HP to begin charging for firmware updates and service packs for servers

HP to begin charging for firmware updates and service packs for servers

Summary: HP server customers are about to get an unwelcome surprise when they need to update firmware or apply a service pack. Effective later this month, those downloads, which often fix critical bugs, will require either a current warranty or an extended support agreement.

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February 9, 2014: Updated to include additional details of IBM and Cisco server update policies.

If you own an HP server, be prepared to keep your support agreement up to date. Or else.

Beginning this month, HP is restricting access to firmware updates and service packs for its entire ProLiant server line, a product category that spans a wide range of products, from low-cost small business servers like the ProLiant MicroServer (starting price $359) all the way up to enterprise-class boxes that cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Here's an example of what customers see when they visit the HP Support Center:

hp-downloads-restricted

Previously, that firmware upgrade was available to anyone, regardless of the server's warranty status or whether it was under a support agreement.

The new policy was announced by HP’s Mary McCoy, whose title is listed as Vice President, HP Servers – Support Technology Services. In a blog post strangely titled “Customers for life,” McCoy, a 30-year HP veteran, explained:

This week, HP announced that effective February 19, 2014, we will provide firmware updates through the HP Support Center only to customers with a valid warranty, Care Pack Service or support agreement. 

This decision reinforces our goal to provide access to the latest HP firmware, which is valuable intellectual property, for our customers who have chosen to maximize and protect their IT investments.  We know this is a change from how we’ve done business in the past; however, this aligns with industry best practices and is the right decision for our customers and partners.

McCoy explained that customers with servers still under warranty will not need to pay for firmware access. And, she added, somewhat defensively, “we are in no way trying to force customers into purchasing extended coverage.  That is, and always will be, a customer’s choice.”

Most enterprise customers are already accustomed to purchasing extended support contracts; for them, this change probably won’t have a serious impact. The new policy will have its biggest impact on the low end of HP’s line, which is popular among small businesses and enthusiasts. It will also negatively impact values of HP server products on the resale market and potentially have a devastating impact on third-party support firms.

HP-Proliant-MicroServer

The HP ProLiant MicroServer N40L, for example (shown here), was available for sale in 2012 at heavily discounted prices from online sellers, typically under $300. But this widely used server, which contains four drive bays in a compact box that is well under 1 cubic foot, wouldn’t run Windows Server 2012 R2 (or, for that matter, Windows 8.1) for months after their release to manufacturing. Windows Server 2012 R2 was released to MSDN and TechNet subscribers in September 2013 and was generally available in October 2013. But trying to install that OS on a ProLiant MicroServer resulted in a series of errors, with the system hanging at boot. The only workaround was to disable the built-in Gigabit Ethernet controller, a serious limitation for a server.

HP released a firmware fix for the issue in mid-November, 2013. The ProLiant MicroServer N54L, a later version of the N40L with a beefier processor in the same enclosure, suffered from the same flaw, fixed with a firmware update at the same time.

But the MicroServer’s hardware warranty is one year, and the warranty for software is only 90 days after purchase; under the new policy, access to the firmware after the warranty expires would require the purchase of an HP Care Pack, at current prices of between $126 and $200, at least half the cost of the original hardware. That’s a hefty price to pay to fix what is arguably a defect in the original product.

End users who buy from resellers may find their warranties reduced without their knowledge. This server, for example, was purchased in August 2012, but the warranty clock started ticking when the reseller purchased the hardware from HP the previous month. It would not have been eligible for the firmware update that enabled an OS upgrade just over a year later unless the owner paid for an extended service agreement.

hp-warranty-status

For other models, the cost of a Care Pack is even higher. For midrange ProLiant models, a single year’s extended coverage under the Care Pack program can cost well over $1,000.

