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Dell BIOS Updates

I have just updated the BIOS on a Dell PowerEdge T110 II. The process isn’t too difficult, Google for the machine name and BIOS, download a shell script encoded firmware image and GPG signature, then run the script on the system in question.

One problem is that the Dell GPG key isn’t signed by anyone. How hard would it be to get a few well connected people in the Linux community to sign the key used for signing Linux scripts for updating the BIOS? I would be surprised if Dell doesn’t employ a few people who are well connected in the Linux community, they should just ask all employees to sign such GPG keys! Failing that there are plenty of other options. I’d be happy to sign the Dell key if contacted by someone who can prove that they are a responsible person in Dell. If I could phone Dell corporate and ask for the engineering department and then have someone tell me the GPG fingerprint I’ll sign the key and that problem will be partially solved (my key is well connected but you need more than one signature).

The next issue is how to determine that a BIOS update works. What you really don’t want is to have a BIOS update fail and brick your system! So the Linux update process loads the image into something (special firmware RAM maybe) and then reboots the system and the reboot then does a critical part of the update. If the reboot doesn’t work then you end up with the old version of the BIOS. This is overall a good thing.

The PowerEdge T110 II is a workstation with an NVidia video card (I tried an ATI card but that wouldn’t boot for unknown reasons). The Nouveau driver has some issues. One thing I have done to work around some Nouveau issues is to create a file “~/.config/plasma-workspace/env/nouveau-broken.sh” (for KDE sessions) with the following contents:

export LIBGL_ALWAYS_SOFTWARE=1

I previously wrote about using this just for Kmail to stop it crashing [1]. But after doing that I still had other problems with video and disabling all GL on the NVidia card was necessary.

The latest problem I’ve had is that even when using that configuration things don’t go well. When I run the “reboot” command I end up with a kernel message about the GPU not responding and then it doesn’t reboot. That means that the BIOS update doesn’t apply, a hard reboot signals to the system that the new BIOS wasn’t good and I end up with the old BIOS again. I discovered that disabling sddm (the latest xdm program in Debian) from starting on boot meant that a reboot command would work. Then I ran the BIOS update script and it’s reboot command worked and gave a successful BIOS update.

So I’ve gone from a 2013 BIOS to a 2018 BIOS! The update list says that some CVEs have been addressed, but the spectre-meltdown-checker doesn’t report any fewer vulnerabilities.

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