One of the biggest complaints I’ve had with VMWare vSphere and VMWare ESX/ESXi over the last few years is that managing my virtual machines from my Mac computer was a hassle. The VMWare management utilities are all Windows-only, and even the few web-based tools either do not work or are extremely limited from a Mac. While it isn’t perfect yet, VMWare vSphere 5 has made it so you can actually do just about anything you need to using a Macintosh computer; you just need to go through a few hurdles.

To enable the administration of your various virtual machines, storage, clusters, datacenters, and the like, you can now use the vSphere 5 Web Client. Before it can be used, it must be authorized; the best instructions I found for this are here. Follow the steps in the “Authorizing the vSphere Web Client (Server)” section. This is a one-time configuration necessary to enable the vSphere Web Client.

Once authenticated, you will see something that looks very similar to the Windows-based vSphere Client running in your browser.

vSphere Web Client

This will satisfy most of your management needs, but it leaves out an all-important capability; the ability to remotely view the console of the systems. There’s a Console button, but it won’t work on a Mac. Once you’ve installed a machine, you can typically enable some sort of remote desktop capability in the operating system, but what do you do before then? If you’re running Windows, you use the vSphere client and open a console, but on a Mac, you’re out of luck. Right? Wrong.

There is an under-documented feature of vSphere that allows the capability of opening up VNC connections from the host directly to the console of the virtual machine. To perform this, we first have to enable incoming connections to your vSphere server, as vSphere 5 has an integrated firewall. This is the one step you will actually need to use the Windows vSphere Client; everything else can be done using the Web Client. This step needs to be executed once for each vSphere or ESXi host running virtual machines you want to access using VNC.

In the Windows vSphere client, choose the host you wish to enable VNC connections on. Choose the Configuration tab and on the left choose Security Profile. On the right, next to Firewall click Properties… As VMWare does not include VNC as a protocol, it is not listed as an available option. However the ports allowed by the gdbserver protocol will suit our purposes. Check the box next to gdbserver. (It is also wise to highlight the gdbserver line and click the Firewall… button and lock down where you will allow these VNC connections to take place from; in ours I restricted this to our intranet.) Click OK and you’ve now enabled the incoming ports to be used for VNC.

Finally, enabling VNC access to the console machines is a matter of setting advanced configuration parameters on each virtual machine, which can only be done when the virtual machine is off. To open up the advanced configuration:

  • In the Windows vSphere client, choose the machine, click Edit Settings…, click the Options tab, choose Advanced->General on the left, and click Configuration Parameters… on the right.
  • In the Web client, choose the machine, click Edit Settings… under the VM Hardware section, click VM Options, click Advanced, and click Edit Configuration….

In both cases, you now want to add three rows by clicking the Add Row button.

Name Value
RemoteDisplay.vnc.enabled true
RemoteDisplay.vnc.port 5900-5999 are the “standard” ports, choose one different from other VMs on the host.
RemoteDisplay.vnc.password the VNC password used to access the VNC session; only the first 8 characters are encrypted using the VNC protocol, and weakly at that. Don’t rely on this for security.

Once you’ve added these rows and click OK, you can now use a VNC client to connect to the console of the machine. Power up the machine, and then using Finder on the Mac, choose Go->Connect to Server (or hit Command-K), and type the following:

vnc://<ip or name of esxi host>:<port chosen in configuration settings>/

and click Connect. You will be prompted for your password, and depending on your client/version of OSX you may receive a warning about how keystroke encryption is not enabled. Accept the warning, and you will see the console of the virtual machine! (And note, since Macs don’t already use the three-finger salute, you can safely just press Ctrl-Alt-Del in that VNC-window to log into Windows systems!)

Once you’ve installed the operating system of choice, and enabled that OS’ remote desktop capability, you may want to disable this VNC access. Just shut down the VM, go back into the advanced options and change the RemoteDisplay.vnc.enabled setting to false.

Hopefully at some point soon, VMWare will enable a true web-based console application (which doesn’t require host-specific plugins to be installed) to go with their nice new web client. Until then, this is a reasonable workaround for accessing virtual machines using a Mac.

One thought on “Using a Mac with VMWare vSphere (ESXi) 5

  1. Grecs says:

    As pointed out by @troutman .. and I do to “I run a VM to manage VMs now.”

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