VMware Migration: A Comprehensive Guide

Long ago, if you were operating virtual machines (VMs) in production, there was a high likelihood that you were utilizing VMware for this purpose. As an innovative provider in the virtualization ecosystem, VMware has always been the preferred choice for businesses looking to manage VMs.

However, in the present day, there are numerous possibilities for deploying VMs. You can embrace cloud-based services like Amazon EC2 or Azure Virtual Machines. You can operate VMs on-premises using open source technology such as KVM or VirtualBox, or through proprietary platforms like Hyper-V. Alternatively, you may opt to transition away from conventional virtualization entirely by shifting to containers.

Given the plethora of VMware alternatives currently accessible, along with increasing uncertainties surrounding the future of VMware technology, many organizations are now posing the question: How can you transition from VMware? What is the optimal approach to shift from a platform like VMware vSphere or Horizon to an alternative like EC2? How do you transfer virtual machine images, data resources, and configurations from one platform to another?

We’ve compiled the following VMware migration handbook to assist in addressing queries like those. Naturally, we cannot dictate which migration approach is ideal for your requirements because the ideal solution varies from one organization to another. Nonetheless, we can present a general overview of the migration processes and tools to consider if you intend to migrate away from VMware.

Reasons for Transitioning From VMware?

Let’s commence by examining the reasons why it might (or might not) make sense to move VM-based workloads from a VMware platform to an alternative.

It’s not because there is anything inherently amiss with VMware. On the contrary, VMware technology continues to be as mature and dependable as ever as a solution for housing the infrastructure that supports modern applications. In certain cases, you may discover that VMware alternatives are more cost-effective or scalable than VMware, but the reverse could also be true, depending on the workloads you are managing and their configurations.

However, a major change concerning VMware that has recently transpired is the company’s product management strategy and future direction. VMware’s acquisition by Broadcom, which was finalized in late 2023, has fueled concerns among certain VMware customers regarding alterations to product offerings, licensing terms, and pricing structures for core VMware technology.

At present, it remains uncertain what will change, and it might be somewhat hasty to migrate entirely from VMware solely due to apprehensions about potential actions by Broadcom. Nevertheless, now is an opportune time to explore VMware alternatives and methods for transitioning to them so that you are ready if it becomes evident in the future that VMware is no longer the right fit for you.

On the whole — and in fairness to VMware and Broadcom — we should acknowledge that VMware alternatives like EC2, Hyper-V, and KVM are also evolving constantly. There is no assurance that the product features or pricing available today will persist in the future for these or any other products.

Nevertheless, none of the providers of VMware alternatives have undergone significant mergers or acquisitions recently — so it is not far-fetched to envision that VMware platforms are primed for more disruption in the near future than their competitors.

Identifying VMware Alternatives

If you conclude that migrating away from VMware is the appropriate decision for your business, your initial step in the migration process is choosing an alternate platform.

VMware offers a variety of products and capabilities, such as load balancers, firewalls, and storage virtualization. Delving into alternatives to each of these VMware offerings exceeds the scope of this guide.

Instead, we will concentrate on alternatives to VMware’s primary product: virtual machines deployed utilizing platforms like vSphere. For the majority of organizations seeking a VMware alternative, finding another method to deploy VMs at scale is likely a primary consideration.

Alternatives to vSphere and other major VM products from VMware fall into three main categories. Let’s delve into each one.

1. Cloud-based VM hosting

Firstly, there are cloud-based services for running virtual machines, such as:

  • Amazon EC2
  • Azure Virtual Machines
  • Google Compute Engine

By and large, these cloud services enable you to do the same fundamentals as VMware: host virtual machines at scale. The principal disparity between cloud-based VMs and traditional VMware environments, however, is that when you utilize the cloud, you run your VMs on infrastructure owned by someone else. (VMware is also compatible with cloud-based hosting, and we’ll delve more into that below, but it is not a standard use case.)

Consequently, the total cost of ownership for running VMs in the cloud as an alternative to VMware may be higher, especially if you manage the infrastructure for an extended period. The tradeoff is that you do not need to provide your own infrastructure, rendering the cloud a simpler solution.

2. Open source virtualization technologies

The second primary type of alternative to VMware is utilizing an open source technology for running virtual machines. Popular options in this domain encompass:

  • KVM, a virtualization framework integrated into the Linux kernel
  • Xen, another major virtualization framework for running VMs on Linux
  • VirtualBox, a cross-platform open source virtualization engine

The advantage of these options is that they are usually free of cost. Nonetheless, a notable drawback is that they lack the orchestration tooling that accompanies VMware, implying that you will likely need to engage in more manual management work if you migrate from VMware to an open source platform. Some of these solutions also operate solely with Linux-based hosts (though you can run Windows VMs as guests), necessitating that you have Linux running on your servers.

3. Proprietary on-prem virtualization

A third category of VMware alternatives is closed-source virtualization platforms engineered for use with private infrastructure. The primary contender in this space for enterprise-scale VM deployment is Microsoft Hyper-V.

Feature-wise, VMware and Hyper-V are comparable in many regards; indeed, Hyper-V, among all VMware alternatives, arguably comes closest to being a direct replacement for VMware. Nonetheless, there exist some disparities that could complicate the transition from VMware to Hyper-V, such as the fact that Hyper-V supports marginally fewer operating systems than VMware.

