Guide to Migrating From VMware: Why and How to Move to an Alternative Platform

This comprehensive guide provides steps for successfully migrating from VMware to an alternative platform for running virtual machines.

Christopher Tozzi, Technology Analyst

February 29, 2024

11 Min Read
magnifying glass hovering over VMware logo

Once upon a time, if you were running virtual machines (VMs) in production, there was a very good chance you were using VMware to do it. As a pioneering vendor in the virtualization ecosystem, VMware has long stood out as the go-to solution for businesses seeking to operate VMs.

But today, there are many options for deploying VMs. You can adopt cloud-based services such as Amazon EC2 or Azure Virtual Machines. You can run VMs on-premises using open source technology like KVM or VirtualBox, or via proprietary platforms such as Hyper-V. Or you might decide to get away from traditional virtualization altogether by migrating to containers.

With so many VMware alternatives now available — and with growing questions surrounding the future of VMware technology — many organizations are now asking the question: How can you migrate from VMware? What's the best way to move 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're prepared the following VMware migration guide to help answer questions like those. We can't tell you which migration strategy is best for your needs, of course, because the best solution varies from one organization to the next. But we can provide a general overview of which migration processes and tools to consider if you want to migrate away from VMware.

Related:The 'On-Premise' Debate: How a Data Center Slang Term Went Mainstream

Why Migrate From VMware?

Let's start by discussing the reasons why it may (or may not) make sense to migrate VM-based workloads from a VMware platform to an alternative.

It's not because there is anything inherently wrong with VMware. On the contrary, VMware technology remains as mature and reliable as ever as a solution for running the infrastructure that hosts modern applications. You may find in some cases that VMware alternatives are more cost-effective or scalable than VMware, but the opposite may also be true, depending on which types of workloads you are managing and how they are configured.

However, one big factor surrounding VMware that has changed recently is the company's product management strategy and future direction. VMware's acquisition by Broadcom, which was completed in late 2023, has raised concerns among some VMware customers about changes to product offerings, licensing terms, and pricing models for core VMware technology.

For now, it remains unclear what will change, and it may be a bit rash to migrate away from VMware entirely just because of concerns about what Broadcom could do. Still, now is a good time to explore VMware alternatives and how to migrate to them so that you'll be prepared if it does become clear in the future that VMware is no longer right for you.

On balance — and in fairness to VMware and Broadcom — we should note that VMware alternatives like EC2, Hyper-V, and KVM are always changing, too. There's no guarantee that the product features or pricing available today will hold true in the future for these or for any products.

Still, none of the vendors of VMware alternatives has undergone major mergers or acquisitions recently — so it's not outlandish to imagine that VMware platforms are primed for more disruption in the near future than their competitors.

Finding VMware Alternatives

If you decide that migrating away from VMware is the right choice for your business, your first step in the migration process is selecting an alternative platform.

VMware offers many products and capabilities, such as load balancers, firewalls, and storage virtualization. Discussing alternatives to each of these VMware offerings is beyond the scope of this guide.

Instead, we'll focus on alternatives to VMware's main product: virtual machines deployed using platforms like vSphere. For most organizations seeking a VMware alternative, finding another way to deploy VMs at scale is likely to be a prime consideration.

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

1. Cloud-based VM hosting

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

  • Amazon EC2

  • Azure Virtual Machines

  • Google Compute Engine

There are also a variety of VM hosting services from alternative cloud providers.

By and large, these cloud services allow you to do the same basic things as VMware: host virtual machines at scale. The major difference between cloud-based VMs and traditional VMware environments, however, is that when you use the cloud, you run your VMs on infrastructure owned by someone else. (VMware is also compatible with cloud-based hosting, and we'll say more about that below, but it's not a traditional use case.)

As a result, total cost of ownership for running VMs in the cloud as an alternative to VMware may be higher, especially if you operate the infrastructure for a long time. The tradeoff is that you don't have to provide your own infrastructure, making the cloud a simpler solution.

2. Open source virtualization technologies

The second main type of alternative to VMware is to use an open source technology for running virtual machines. Popular options in this category include:

  • KVM, a virtualization framework built 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're free of cost in most cases. A major drawback, though, is that they lack the orchestration tooling that comes with VMware, so expect to have to do more management work by hand if you migrate from VMware to an open source platform. Some of these solutions also work only with Linux-based hosts (although you can run Windows VMs as guests), so you'll need Linux running on your servers.

3. Proprietary on-prem virtualization

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

Feature-wise, VMware and Hyper-V are comparable in many respects; in fact, Hyper-V, out of all VMware alternatives, arguably comes the closest to being a drop-in replacement to VMware. Still, there are some differences that could make migration from VMware to Hyper-V difficult, such as the fact that Hyper-V supports somewhat fewer operating systems than VMware.

