I was recently involved in a process of migrating from vSphere 4 to vSphere 5 for an enterprise client leapfrogging from vSphere 4.0 to vSphere 5.0. Their platform is and AMD service farm with modern, socket G34 CPU blades and 10G Ethernet connectivity – all moving parts on VMware’s Hardware Compatibility List for all versions of vSphere involved in the process.
Although VMware lists the 2022TG-HIBQRF as ESXi 5.0 compatible and not the 2022TG-HTRF, it is necessary to note the only difference between the two is the presence of a Mellanox ConnectX-2 QDR infiniband controller on-board: the motherboards and BIOS are exactly the same, the Mellanox SMT components are just mission on the HTRF version.
It is key to note that VMware also distinguishes the ESXi compatible platform by supported BIOS version 2.0a (Supermicro’s current version) versus 1.0b for the HTRF version. The current version is also required for AMD Opteron 6200 series CPUs which is not a factor in this current upgrade process (i.e. only 6100-series CPUs are in use). For this client, the hardware support level of the current BIOS (1.0c) was sufficient.
So is it safe to assume that a BIOS update is not necessary when migrating to a newer version of vSphere? In the past, it’s been feature driven. For instance, proper use new hardware features like Intel EPT, AMD RVI or VMDirectPath (pci pass-through) have required BIOS updates in the past. All of these features were supported by the “legacy” version of vSphere and existing BIOS – so sounds safe to assume a direct import into vCenter 5 will work and then we can let vCenter manage the ESXi update, right?
Well, not entirely: when importing the host to vCenter5 the process gets all the way through inventory import and the fails abruptly with a terse message “A general system error occurred: internal error.” Looking at the error details in vCenter5 is of no real help.
A search of the term in VMware Communities is of no help either (returns non-relevant issues). However, digging down to the vCenter5 VPXD log (typically found in the hidden directory structure “C:\ProgramData\VMware\VMware VirtualCenter\Logs\”) does return a nugget that is both helpful and obscure.
If you’ve read through these logs before, you’ll note that the SSL certificate check has been disabled. This was defeated in vCenter Server Settings to rule-out potentially stale SSL certificates on the “legacy” ESXi nodes – it was not helpful in mitigating the error. The section highlighted was, however, helpful in uncovering a relevant VMware Knowledgebase article – the key language, “Alert:false@ D:/build/ob/bora-455964/bora/vim/lib/vdb/vdb.cpp:3253” turns up only one KB article – and it’s a winner.
It is important – if not helpful – to note that searching KB for “import fail internal error” does return nine different (and unrelated) articles, but it does NOT return this KB (we’ve made a request to VMware to make this KB easier to find in a simpler search). VMware’s KB2008366 illuminates the real reason why the host import fails: non-Y2K compliant BIOS date is rejected as NULL data by vCenter5.
Y2K Date Requirement, Really?
Yes, the spectre of Y2K strikes 12 years later and stands as the sole roadblock to importing your perfectly functioning ESXi 4 host into vCenter5. According the the KB article, you can tell if you’re on the hook for a BIOS update by checking the “Hardware/Processors” information pane in the “Host Configuration” tab inside vCenter4.
According to vCenter date policy, this platform was minted in 1910. The KB makes it clear that any two-digit year will be imported as 19XX, where XX is the two digit year. Seeing as how not even a precursor of ESX existed in 1999, this choice is just dead stupid. Even so, the x86 PC wasn’t even invented until 1978, so a simple “date check” inequality (i.e. if “two_digit_date” < 78 then “four_digit_date” = 2000 + “two_digit_date”) would have resolved the problem for the next 65 years.
Instead, VMware will have you go through the process of upgrading and testing a new (and, as 6200 Opterons are just now available to the upgrade market, a likely unnecessary) BIOS version on your otherwise “trusty” platform.
Just to add insult to injury with this upgrade process, the BIOS upgrade for this platform comes with an added frustration: the IPMI/BMC firmware must also be updated to accommodate the new hardware monitoring capabilities of the new BIOS. Without the BMC update, vCenter will complain of Northbridge chipset overheat warnings from the platform until the BMC firmware is updated.
So, after the BIOS update, BMC update and painstaking hours (to days) of “new” product testing, we arrive at the following benefit: vCenter gets the BIOS version date correctly.
Bar Unnecessarily High
VMware actually says, “if the BIOS release date of the host is in the MM/DD/YY format, contact the hardware vendor to obtain the current MM/DD/YYYY format.” Really? So my platform is not vCenter5 worthy unless the BIOS date is four-digit year formatted? Put another way, VMware’s coders can create the premier cloud platform but they can’t handle a simple Y2K date inequality. #FAIL
Forget “the vRAM tax”, this obstacle is just dead stupid and unnecessary; and it will stand in the way of many more vSphere 5 upgrades. Relying on a BIOS update for a platform that was previously supported (remember 1.0b BIOS above?) just to account for the BIOS date is arbitrary at best, and it does not pose a compelling argument to your vendor’s support wing when dealing with an otherwise flawless BIOS.
We’ve submitted a vCenter feature request to remove this exclusion for hundreds of vSphere 4.x hosts, maybe you should too…