Crucial Steps for Moving From VMware

The specific steps for transitioning away from VMware will vary contingent on the VMware products you presently utilize and the platform to which you are migrating. Nonetheless, in general, you will want to ensure that your migration process encompasses the following key steps:

1. Back up VMware VMs and associated resources

First and foremost, back up the virtual machines you have operational in VMware, as well as any linked resources, such as virtual data storage. Having backups is critical in case something goes awry during the migration process.

You can back up most VMware VMs by creating snapshots of them, and VMware provides snapshotting capabilities for some of its other products, as well. However, if you are taking snapshots as part of a VMware migration process, bear in mind the following tips:

  • For optimal outcomes, power off VMs before taking snapshots. Otherwise, restoring them later might be challenging.
  • Ensure that you can import the virtual disk files for your snapshots (which are typically in the form of vmdk files) into the platform to which you will be migrating.

2. Establish your VMware replacement

Following this, set up your VMware alternative environment. If you are migrating to a cloud-based environment, this is relatively straightforward since there is no need to install anything. However, if you are utilizing a VMware alternative like KVM or Hyper-V, you will need to configure the infrastructure to host it and deploy your virtualization software.

3. Transfer VM images and data

The third step in your migration away from VMware is to transfer data from your VMware environment to the new environment. To streamline this process, consider copying your VMware disk images en masse to a storage volume in your new environment, rather than attempting to import the images individually.

Also, make sure to migrate any additional resources, such as data volumes that are not part of VMs.

4. Convert disk images

If your new VM platform does not support VMware file types, you will need to convert the disk images to a compatible format first. Tools such as qemu-img are handy for this purpose; they can convert VMware formats like vmdk into images that are compatible with open source hypervisors (like qcow2) or Hyper-V (like vhd).

5. Create new VMs

Once you have compatible disk images ready, you can commence creating new VMs to substitute the ones you will be decommissioning on your VMware platform. You may be able to partly automate this process with the assistance of migration tools or scripts that automatically read VMware configurations and generate new VMs based on them.

6. Configure environment settings

You will also need to configure your new hosting platform to align with the networking, storage, security, and other policies you had in place for VMware. Migration tools might be able to automate some of this work, but anticipate needing to invest significant manual effort in getting an equivalent environment up and running.

7. Redirect traffic to your new environment

Once your VMware alternative environment is fully operational, you can switch your old VMware platform offline by rerouting traffic to the new VMs.

8. Close down VMware

Finally, after confirming that the new environment is adept at handling your workloads, you can permanently shut down your VMware resources.

Other Considerations for a Successful Migration From VMware

Before wrapping up, let’s touch on a few additional points crucial for executing a successful migration.

Running VMware on a public cloud

An alternative to completely transitioning away from VMware, some organizations might opt to relocate their VMware workloads onto public cloud infrastructure. Particular VMware products, such as Horizon, support this approach for certain public clouds.

Because you would still be utilizing VMware-licensed software, this shift does not eliminate concerns regarding future changes to VMware products. Nonetheless, it does shift your workloads into the public cloud, bringing them a step closer to running on a cloud provider’s native platform — making it simpler to transition entirely from VMware at a subsequent time if desired.

Consider migration tools

As mentioned earlier, some VMware alternatives provide migration tools that can facilitate the transfer of workloads from VMware platforms to a new environment. For example, Hyper-V offers a VM conversion wizard, and the Amazon cloud delivers a migration service that automates certain steps for converting an on-prem VM into a VM hosted on EC2.

Not all VMware alternatives offer migration aides. However, if one is available for the platform you are using, it is likely to significantly simplify your migration. Nevertheless, bear in mind that migration tools may not support all types of workloads or configurations, and they can sometimes make errors — anticipate needing to perform some manual conversion work as well.

Replacing your VMware infrastructure

A major obstacle you may encounter while migrating away from VMware is a scarcity of alternative infrastructure to house your new VMs. If your current servers are fully occupied hosting VMware-based workloads and you cannot deactivate those workloads until the migration process is complete, which servers do you utilize to establish a new environment?

One solution is to migrate to the public cloud, where you do not need to furnish your own servers. Otherwise, you might need to procure new servers as part of your migration strategy.

There is no straightforward solution to this issue, but it is a crucial factor to contemplate when devising a migration away from VMware.

Containers as a VMware alternative

Migrating VM-based workloads to containers typically demands a substantial amount of work due to the requisite modifications to application architectures, as well as the adoption of additional tools (like Kubernetes) to help manage containers.

However, if the workloads you are operating on VMware could gain from a revamp, contemplate migrating to containers instead of transferring them to another VM hosting platform. When your applications are containerized, you unlock a myriad of options for leaving VMware because you can migrate to a self-managed Kubernetes cluster or deploy containers in the cloud utilizing services like Elastic Kubernetes Service or Azure Kubernetes Service.

About the author

Christopher Tozzi headshotChristopher Tozzi is a technology analyst with subject matter expertise in cloud computing, application development, open source software, virtualization, containers and more. He also lectures at a major university in the Albany, New York, area. His book, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” was published by MIT Press.

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