Essential Steps for Migrating From VMware

The exact steps for migrating away from VMware will vary depending on which VMware products you are currently using and which platform you're migrating to. In general, however, you'll want to ensure that your migration process covers the following key steps:

First, create backups of virtual machines you have running in VMware, as well as any associated resources, such as virtual data storage. Having backups is important in case something goes wrong during the migration process.

You can back up most VMware VMs by taking snapshots of them, and VMware offers snapshotting capabilities for some of its other products, too. However, if you're taking snapshots as part of a VMware migration process, keep the following pointers in mind:

  • For best results, turn off VMs before taking snapshots. Otherwise, it may be difficult to restore them later.

  • Be sure that you can import the virtual disk files for your snapshots (which take the form of vmdk files by default in most cases) into whichever platform you'll be migrating.

2. Set up your VMware replacement

Next, get your VMware alternative environment up and running. If you're migrating to a cloud-based environment, this is pretty easy because you don't need to install anything. But if you are using a VMware alternative like KVM or Hyper-V, you'll need to set up the infrastructure to host it and provision your virtualization software.

3. Move VM images and data

Step three of your migration away from VMware is to move data from your VMware environment to the new environment. To simplify this process, consider copying your VMware disk images en masse to a storage volume located in your new environment, as opposed to trying to import the images one-by-one.

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

4. Convert disk images

If your new VM platform doesn't support VMware file types, you'll have to convert the disk images to a compatible format first. Tools such as qemu-img are useful 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

With compatible disk images ready, you can begin creating new VMs to replace the ones you'll be shutting down on your VMware platform. You may be able to automate part of this process with the help of migration tools or scripts that automatically read VMware configurations and generate new VMs based on them.

6. Configure environment settings

You'll also need to configure your new hosting platform to match the networking, storage, security, and other policies you had in place for VMware. Here again, migration tools may be able to automate some of this work, but expect to have to invest considerable manual effort in getting an equivalent environment up and running.

7. Redirect traffic to your new environment

Once your VMware alternative environment is fully functional, you can take your old VMware platform offline by redirecting traffic to the new VMs.

8. Shut down VMware

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

Other Factors to Consider for a Successful Migration From VMware

Before closing, let's touch on a few additional points that are important for executing a successful migration.

Running VMware on a public cloud

As an alternative to migrating away from VMware completely, some organizations might wish to rehost their VMware workloads on top of public cloud infrastructure. Certain VMware products, such as Horizon, support this approach for certain public clouds.

Because you'd still be using VMware-licensed software, this type of change doesn't eliminate concerns about future VMware product changes. But it does at least get your workloads into the public cloud, where they are a step closer toward running on a cloud provider's native platform — making it easier to migrate away from VMware entirely at a later time if you wish.

Consider migration tools

As we mentioned, some VMware alternatives offer migration tools that can help move workloads from VMware platforms to a new environment. For example, Hyper-V offers a VM conversion wizard, and the Amazon cloud provides a migration service that automates some of the steps for converting an on-prem VM into a VM hosted on EC2.

Not all VMware alternatives offer migration assistants. But if one is available for the platform you're using, it will probably simplify your migration dramatically. Just keep in mind that migration tools may not support all types of workloads or configurations, and they can sometimes make mistakes — so expect to have to perform some manual conversion work, too.

Replacing your VMware infrastructure

A major challenge you may run into while migrating away from VMware is a lack of alternative infrastructure to host your new VMs. If your current servers are all busy hosting VMware-based workloads and you can't shut those workloads off until the migration process is complete, which servers do you use to stand up a new environment?

One solution is to migrate to the public cloud, where you don't need to provide your own servers. Otherwise, you may need to acquire new servers as part of your migration strategy.

There is no simple solution on this front, but this is an important factor to consider when planning a migration away from VMware.

Containers as a VMware alternative

Migrating VM-based workloads to containers typically requires more than a small amount of work because it necessitates changes to application architectures, as well as the adoption of additional tools (like Kubernetes) to help manage containers.

But if the workloads you are running on VMware could benefit from an overhaul, consider migrating to containers instead of moving them to another VM hosting platform. When your apps are containerized, you open up a whole new set of options for moving out of VMware because you can migrate to a self-managed Kubernetes cluster or deploy containers in the cloud using services like Elastic Kubernetes Service or Azure Kubernetes Service.

About the Author(s)

Christopher Tozzi

Technology Analyst, Fixate.IO

Christopher 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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