It is commonplace nowadays for folks to be inundated with updates for their software applications, whether such applications sit on traditional computers or on mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets. Similarly, operating systems also need updates, such as "Patch Tuesday," when Microsoft rolls out Windows updates on the second Tuesday of every month. What many neglect, however, are the updates for hardware devices, such as network switches, wireless access points, storage devices and printers.
These updates don’t end up in your system tray and aren’t delivered via the app store but are important nonetheless. Hardware devices actually have software components embedded in them that typically aren’t easily visible, but are still important to proper operation. "Firmware," as these components are known, helps to ensure proper operation of the device, especially as it relates to compatibility with other devices.
Such compatibility issues often occur when a new "standard" is introduced. For example, when the wireless 802.11n standard was introduced, many older wireless routers would not work with the new cards, despite the fact that they were supposed to be compatible. The solution often was to upgrade the firmware in the wireless router.
Network devices, whether storage area networks (SAN) or local area networks (LAN), are affected the most by firmware issues. This is because there are typically at least three devices that all need to work together: the computer; a switch that provides the connection; and the end device, which could be a storage device, network-based printer or other device.
Generally speaking, it is a good idea to check for and apply firmware updates two to four times per year. Applying upgrades may require downtime because we are working (interfering) directly with hardware devices.
One way to get around downtime is with redundancy. Consider the case of a storage area network, which is made up of computers, SAN switches and the actual storage subsystem. Most storage subsystems can be equipped with two or more controllers, which are the smart components that would actually require the firmware update. Such devices are purposely made to require only one controller to work. Thus, controllers can be updated one at a time, leaving one controller to do the work while the other is being updated.
Similarly, it is a good idea to also have a second SAN switch because, after all, switches are going to need firmware upgrades as well. One switch can remain functional while the other is taken down to be updated.
It is easy to see how this paradigm could be applied to other systems and devices. For organizations that require little to no downtime, redundant solutions are often well worth the expense.
John Agsalud is an IT expert with more than 25 years of information technology experience in Hawaii and around the world. He can be reached at email@example.com.