ESXi on a Raspberry Pi 4: Part 1

The Raspberry Pi

his is a series of three posts where I share my own experience and what I’ve learned as a first time Pi user, by turning it into a VMWare ESXi host.

What is a Raspberry Pi

The Raspberry Pi is a single board computer, initially intended to fill a gap for affordable, programmable hardware for children. Quickly becoming popular among the general public of all ages, it exceeded its primary purpose as a computer science playground for the youngest. Offering room for creativity with its simple design and low cost, people have turned it into a retro gaming console, a Kodi media center, a weather station, a homelab or just used it as a plain desktop PC.

Raspberry Pi 4 and VMware

Originally unveiled in 2019, the latest edition to the Raspberry Pi family is Raspberry Pi 4. This version offered significant improvements in terms of its hardware capabilities. Having versions with 2GB, 4GB and 8GB of on-board RAM, it opened the doors more than ever to power users/innovators to be able to tinker with it and push it to its limits.

This opportunity was seized by VMware, a major player in the virtualization market. In 2018, they offered a sneak peak where the ESXi hypervisor was running on a Raspberry Pi, back when it only had 1GB of RAM. But it was only in October of 2020 that they officially released a fling or tech preview (not intended for production), as its official name stands, for free download so that enthusiasts can give it a test drive.

Buying/Building a Raspberry Pi 4

The first step in this adventure would be to buy a Raspberry Pi 4. The recommended way is to get a starter kit. But part of the Pi’s charm (and reason why it’s considered a cheap investment) is the possibility to just buy the credit card sized board and a power supply, then just connect it to your peripherals and run it like that. Even so, as the availability of the Pi has been growing globally with each generation, a broad range of accessories (some included in starter kits) has also appeared. I will single out the cases, heatsinks and fans as the most important, because they all help to prevent overheating, which will prolong the life of your Pi.

Back to my own shopping experience, I decided to purchase one locally (Macedonia, Southeastern Europe), keeping in mind potential COVID-19 related delays in delivery services, additional costs for delivery (not a European Union country) and uncertainty of how this fragile package would be treated on its journey. That resulted in a limited choice of starter kits to pick from (only one), and pushed me even more towards the DIY approach.

My partly customizable starter kit (105 Euros) came with:

  • Raspberry Pi 4 (4GB RAM, 8GB wasn’t available at the time)
  • USB Type C power supply
  • 32GB micro SD card, with an SD card adapter
  • 3 heatsinks
  • See-through case

Then, I bought for an additional cost of 17 Euros:

  • A Micro HDMI to HDMI cable
  • A 32GB SanDisk USB (intended for storage for the ESXi Pi, not necessary for other usages)

Even though the Pi 4 has WiFi, a network cable is recommended and I happened to have an extra one. They are easy to come by and cheap, so I will include 1 euro for 1 meter in the total cost of 123 Euros.

Assembling a Pi is quite easy and straightforward, but as a first-timer tinkering with electronics, I found these official instructions on the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s page helpful and educational.

Testing a Pi 4 with Raspberry Pi OS (previously Raspbian)

Once everything is in place, and before you plug in the power supply, it’s time to prep the micro SD card with an operating system (OS). The default option to try out the Pi as a desktop PC, would be to go with the Raspberry Pi OS, an open-source Linux distribution. It’s officially supported software that is based on the famous Debian (hence its former name Raspbian), but optimized for the Pi’s hardware.

Things you need:

  • Micro SD card of at least 8GB (preferably more, mine has 32 GB)
  • Raspberry Pi Imager software (free download)

Once again, the Foundation’s page has very useful written instructions on the nitty gritty details on this process.

If you prefer visual walkthroughs and this might be your first rodeo, my personal favorite was Eli the computer guy’s video guide. It’s pretty insightful since Eli always gives extra info to put things into context on the topics he covers.

Part 2 will cover the actual ESXi installation.