Software updates: The good, the bad, and the fatal

Updating software and firmware is often necessary, sometimes straightforward, and never completely comfortable

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In another case, I "succeeded" in ruining a network management card with a firmware update that was designed for a completely different card. My error was selecting a file that was one character different from the correct file, but instead of doing a model check and issuing a warning, the firmware update went through and rendered the card useless. In times like these, you have to trust that the vendor has done its homework and has implemented significant safety checks in its update code. Sadly, this isn't always the case.

Speaking of the wrong firmware, many vendors seem to make it their business to obfuscate the right firmware versions and compatibilities, complicating the whole process and adding unnecessary risk. I've seen situations where there are three different versions of a BIOS update for a blade server, but only one right update depending on the serial number and hardware revision of the blade. In other cases, you can't update from version X to version Z without updating to version Y first, yet version Y is inexplicably absent from the vendor site. I fully admit I've downloaded firmware updates from shady sites in order to be able to complete the process. That always leaves a bad taste in your mouth, no matter how positive the final outcome.

With software -- as opposed to firmware -- you generally have significant forms of protection against explosive updates. You can take a snapshot of a VM before updating the OS, for example, or back up a database before applying a patch. In most appliances, this isn't an option, and you steel yourself for the interminable waiting period as a device applies an update, at the same time trying to urge the progress meter forward through sheer force of will. Alternatively, you distract yourself with another task so that you won't watch over it like boiling water.

When something goes awry, you're generally left with an uncomfortable decision to make: Do I reboot it and hope it comes back, or do I let it sit seemingly forever, hoping it merely has a timeout to complete before it snaps back to attention?

After watching a Windows Server 2008 R2 box sit at the final stage of applying updates for two hours -- all the while researching possible causes -- you finally bite the bullet and reboot. But it's like working completely in the dark, and in IT, that's always a bad idea.

What else is new? All you can do is arm yourself with as much information as you can, including the vendor's support number, and venture into the wild.

This story, "Software updates: the good, the bad, and the fatal," was originally published at Read more of Paul Venezia's The Deep End blog at For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

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