February 10, 2014, 1:47 PM — PC owners probably don't give firmware updates much thought and rarely, if ever, seek them out directly. Enthusiasts and small businesses running low-end servers, on the other hand, have a keener interest in firmware since sometimes skipping an update can be fatal for their investment.
But getting those firmware updates for Hewlett-Packard's servers are about to get a little more difficult. HP says that beginning next Wednesday, February 19, it will effectively start charging for access to firmware updates through the company's support center. Only customers with an active warranty, an HP Care Pack subscription, or support agreement will be able to download the updates directly from HP.
Previously, HP firmware updates were freely available.
"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," HP's Mary McCoy vice president for technology services said in a blog post.
It's not clear if HP will restrict access to critical firmware updates that are sometimes necessary to keep a device from misbehaving.
As ZDNet's Ed Bott--who first reported this story--pointed out, a flaw in ProLiant servers prevented them from running Windows 8.1 and Windows Server 2012 R2, and resulted in the system hanging when it tried to boot with those operating systems installed. A firmware update eventually fixed the issue, but under the new HP policy, the critical fix would only be available to new ProLiant owners and people paying for an extended updates, as HP's ProLiant software warranty is limited to 90 days after purchase.
Pay to play
Paying for access to support services is nothing new for enterprises, but the ProLiant line offers cheaper MicroServers that appeal to small businesses and PC hobbyists running their own servers at home.
At this writing, for example, you could get a ProLiant N54L MicroServer for less than $350 that comes with a 2.2GHz AMD processor, 2GB of RAM, and space for four hard drives. On top of the cost of the server box and extra hard drives, you'd have to tack on at least another $126 for the cheapest three-year Care Pack subscription available if you want access to future firmware updates--at least after your warranty runs out.
That extra $126 may not break your wallet, but why bother paying at all when, say, Dell offers free access to firmware updates for its entry-level server?
In her blog post, McCoy says HP's decision to restrict access to firmware updates was not about beefing up the company's bottom line. "We are in no way trying to force customers into purchasing extended coverage," she said. "That is, and always will be, a customer's choice."