Updating Dell blade firmware with the Dell Management Plug-In for VMware vCenter

M1000eThe company I work for recently purchased new Dell blade enclosures to refresh our aging rack mount server population. We had been thinking about moving to blades for several years and this was the time that worked for us from a timing and budget perspective. Along with this move came a few challenges, which we expected:

1. Blades were new to us so we needed to get used to working with the new architecture.
2. Having been an HP server shop for the past few years Dell was new to us so we were beginning to learn our way with iDRAC, Lifecycle Controller, etc.
3. Converged architecture. If you have done a lot of virtualization on rack mount servers, as we had, you have likely experienced the convergence of compute, network, and storage. Once you begin working with blades it is even more so.

Anyway, to actually get to what the title of this article describes, one of the first things I wanted to do after I rack mounted the chassis and connected the out of band management networking was to update the firmware on the blades, and the switches. Now with rack mount servers you can burn a DVD, put it in the drive, and boot up. Or perhaps you have server agents installed in the OS and leverage those to automate the firmware/software push. The question was how to do it with a blade server that has no DVD drive? And what if I do not want to go physically go into the data center to do this on a per server basis? (Because I don't.)

Also, because these blades were all running ESXi there were no OS with server management agents to do the work. Sure we could spend time to browsing the Dell site to find out what firmware applied to our blades and the specific adapters we chose and upload them them one by one through iDRAC but that was not my idea of a good time. I wanted a process that was at least semi-automated and that would require only a fraction of my time as compared to "doing it manually". This was where the Dell Management Plug-In for VMware vCenter (which I will call the Dell vCenter Plugin from now on) came in.

When we were looking at blade options and comparing different vendor solutions one of the things we looked at was vCenter integration. As we planned on virtualizing 90 to 95 percent of our work loads it made sense to be able to manage the server hardware from an interface we use every day. When we selected Dell as our blade server vendor there was no question that we would be buying the plugin as well, especially as the cost was very reasonable.

The basic steps were:

  • Go into my Dell Download Locker to download the Dell vCenter Plugin.
  • Run the extracted executable and deploy the virtual appliance.
  • Assign a password and configure networking.
  • Upload the license file (included among the extracted files).
  • Register the appliance with the vCenter server.
  • Inventory the blade servers.
  • Update the firmware.

After registering with the vCenter server a new tab became available showing information and options for each blade. Once of those options was to update the firmware. I clicked on the link, selected to download the new firmware from the Dell FTP site, I was presented with a collection for the model of my blade servers (M620), I selected the firmware I wanted to update, and let it go.

From then on the tool downloaded the firmware, staged them (presumably on the Dell appliance), and leveraged the Dell Lifecycle Controller to perform the updates. I had a lot of firmware to update so the process for each blade probably took about an hour, which seemed long to me. I think it was updating one firmware at a time and not streamlining multiple updates at once which would have made things faster. I could be wrong on the length of time, but the upside was that multiple blades could be updated in parallel and the process of finding the relevant firmware and performing the updated was automated, and I was able to spend that time working on other things. I will be providing feedback about the speed to Dell though to see if they can make it faster. It does seem odd that it would apply only one firmware at a time with a reboot in between. Regardless of the server vendor these new servers are taking longer than ever to reboot so having to wait for multiple reboots is painful.

I will not go into detail on the step-by-step here as the process was quite simple and the appliance was a breeze to install but I will point you to a good page on the Dell Community web site with videos and step-by-step instructions.

There were however a few gotchas I ran into that I want to point out:

  • Some updates were failing when I configured the appliance to access the internet through our proxy server even though the tool could access the internet. The process was failing most of the time after hanging and timing out, and was frustrating until I tested not using our proxy server and it worked fine, every time.
  • When I first downloaded and installed the appliance I could only register 1 ESXi host and was not able to add any others. It turns out that I had skipped the step of installing the license file. I incorrectly assumed that I did not have to since I had not been sent a license key nor was one listed on my account. It turns out that it was in one of the folders of the extracted files after running the setup executable (which extracts files further than what is in the downloaded zip file). I do not recall the file name off the top of my head but it had an "asc" file extension.
  • I did not set up a software repository and kept getting hung up on how to do it. It turns out that there are several options available, such as using Dell Repository Manager, but that you don't need any of them to get started. The appliance handles downloading and staging the files. I will likely learn more about the other options as I keep working with Dell servers and figure out if they can further enhance the solution.

There may be some screenshots coming in the next few days to show you what the plugin screens look like with my ESXi hosts. The Dell vCenter Plugin is a valuable tool if you are going to be using Dell blade servers for your virtual infrastructure. I am glad that we purchased it and now that I have used it I can't imagine not having it. It does a a pretty good job and I can only hope that the process for updating firmware will be further streamlined in future versions, whether it be of the plugin or the Lifecycle Controller.


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