Planned obsolescence is not green – respect your customers and your environment

2014-02-09 Update: IBM warns that they may require entitlements, but System x server firmware (i.e. x3750) seems to still allow open download with email registration only (unless my 2 year old ThinkCentre desktop includes server entitlements). Remember, the comparison to ProLiant is x86/x64 platform “commodity” servers, not POWER or Superdome or Alpha. Updated listing below.

2014-02-07 Update: @ProLiant on Twitter pointed me to a “response” from HP’s VP of Technology Services, Mary McCoy, which doesn’t respond to concerns at all. It just summarizes the earlier document (linked below), and reiterates the misunderstanding/lie about industry best practices for firmware access.

HP’s “Master Technologists” @tinkertwinsathp are repeating the company line as well. Their profile says they’re “driven to understand the entire IT environment” but they’re missing an easy and obvious one here. The only other x86 server vendor I’ve been able to find who has this “industry best practice” is Oracle. And their assertion that Cisco fiber channel switches and Redhat operating system are also industry standard servers, well, falls flat.

I’m still hopeful, but far less optimistic than before. But do read on.

There was a bit of drama on the Twitters yesterday… not the rumor that Punxsatawney Phil is actually not the same groundhog from 19th century fame, but the news that HP’s server division is going to be locking down firmware and service packs to current ProLiant warranty and service contract holders. Planned obsolescence anyone?

Firmware wants to be free

My Cisco UCS friends were quick to chime in on the news, noting that you don’t need a warranty, entitlement, or service contract to get current UCS server firmware. @CiscoServerGeek demonstrates this on his “Cisco UCS updates remain FREE” blog post, and I was able to reproduce this myself with an ancient totally-unentitled CCO account. This is cool, and to be honest I was a little bit surprised (keep reading to see why).

To my knowledge, most other industry standard server manufacturers also still make their current firmware and drivers available for free regardless of entitlements or contracts. I’ve downloaded Dell, NEC, IBM, and other industry standard x86/x64 server firmware updates for my home lab in the past month without having to spend money, and it’s basically a necessity for a home lab (or a startup test environment).

HP Firmware Update 20140206Now to be honest, the HP news is based on an unusually vague email from HP, stating that “Select server firmware and SPP” will require “product entitlement.” The HP support document on the matter (pictured at right) continues to use the “select updates” language, but seems to imply (as does the email) that if you have *any* HP server that’s out of warranty/contract, you are no longer allowed to update it.

HP states in the above document that “[t]his change brings HP into alignment with current industry practices” which is an outright lie, at least if you consider Dell, IBM, Supermicro, NEC, Fujitsu, or Cisco to be included in “current industry practices.” And if the policy applies to all HP servers, it’s going to effectively remove HP from home lab, aftermarket, and influencer/recommender scope.

Mind you, most of the big manufacturers of servers would probably be perfectly happy if they only got business from companies with a strict 3 year lifecycle, and the 3 year old servers got scrapped at the end when brand new ones were bought. Luckily most vendors have not followed this “planned obsolescence” path–in fact, none of the big names did up until this month.

So as a technologist, home lab operator, influencer, and recommender, I’m hoping HP clarifies and promptly fixes this shift in policy. Require a confirmed email address and support site login if you must (Cisco and IBM require this; Dell, Supermicro, Fujitsu, and NEC do not, as far as I know), so that you can provide a generically differentiated support experience and notify me of critical bugs in my products’ firmware that may cause the imminent heat death of my lab.

But you really have nothing to gain by locking me out of firmware for a server I legitimately own, no matter how old it is, who I bought it from, when I bought it, or whether I spend thousands of dollars a year on support contracts.

As an aside, I’ve heard from off-the-record sources that HP will be clarifying this policy in a blog post soon. I am hopeful, but not optimistic, that something positive will come of this. 

People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw 10 year old routers

This got me to thinking about the last time (and actually every time) I’ve gone to look for a newer IOS version for my Cisco 1605R (or 1721 or 1751) router in my home lab stash. I can find lists of newer versions, read release notes, and see the filenames with my aforementioned ancient personal CCO login.

But I apparently have to spend about $400 on a SmartNet contract on my 10 year old router (if I’m lucky and the product isn’t past the final EOL) to download 20MBytes of firmware. Or I can throw the switch away. They both have issues when it comes to “green” if you know what I mean.

