Whether to flash the BIOS on a server

How many times have you flashed the BIOS on a motherboard or controller card and ended up turning your precious server into a lovely paperweight?

It’s happened to me twice: once when I tried upgrading the firmware on a RAID controller to resolve a performance issue and the other time when the vendor I bought a server from said it that a BIOS update had to be applied to resolve a critical issue of some sort. Both occasions then led to lengthy phone calls with the parties involved.

Should you or shouldn’t you?

Reasons for flashing

The arguments for making sure server hardware always has the latest BIOS version are basically these:

  • To address issues of performance or reliability for the server or controller. Just as such issues can often be resolved by updating server components with the latest device drivers, the same can often be said with regard to updating the BIOS of your server or the firmware on your RAID controller.
  • So you can make use of new features that the manufacturer has enabled for your system or device by means of a firmware update.
  • When the manufacturer says you absolutely must upgrade the firmware of their device for reasons they might or might not explain in detail. For example, the vendor might release a fix for a critical bug, and just because you’ve been lucky so far and haven’t hit that bug doesn’t mean you won’t someday.

Reasons against flashing

Some scenarios where flashing the BIOS of server hardware could be a bad idea include:

  • When your hardware is out of warranty. If you flash the BIOS of an out-of-warranty server and end up bricking it, the vendor might wash their hands and say it’s not their problem.
  • When the server is the only one you have that can run some business-critical application. If you can migrate the workload to another server, that’s fine, but if not then you might not want to take a chance blowing up your business.
  • When you only have one of that particular type of device and it’s being used by a server running business-critical applications. That’s why you should always buy at least two of each type of RAID controller card you use in your environment as then you can use one as a guinea pig for things like flashing the firmware on it.
  • When there’s a chance that something could go wrong during the flashing process. For example, if you’ve been experiencing intermittent power outages and you’re not using a UPS (eek!) then you don’t want to risk flashing your BIOS in case the process gets interrupted before it finishes.

The above tip was previously published in an issue of WServerNews, a weekly newsletter from TechGenix that focuses on the administration, management and security of the Windows Server platform in particular and cloud solutions in general. Subscribe to WServerNews today by going to http://www.wservernews.com/subscribe.htm and join almost 100,000 other IT professionals around the world who read our newsletter!

Mitch Tulloch is an eleven-time recipient of the Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP) award and a widely recognized expert on Windows Server and cloud computing technologies.  Mitch is also Senior Editor of WServerNews. For more information about him see http://www.mtit.com.


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