Repurposing a Google GSA

Repurposing a Google GSA (Google Search Appliance) – A step-by-step how to guide

So, you have a GSA (Google Search Appliance) which has run out of license, and you are wondering if it is possible to re-purpose/re-use/crack the very well specified hardware? Yes, it absolutely is!

By default, the GSA runs a custom BIOS on a Dell server (R700, R710, R720), is password protected, and runs a variant of CentOS. Prior to running these steps, the GSA will not allow you to access the BIOS, or install your chosen operating system. When you connect a monitor, keyboard and mouse, all you get to see is an ent1 login screen. This password is never known to anyone outside of Google, including customers and partners.

gsa login green screen

At a high-level, you’ll need to play with motherboard jumpers (BIOS protection and NVRAM clear), format the volume and apply a regular Dell server BIOS.

The following steps have been tested on T2, T3 and T4 variants on the GSA.

WARNING: YOU ARE PERFORMING THE FOLLOWING STEPS AT YOUR OWN RISK. THESE STEPS WILL REMOVE THE DEFAULT GSA OS AND SOFTWARE

Pre-requisites

You will need a bootable memory stick. I use a USB stick which boots into a Windows 10 installation. This is a perfectly workable solution, as you can press SHIFT – F10 to open a command prompt, and use a Wintel version of the downloaded Dell BIOS installer complete with GUI.

Identify the type of GSA you are re-purposing, and download the appropriate Dell BIOS file.

T2 or T3- Download the following file or newer from the Dell website R710_BIOS_4HKX2_WN64_6.4.0

T4 – Download the following file or newer from the Dell website BIOS_CR1RR_WN64_2.5.4

Copy the downloaded Dell bios file onto your bootable USB stick, into a folder called “BIOS”.

You will require a monitor, keyboard and mouse.

I have published 2 sets of instructions; ‘text based’ and ‘with pictures’. Please scroll down the page to view the ‘with pictures’ version of the instructions.

The re-purposing process (text based)

  1. Do not connect any power to your GSA just yet. Open the top lid of the GSA, and change the ‘clear nvram pin’ to yes, and the ‘bios password pin’ to no. The location of the nvram and bios password motherboard pins will be shown clearly on the inside of the top lid.
  2. Pop the server HDD disks out, and leave them hanging from the front of the server.
  3. Plug in your bootable USB stick. I usually plug the USB stick into the USB port on top of the motherboard.
  4. Re-install the top lid of the GSA.
  5. Connect your monitor, keyboard and mouse, and plug in the GSA power.
  6. Power on the GSA.
  7. Press CTRL – R when prompted by the BIOS, and enter the RAID configuration screen. Clear all of the configuration, including all volumes.
  8. Reboot the GSA.
  9. Allow the GSA to boot into your USB stick (Windows 10 in my case). Press SHIFT – F10 when at the installation prompt to launch a command prompt.
  10. Navigate to c:\BIOS
  11. Run your Dell supplied BIOS file (the one relevant to your GSA model: T2. T3. T4)
  12. Reboot when prompted.
  13. Allow the GSA to continue booting, as the BIOS will have a second part to check and install. Reboot when prompted.
  14. Allow the GSA to boot a final time, and shutdown the server once your bootable stick is back at the Windows 10 install prompt. Remove power.
  15. Open the top lid of the GSA, change the ‘clear nvram pin’ to no, and leave the ‘bios password pin’ at no.
  16. Remove your bootable USB stick.
  17. Re-install the top lid of the GSA.
  18. Pop in the server HDD disks.
  19. Plug in the GSA power.
  20. Power on the GSA.
  21. