HP stirs up hornet’s nest with new server firmware policy

This is probably not the sort of server news Hewlett Packard (s HPQ) wants customers to focus on, but there you have it: Proposed changes to how HP will offer server firmware upgrades mean that customers who are out of warranty and do not buy support will have to pay for some important updates going forward. ZDNet’s Ed Bott spotted the changes outlined in an HP blog post Monday. The HP post was titled, some might say ironically, “Customers for Life.”
The crux, per Mary McCoy, VP of servers and support for HP:

“[E]ffective 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.”

The response of commenters to her post was, to put it mildly, unenthusiastic. HP’s stance is that these updates represent significant intellectual property, so they’re worth something. Commenters, however, pointed out that some HP server competitors, namely Dell, don’t charge for firmware upgrades. (Ouch.)   It’s unclear whether IBM charges for firmware updates for unsupported servers,  Update: IBM’s policy is, in fact, similar to HP’s. But then again IBM is exiting the X86-based server business where Proliant plays.
McCoy subsequently issued a clarification that said the paid firmware decision applies to ProLiant system ROM and complex programming logic devices (CPLD) firmware. Security patches will remain free, as will upgrades to HP’s iLO server management, I/O and controller firmware.
ZDnet’s Bott warned customers there’s another wrinkle here to watch out for:

“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.”

Selling servers is an increasingly margin-stressed rough-and-tumble business — which is why IBM is bowing out and is also why HP is trying to push its higher-end, pricier entries, including converged hardware. It’s also why it’s trying to find some additional revenue from what had been freebie Proliant updates. Still, as we have learned in other contexts, taking away something that has been free is always risky and probably worth reconsideration.
Note: This story was updated at 9:17 a.m. PST February 12 with information on IBM’s firmware update policy.