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Tips for Updating Server Firmware

Keeping your Power Systems server firmware at a supported level can improve its reliability and serviceability.

A blue update button is being pressed by a white gloved hand

Keeping your Power Systems server firmware at a supported level can improve its reliability and serviceability. Therefore, it’s crucial to understand firmware versioning and the firmware update process.

Release Levels and Versions

Power Systems server firmware versions have two key identifiers, the release level and the version. New release levels are introduced approximately every 6 to 8 months. Multiple levels are generally active at the same time and each will receive periodic version updates. A particular release level will be supported approximately 12 to 18 months. As a server matures, the frequency between release level introductions lengthens. When you move from one level to another you’ll be required to re-IPL (initial program load) the server. This is called a “disruptive” update because all of your partitions must be shutdown as part of the IPL process.

Once you’re on a particular release level, you can upgrade to versions that are specific to that level. Version updates are released about every 3 to 6 months. Within a new version, most updates are applied to the running system with no IPL-ing required. These are known as Concurrent Firmware Maintenance (CFM) updates. In addition, a new version might include “deferred” updates. These are enhancements that cannot be applied to a running system. The deferred updates are applied to the system as part of the firmware update process. However, they aren’t activated until a subsequent re-IPL of the system. You can see if any deferred updates are pending using the hardware management console (HMC).

Upgrading to a new release level is recommended approximately once a year and applying a new version approximately every 6 months. At some point in the server’s lifetime, IBM will freeze its release level and subsequent updates will be delivered through versions of that level. In this situation, annual release level updates are no longer required.

Identifying Release Levels and Versions

The release levels and versions are broken up in different categories depending on the server family and model. For example:

  • POWER6
    • Entry level ELxxx_yyy
    • Midrange EMxxx_yyy
    • High-end EHxxx_yyy
  • POWER7
    • Entry level ALxxx_yyy
    • Midrange AMxxx_yyy
    • High-end AHxxx_yyy

Here xxx represents a release level and yyy is a version for that level. The release level and version numbering may be different for the various server categories.

Selecting a New Release Level or Version

You’ll want to start with the knowledge of the firmware level that’s installed on your server. You can get this information from the HMC or with the following AIX command:

# lsmcode -c

There’s a functional relationship between server firmware level and the code level of the managing HMC. For a quick check of valid combinations, use the Power code matrix provided by IBM. When you access this site:

  • Select your Power Systems family: POWER7, POWER6 or POWER5
  • Click on the “Supported code combinations” tab
  • Select Entry-Level, Midrange or High-End server family

This will result in a matrix showing supported HMC and firmware combinations along with the following notations:

  • Latest Release Level
  • Maximum Stability Release Level (generally recommended)
  • Reduced Fix Support
  • End of Service Pack support

Validating and Downloading Firmware

Once you’ve identified the release level, use the IBM Support Portal to validate and download a specific version of server firmware. On the site, select the server model and use the Downloads tab to see the firmware Level Reporting Tool (FLRT). It allows you to crosscheck these items for compatibility:

  • Operating system
  • Server model and processor speed
  • Server firmware and service pack
  • HMC code level
  • AIX version and service pack
  • Virtual I/O Servers version

Having identified the valid firmware level, you can download the firmware from support portal.

Upgrading the Firmware

The firmware resides on a server’s Flexible Service Processor (FSP). It has two sides for storing firmware—permanent and temporary. The permanent side contains the “accepted level” and the temporary side has the “installed level.” Firmware is always installed to the temporary location first. It can then be “accepted,” which copies it to the permanent location.

Using an HMC is recommended to manage and upgrade firmware. Its firmware management options include:

  • Retrieve allows you to download new firmware versions and store them on the HMC.
  • Install and Activate installs firmware to a specific server and then activates it.
  • Accept replaces the permanent copy with the temporary one, so they’re the same.
  • Remove Fix updates the temporary copy with the permanent copy one, making them the same.
  • Disruptive Activate forces the system to reboot the FSP, which will activate any deferred fixes contained in a fix pack.

The server can be set to boot from either the permanent or temporary side. Under normal conditions it’s best to boot off of the temporary side. This leaves the permanent side with a copy of the previous, known-to-be-good version. This process is followed because it’s impossible to install a back-level version of firmware onto the FSP.

Just prior to upgrading the firmware, you should commit (accept) the temporary firmware onto the permanent side. This provides a fallback option if there’s an issue with the new firmware. Here is the progression for applying firmware, where n is the firmware level:

  • Running under normal conditions:
    • Permanent = n-1
    • Temporary = n (booted from this side)
  • Just prior to upgrade, “accept” the firmware, which will copy temporary to permanent:
    • Permanent = n
    • Temporary = n (still booted from this side)
  • Install and activate the firmware. When completed, you will now have:
    • Permanent = n
    • Temporary = n + 1 (new version to boot from)

Stay Current

Tracking and updating server firmware levels should be an integral part of your ongoing server maintenance strategy. Staying current on firmware improves the reliability and serviceability of your servers. To assist with this process, IBM provides Web-based tools that validate planned firmware levels. These tools should be used whenever you plan to apply a firmware update or change the HMC code level.

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