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Risks and rewards of ignoring Microsoft's hardware compatibility list

Data center administrators shouldn't disregard hardware just because it isn't included on Microsoft's hardware compatibility list.

For every operating system Microsoft releases, there is also a corresponding hardware compatibility list. The hardware compatibility list specifies the hardware that was tested and proven compatible with the operating system (OS). Of course, just because a piece of hardware (or even a full system for that matter) isn’t listed on the hardware compatibility list, it does not mean that it will not work with the OS in question. In this tip, we’ll explore the risks and rewards of venturing away from the official hardware compatibility list.

Microsoft’s position on the HCL
Microsoft’s stand on the hardware compatibility list has changed dramatically over the years. Years ago, the position was pretty draconian. A perfect example occurred in the mid-1990s. I had a server that was running Windows NT 3.5. For whatever reason, the server kept producing blue screen errors. When I called Microsoft’s technical support, the technician asked me about the server’s hardware specifications. When I told him what I was using, he simply told me that my server was unsupported because my hardware was not on the hardware compatibility list. There was no arguing with him. That was it. Game over.

Today Microsoft still produces a hardware compatibility list for all of its OSes, but the company has dramatically softened its support policy. Whereas adhering to the hardware compatibility list was once mandatory, it is now simply considered a good idea, and components not on the HCL may also work. In fact, the hardware section of the Windows Server catalog states:

“Merchandise on this site with a logo has been tested with Microsoft Windows Server 2008 R2, Microsoft Windows Server 2008 or Microsoft Windows Server 2003. Look for these logos on merchandise specifically certified for Windows Server 2008 R2, Windows Server 2008 or Windows Server 2003. Other merchandise may also work with Windows Server 2008 R2, Windows Server 2008 or Windows Server 2003.”

The risks of working outside the HCL
In spite of Microsoft’s softened stand on its support for non-certified hardware, there are risks associated with using hardware that is not on the hardware compatibility list. The primary risk, of course, is that you will end up spending good money for something that does not work.

Over the years, I have run into several situations in which paying closer attention to the HCL would have saved money. One such situation occurred a few months ago. I had a user who had a legitimate business need for a laptop. Since there was no money in the budget for a new laptop, I decided to bring an older laptop out of retirement. I upgraded the laptop’s memory, installed a new hard drive and purchased a Windows 7 license. Unfortunately, the laptop was not listed on Microsoft’s HCL for Windows 7. Although it had previously been running Windows Vista, the network card and the sound card refused to work with Windows 7. Ultimately, I had no choice but to order the user a new laptop. I was able to reuse the Windows 7 license that I had purchased, but the old laptop’s memory upgrade was money wasted.

I recently saw another situation in which an organization wanted to virtualize some aging servers. Rather than purchasing a brand new server, the organization decided to save a few bucks by purchasing a server that had been used by the military but was being retired. Even though the replacement server was a few years old, the hardware specs were more than adequate to meet the organization’s needs. The problem was that the server lacked the hardware-level virtualization support that is required by Hyper-V.  Had the organization reviewed the Windows Server 2008 HCL, they could have avoided this costly mistake.

Rewards of skirting the HCL
Back in the late ‘90s, the main benefit to purchasing hardware that was not listed on the hardware compatibility list was price. At the time, the manufacturers knew that Microsoft would not support hardware unless it was listed on the hardware compatibility list, so some would only certify their higher end components, which meant that organizations would end up spending a lot of money just to make sure that they were purchasing certified hardware.

Today, following the hardware compatibility list is no longer a mandate, so hardware manufacturers are less likely to mark up the prices on certified hardware. Even so, there can sometimes be other benefits to ignoring the hardware compatibility list.

Probably the biggest benefit that can be achieved by ignoring the hardware compatibility list is flexibility. Although the HCL includes several categories of devices, the list is by no means comprehensive. You may occasionally find that the type of hardware you need isn’t even covered by the hardware compatibility list. For example, a few years ago I needed to set up a RAID array using Serial Advanced Technology Attachment (SATA) drives. At the time, SATA arrays were practically unheard of, so the HCL didn’t even list any SATA RAID controllers. Even so, the controller worked perfectly with my server.

Today most hardware works with Windows, and as long as you look at the manufacturer’s stated system requirements, then you won’t usually have to worry about whether or not the device is listed on the hardware compatibility list. However, I do recommend consulting the hardware compatibility list prior to purchasing high-end servers or in any other situation in which a compatibility issue could prove to be costly.

About the author: Brien Posey is a seven time Microsoft MVP with two decades of IT experience. During that time he has published many thousands of articles and has written or contributed to dozens of IT books. Prior to becoming a freelance writer, Posey served as CIO for a national chain of hospitals and healthcare facilities. He has also worked as a network administrator for some of the nation’s largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox.

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