The issues with the MicroServer aren’t isolated examples. A few years back, HP released an urgent firmware update for some of its blade server models. “Without this critical fix,” the company said, the affected models, “after being in service for an extended period of time, could potentially fail to complete the POST process during any event that causes a power disruption to occur (such as power-cycle, cold boot, or power outage). If the failure occurs and the server cannot complete the boot process, the blade system board must be replaced.”

Another issue affected some ProLiant server models in 2011. Without a required firmware update, which HP characterized as “a critical fix,” the use of certain SATA hard drives could cause data transfer errors. The advisory warned: “Neglecting to perform the required action could leave the server in an unstable condition, which could potentially result in sub-optimal server performance or data corruption or loss. By disregarding this notification and not performing the recommended resolution, the customer accepts the risk of incurring future related errors.” Although this appears to be a defect in HP’s original software design, the new policy would shift the cost of the fix to customers.

HP’s insistence that the new policy “aligns with industry best practices” is inaccurate, at least for server products aimed at smaller businesses. The company’s archrival, Dell, offers unrestricted access to BIOS and software updates for its entire server, storage, and networking line. Several readers have pointed to Cisco as a counter-example. It's true that updates for Cisco routers and switches require a valid service contract. But downloads for Cisco servers (the Cisco Unified Computing System, or UCS, line) require registration but not a service contract. (Thanks to Bill Shields for the pointer, via Twitter.)

And as networking consultant Lindsay Hill points out in a recent blog post, IBM also requires "entitlement validation" for "select software products and updates and for Machine Code (also known as firmware or microcode)."

The IBM policy was announced last summer. Currently, visitors to IBM Fix Central see this announcement:

Fix Central Machine Code updates are available only for IBM machines that are under warranty or an IBM hardware maintenance service agreement. Code for operating systems or other software products is available only where entitled under the applicable software warranty or IBM software maintenance agreement.

HP’s move looks like a way to bolster margins in a market segment that is historically not accustomed to paying for extended service. The more likely result is that it will drive away those price-sensitive customers.

Topics: Servers, Enterprise Software

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71 comments
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  • Ridiculous

    I guess the Dell guys are all rolling on the floor laughing !
    sjaak327
    • Not to mention the Lenovo people!

      After just signing a deal to acquire IBM's X86 server line, they may have "yuan signs" (as opposed to "dollar signs") rolling in their eyes!
      wizard57m-cnet
      • Who?

        I thought those guys sold phones! :)
        sys_engineer
        • So Let Me Get This Right...

          H-P will now charge you, the customer, to fix the buggy firmware code they wrote in India and China to save money in the first place? OK, Got it... My next server vendor will be someone not named H-P. I used to think H-P was the finest server product available. I am now officially wrong.
          Woned B. Fooldagan
          • You'll never have to buy any updates

            HP seems to abandon hardware within months anyway leaving tons of bugs left over. I've had to resort to using generic updated drivers from Lenovo or Dell sites to fix stuff. I just looked at buying a Proliant and passed because it was basically a overpriced Celeron machine with 2GB RAM. Guess this was lucky for me considering this news too.
            LarsDennert
          • H-P finest servers?

            Compaq was the finest servers, hence why HP bought them, absorbed them, and now look to kill them.
            gke565
  • "Customers for life"

    Who are they kidding?
    Joe_Raby
    • That one was epic

      "Customers for life" belongs in the DoubleSpeak Hall of Fame. Or Shame.
      Ed Bott
      • Well customer lyoalty is dead too. Wonder why?