I get that there are different licensed feature sets, and there would’ve been financial considerations back when the 1605R was an available product, but it’s not costing much and it’s not losing Cisco any business to let me download current non-custom code that is obviously available on the site for functional 10+ year old gear, but that I can’t buy entitlement for anymore (or can’t reasonably afford to do so).

There are similar issues when it comes to aftermarket Meraki wireless gear–I mentioned in an older post that I bought an MR14 from an e-cycler and since the previous owner has changed jobs a few times and isn’t all that easy to find, I now have a nice Meraki paperweight under my desk. And I’ve seen similar issues with some other “small deployment” wireless gear as well.

But I know this guy who knows this guy, you know…

There are ways around these limitations, of course; some require a contact at the company to bend the rules, and some require someone else to break the rules (that’s the only way to get Solaris patches anymore). That’s better than nothing, if you’re lucky.

But most of us with home labs, offline test environments, and so forth want to be legitimate. Some of us go to great lengths to abide by the letter, if not the spirit, of the “law” on these things. And many of us make some noise about what we like to work with, which may lead others to try it out and then spend some money.

So where do we go from here?

I will be watching for updates from HP on this policy, and Cisco and others as well on their respective kneecapping methods. I welcome your thoughts on firmware availability and vendor support/empowerment for home labs and smaller environments. And if you know of any server manufacturers/OEMs whose “current industry practices” include limiting BIOS/firmware updates to under-warranty/under-contract customers only, please let me know so I can update this post.

Disclaimers (You know I love disclaimers): I do not work for Cisco, HP, or any other hardware company. I am personally a Cisco Champion, a friend of HP (who have had me in to one of their influencer events), and an employee of an enterprise who buys a lot from both Cisco and HP (among other vendors). I have never knowingly spoken with a groundhog.

My thoughts and observations above are independent of any of these associations. I am a long-time system administrator who has long worked with Cisco and HP and most of the other brands mentioned in this article in my lab and/or my day jobs over the years, and my observations are based on that experience alone, and should not be taken to represent my employer, any company that likes or hates me, or any coffee shop I may frequent.

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5 thoughts on “Planned obsolescence is not green – respect your customers and your environment

  1. Nortel had been the worst I dealt with, trying to make me buy a “reassurance kit” so I could buy a software support subscription (8×5) so I could update, in time, a $35 metro ethernet switch in my lab. I’d have had to lay down like $600.
    To make it more fun, not even their partners were allowed to fetch firmware for those more serious devices (Optera, etc) unless their tech was certified on the *specific* model in question.
    Pretty the same about earlier Global DNS balancers and site balancers I had. No updates and shitty long-term support, too.
    But hey, guess which company went down the sink!

    Huawei/H3C: I would so love to update some switch firmware, yet I have one where there’s no chance at all.
    for most *switches* the FW is free, but for routers HP will cash in.
    For a H3C MSR router I gave up and bought a CarePaq from HP but so far noone was able to link it with this device since it’s bought shortly before they bought 3Com.
    Solution: Just buy another router, tftp the firmware.
    For obtaining the sources to the Linux-based embedded application module I’d still need the CarePaq but I don’t want to spend the rest of my life on HP hotlines.

    Extreme Networks: No chance.

    IBM: Downloadcentral gets worse and worse and I think they’re also in progress of locking down access, but that might be my memory misleading me.

    Intel: Great, although their website and download servers suck most of the time. They try, and you get everything you need, each time.

    Apple: Just Wonderful.

    • Thanks for the feedback.

      I am pretty sure I’ve pulled firmware for an IBM x86 server in the past couple of months, without so much as a serial number (just the machine code).

      Having worked for Nortel at the turn of the century, and then tried really hard to be a customer after I left, I can completely believe that story.

      Intel and HP both have a record for having terrible support sites. Meg Whitman acknowledged this in person at the Nth Symposium last summer, although I hope this isn’t their way of improving support site performance.

    • Meraki has been a modern day challenge, telling me I need to track down someone who’s changed jobs twice since throwing away one of their routers, get him to remember his creds for their site to release it, and *then* I might be able to spend $300 on a cloud controller license (which I was willing to do, it’s worth it). At least when I first tried, their site told me who the AP was registered to. Today they don’t even let me know who to track down to do so, perhaps requiring a Ouija board to resolve.

  2. Pingback: #FirmwareGate and #FCoEgate two months later | rsts11 – Robert Novak on system administration

  3. Pingback: Resource sharing, time sharing, six years on | rsts11 – Robert Novak on system administration

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