System Firmware on pSeries and System p

Most PowerPC-based systems since POWER4 (including blades (JS20 and later)) have dual firmware banks. The intent is to allow an administrator to update the system’s firmware in one bank while preserving the previous firmware image in the other bank. Should there be a problem with the firmware update process, or an issue with the new image for any reason, the administrator can revert to the older, known-safe image.

Updating Firmware with Dual BanksDuring normal operation, the system is booted off of the “temporary” bank (sometimes called the temp side or t-side), and the contents of the temporary side are the same as that of the “permanent” bank (a.k.a. the perm side or p-side).

When a firmware update occurs, the new image is copied into the t-side. If the t-side image is different than the p-side image, the t-side will be copied to the p-side before the t-side is overwritten (i.e. the current production image will be backed up to the permanent bank). The system will attempt to reboot to the new image on the t-side. If the boot succeeds, and the new image works well, it can be “committed” to the p-side. If the system does not boot on the t-side (due to a corrupted image, for example), it will automatically boot onto the p-side. At that point, the t-side image can be “rejected” by overwriting it with the known-safe p-side image. The system should then be booted off of the t-side

Given those properties, it has always seemed to me that the sides are misnamed; I find it useful to think of the temporary side as the production side, and the permanent side as the backup side.

  • temporary == production
  • permanent == backup (older, known-safe image)

Viewing the Current Firmware Levels

The current firmware levels can be viewed by running /usr/sbin/lsmcode -A (lsmcode is part of the lsvpd open source package):

# lsmcode -A
sys0!system:SF240_320 (t) SF220_051 (p) SF240_320 (t)service:

The above output indicates that the temporary bank contains the firmware level SF240_320, and the permanent bank contains SF220_051. The third entry by the sys0!system: tag indicates that the system is currently booted off of the temporary side. Before a new firmware update operation can be attempted, the t-side image should be committed, overwriting the older p-side image.

I wrote about the serv_config command-line utility in my previous post; this command is the easiest method to determine whether your system is currently operating off of the temporary or permanent side. Run /usr/sbin/serv_config -e sp-current-flash-image. If it prints 0, the p-side is booted; if it prints 1, the t-side is booted. Both the lsmcode and serv_config commands will work on any Linux partition on the system.

Managing System Firmware

The update_flash command (part of the powerpc-utils-papr open source package) provides the ability to manage system firmware from the Linux command-line on POWER systems. There are restrictions as to which partitions can be used to update system firmware:

  • If the system is managed by an HMC, firmware should be updated from there (via the Licensed Internal Code management screens). In some cases, firmware updates performed via the HMC will be concurrent (meaning that the system and the partitions do not need to be restarted in order to recognize and begin using the updated firmware level).
  • If the system is partitioned, only the partition that has been granted service authority can perform firmware updates.
  • If the system is not partitioned, and not HMC managed, the update_flash command is the only method for updating system firmware.

New firmware images can be downloaded from http://techsupport.services.ibm.com/server/mdownload/. The following operations can be performed with the update_flash command:

  • Validate that the image stored in a file appears to be uncorrupted: update_flash -v -f <filename>
  • Perform an update with the image stored in a file: update_flash -f <filename>
  • Commit the t-side to the p-side (when it has been determined that the production image is safe): update_flash -c
  • Reject the current image on the t-side (overwrite it with the image in the p-side, because the t-side image is unsafe): update_flash -r

The first three commands should only be used when the system is booted on the t-side; the last can only be used when the system is booted on the p-side.

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8 comments

  1. Thanks, Mike! This is great information presented very clearly. You say that in some cases (when a system is managed via an HMC) the firmware can be updated concurrently – what determines whether it can be updated concurrently? Does it depend on the changes in the firmware itself? Is there any way to tell before an update whether it can be concurrent or not?

  2. Hi, Emily:
    Thanks for your comment. To answer your question, the HMC will communicate with the firmware download site, and indicate the levels that are available for both “concurrent” and “disruptive” updates. The distinction does indeed depend on the changes in the firmware; typically, you can update to a new minor level concurrently, but will need to restart the system in order to update to a new major level. That way, disruptive updates can be deferred to a maintenance window, or skipped altogether if the new features aren’t necessary.

  3. Thank you for that info. I would really appreciate it if you could provide me some info on what system firmware levels and service firmware levels mean? Also, on power 5 and above the invscout command on AIX does not show the firmware levels. Any idea on this?

    Thanks,
    Gargi.

  4. Hello, Gargi:
    The “System firmware” level includes the hypervisor, low-level firmware, and Open Firmware levels. “Service firmware” indicates the level of software running on the system’s service processor. They are all shipped in a single package; as such, the “system firmware” level is the most interesting.

    I don’t know why the invscout command on AIX would not show the firmware levels; it probably uses lsvpd (or lscfg) under the covers to obtain that information, so you may want to see if it’s listed there.

    Thanks,
    Mike

  5. Hi,

    I am performing the Firmware upgrade on 9117-570. I see that there is a relationship between the HMC version and system firmware version, could you please tell me how to upgrade the HMC version.

  6. Hi,

    I would like to know, what the code stands for. Is there any significance, as a user I don’t know what the firmware image code say, SF240_320.
    Is there any specific meaning for SF240 ?

    Thanks
    prem

    • SF240 is a sort of code that indicates which platforms that firmware image will run on. For example, SF240 may run on multiple models (520, 550, etc). Unfortunately, there is no list of which code corresponds to which model; instead, choosing the model number on the microcode download site will cause the correct image to be provided. The number after the underscore is a sort of build number; a larger number indicates a more recent version.

      Thanks,
      Mike


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