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ESXi is free… So why would you buy an ESXi anyway?

  • June 20, 2023
  • 13 min read
Cloud and Virtualization Architect. Kevin focuses on VMware technologies and has vast expertise in cloud solutions, virtualization, storage, networking, and IT infrastructure administration.
Cloud and Virtualization Architect. Kevin focuses on VMware technologies and has vast expertise in cloud solutions, virtualization, storage, networking, and IT infrastructure administration.


ESXi is often said to be a free hypervisor. You may not have heard about this, but there are actually two free versions of ESXi: Evaluation and Free. The thing is, both have several limitations that make them unfit for production use. The former has a 60-day time limit but provides all the ESXi features. The latter, in turn, has no time limits but lacks many cool hypervisor features. So, after all that, it’s obvious why you might end up buying from VMware, even if the free licenses seem fine.

The good thing is that VMware is very loyal in ESXi licensing. Well, you won’t get a rich set of hypervisor features in the free version, of course, but at least you don’t need to pay for its deployment in your home lab! In this article, I compare both the free VMware ESXi 8.0 Update 1 (referred to as ESXi below) licenses and Enterprise Plus. I think this post may be interesting for guys who have just started running their home labs or are getting familiar with VMware vSphere.

What’s on the table? 

VMware Free 

VMware Free is 100% free just as it comes from the version name. Register at VMware website, download the hypervisor, request the key, and you are good to go! What’s the catch? You can get ESXi for free forever…but its features are pretty limited.

VMware Evaluation 

VMware Evaluation includes all ESXi functions, but it expires after 60 days. Once the timer stops, you won’t be able to perform any actions in vCenter Server. VMs will continue working smoothly, but once you shut down any of them, you won’t be able to start them again until you either purchase a commercial version or switch to Free.

Enterprise Plus 

Enterprise Plus is the top-notch ESXi version. It is a commercial edition, so it has no time restrictions and provides you with all the robust hypervisor features.

Setup configuration 

I conducted today’s study on three SuperMicro SSG-620P-ACR12H servers that were absolutely identical from a hardware standpoint. You can find their configuration below:

  • 2 х Intel(R) Xeon(R) Platinum 8352Y CPU @ 2.20GHz;
  • 128GB (8 x 16 GB) RAM;
  • 5 x 1.92 TB SSD;
  • 4 x 10 Gb/s LAN.

All three servers were running ESXi, 8.0.0, 20513097. Each server’s name matched its ESXi. version.

Learn more about the current license 

First, apply the license key. Here’s the article that explains how to do it: Afterward, go to the Licensing tab to find out about the limitations. Here’s what you’ll see on that tab in ESXi Free:

ESXi Free

It doesn’t have many cool features, although it is free and never expires. Below, you’ll find what you typically see on the Licensing tab of ESXi Evaluation version:

Licensing tab of ESXi Evaluation version

As you can see, the only difference is that the Evaluation license expires after 60 days, while Enterprise Plus lasts forever (to be exact, until your ESXi version is supported). Considering all the known limitations of Free, Evaluation, and Enterprise versions that are typical for older ESXi versions, I decided to investigate whether they are still present. Here is the table with the limitations that I tried to uncover in ESXi 8.0:

  Limitations Versions of ESXi
Free license Evaluation license Enterprise plus license
1 Physical memory
2 Technical support Community supported, no VMware commercial support Community supported, no VMware commercial support Commercial support from VMware
3 Ability to manage via vCenter Server 60-day time limit +
4 License time 60-day time limit
5 Max number of physical CPUs per-host
6 Max number of Virtual processors (vCPU) per-VM 8 vCPUs 768 vCPUs 768 vCPUs
7 APIs restrictions Product APIs are read-only

Now, let’s get some more details.


Despite claims of ESXi being simple, it can still have its quirks. With the Free version, you won’t have access to VMware support. However, you can browse through the VMware communities, and if you’re lucky, you might find a solution. Nevertheless, it’s always better to have support backing up the solution.

vCenter Server 

If you choose the Free version or after the Evaluation expires, you won’t be able to add hosts to vCenter or manage them via vCenter. If you keep trying to add hosts to vCenter, you’ll run into an error or it’ll ask you to buy a valid license:

vCenter Server

Time limitations  

Evaluation is the only ESXi license with a time limit. Once installed, you can enjoy the unlimited ESXi features for 60 days. When the time runs out, you have the option to extend the license or switch to Free. The good thing is, you can always switch to Evaluation from any other license, including Free. However, once your time is up, switching back to Free won’t grant you another 60-day trial unless you reinstall ESXi. The Enterprise and Free versions do not have any time restrictions; as long as they are officially supported, you’re good to go.

 A limited number of vCPUs per VM 

With Evaluation or Enterprise Plus, you can assign up to 768 vCPUs per VM. For the Free version, you must not exceed 8 vCPUs in one VM.

A limited number of vCPUs per VM

Interestingly, in the Free version, you can still create a VM with the same number of vCPUs as your host has logical cores.

Customize settings

However, you won’t be able to start it like any other VM that has more than 8 vCPUs. Here’s the message you’ll see if you try to start such a VM.

The message you'll see if you try to start such a VM

Well, there’s not much you can do about this situation, so either run VMs with 8 vCPUs or update your ESXi license.

API features 

In ESXi Free, users are limited to a restricted set of API features. In other words, the hypervisor won’t be able to interact with third-party applications like Veeam Backup & Replication 12. Without the ability to use vCenter or APIs, you have no choice but to purchase an advanced license. Here’s the message you receive when you try to back up with Veeam Backup & Replication:

The message you'll see if you try to start such a VM

VMware User Group 

Basically, VMware User Group (VMUG) is a broad community of VMware users and enthusiasts. Upon joining, users are free to access valuable resources, exchange experience, and participate in VMware technologies events. One of the perks of being a VMUG member is access to VMware software licenses, like VMware vSphere Enterprise Plus, which is available for non-production purposes for no more than 200 USD per year. Thanks to this, you can freely explore and learn about VMware products without actually requiring a production license. It’s an amazing chance to gain practical experience and make informed choices about licenses.


In this article, I examined the limitations of ESXi 8.0 U1 licenses. Everything seems to be as it was before. Based on this, ESXi Free still appears to be a great choice for home labs, regardless of its limitations. If you’re looking for a full taste of what ESXi offers, the Evaluation version gives you a 60-day all-access pass to every feature. And honestly, 60 days is plenty of time to fall in love with what this hypervisor can do. Hopefully, this quick run-through helped shed some light on the different ESXi licenses. Cheers to informed decisions!

This material has been prepared in collaboration with Oleg Pankevych, Pre-Sales Engineer at StarWind, and Viktor Kushnir, Technical Writer with almost 4 years of experience at StarWind.

How helpful is Kevin's review of VMware ESXi licensing? Have you chosen the right VMware ESXi license for your first home lab server?
Dmytro Malynka
Dmytro Malynka StarWind Virtual SAN Product Manager

For single-server workloads, using VMware ESXi’s free license is suitable. However, for running a cluster, the optimal choice would be to obtain a VMUG Advantage membership, which includes a 365-day Evaluation license for ESXi and vCenter. This membership allows you to leverage enterprise-grade features at a lower cost. Then, for a full-blown HCI setup, use StarWind Virtual SAN to create highly available shared storage for your VMs. Book a demo of StarWind VSAN now to see this configuration in action!