • You don’t need to purchase a license key if you’re comfortable with the CPU and vCPU limitations for your VMs;
  • You don’t need to purchase a license key if you’re planning on small-scale testing and trying various other VMware products such as vSAN, NSX, vRealize Suite, and are comfortable with the number of ESXi hosts;
  • You don’t need to purchase a license key if you’re planning on learning the basics of VMware vSphere Hypervisor – the free hypervisor is an excellent starting point to learn about virtualization technology;

When Should You Upgrade?

To finish off, here are several scenarios when it might be time to upgrade your free licensed ESXi to a paid license:

  • Upgrade if managing virtual machines and ESXi servers get out of hand – get access to vCenter Server;
  • Upgrade when patch management becomes an issue – you can manage patches for ESXi hosts through vCenter Server;
  • Upgrade when backup and security become an issue – High Availability feature;


Now that you know the limitations and differences between the free ESXi license and paid license, it’s time to decide which one is for you. As we’ve also outlined, there are various use cases and scenarios where the ESXi free license will suffice.

However, the central management feature and high availability are enough reasons to consider switching from the ESXi free license to a paid license.