        I think companies today have bean counters who believe somehow they have customers locked in. I sometimes wonder if they know how much competition is waiting in the wings for this kind of snub to happen.
        JohnnyES-25227553276394558534412264934521
        • Cost for Purchase is all that counts

          To try to buy better quality equipment I have tried multi-year cost of ownership justifications. The bean counters would not listen. All they cared about was how it showed up on the books this year. The computer market is so competitive and margins so low I do not see HP has any choice. The firmware updates cost a lot of money. They have to pay for it somehow.
          MichaelInMA
          • That may be true...

            as far as the cost. But these are firmware and service pack updates to HP produced problems! If this type of pricing is accepted from HP for their server business, then it's not that big a stretch to see them applying the same logic to home users. I have an older HP Compaq notebook, and if there were some issue that required a firmware, BIOS or service pack update, say something like a WiFi issue, and HP would only allow me to download and install the update if I paid a service fee first, I might be a little peeved. HP produced the faulty equipment, now they want to charge me to download a fix? Hmmm...I don't know, it just doesn't sit too well. I do know that this type of attitude will play a role in any future purchases that I make. I don't make many purchases as I do a lot of self-builds and refurbishings. This could even influence which systems I would decide to do a refurbish on...rather than rebuild an HP, I might choose a Dell or other manufacturer that offers drivers, BIOS updates and utility service packs at no charge.
            wizard57m-cnet
          • Changing Criteria

            Perhaps when the device shipped it was bug free at that point. Later someone found a hack though BIOS that no one ever imagined. It effected many models and not just HP. This is often the reason for BIOS upgrades. You pay for ongoing security, why not this.

            There is a absolute principle in software: The only really bug free software is that which is obsolete and not longer used. By all technological standards at the time of purchase it was bug free. Consider a processor in an old system that is too slow for todays newer software. You could consider that a bug. Is it HP fault? If BIOS becomes outdated because of new threats is that that HP fault?

            Does Dell or HP make any money when you refurbish or rebuild one of their systems. No, in fact they lose money because someone did not have to buy a new one. From a business point of view they should do everything reasonable to keep you from doing that. (I do not like this logic either but it is logical.)
            MichaelInMA
          • Critical Errors & Later Discovered Bugs Should Be On HP

            MichaelInMA: Where do you stand on the exact same issue with the auto companies? Critical errors and bugs cause recalls that are resolved for FREE.
            Regulator1956
          • Classic Case

            A classic case was when we first starting putting seat belts in cars. Someone was killed in an accident that having a seat belt would have save them. The car was made before seat belts were mandatory. The auto company was sued for faulty seatbelts, i.e. just plain not included. Should the auto companies be required to recall all cars that were made before seat belts were required and install them?

            A similar case was when we started adding a shoulder strap to seat belts. Today we would consider 2 point seat belts to be defective. At one time they were state of the art.
            MichaelInMA
      • At least HP is not as bad as Microsofts

        Software Assurance program.
        deaf_e_kate
        • But you don't need SA or Premier Support...

          ...To download a fix while Microsoft software is in Mainstream support (i.e., for the first 5 years after GA). And, you get security fixes for another 5 years.
          Flydog57
          • have ya read this?

            http://www.forbes.com/sites/richardstiennon/2011/11/07/microsoft-software-assurance-insurance-or-extortion/
            deaf_e_kate
    • I fear customers are going to run away

      In my company we do have a mix of Dell and HP servers, but the next batch will be Dell and not HP. Not only is the Dell support more responsive, but having to pay for firmware updates for systems that I might run (non production of course) is unacceptable. Hell dell even supports their powervault san systems years after they are out of warranty.
      sjaak327
      • Glad my purchase wasn't HP

        I have an old HP ML110 G5, still cookin' works great. However, it's older, and I needed to replace it. It is, after all, 5 years old.

        For this small business I went with a custom built SuperMicro system. After reading this, I'm glad I did. My client isn't going to want to pay for extended support. They already have to pay for me. This move on HP's part basically obsolete's any out-of-warranty system without an extended agreement. Wether that system is 1 year or 6 years old.

        I see the logic in "firmware costs money" however, I don't think it's a good move for HP. Unless the other big-boys start following suit, I doubt it will play out well for HP in the long run; especially in the small business market this is clearly aimed at.
        QuimaxW
    • Remember

      Vampies are not after blood, they want life.
      dilettante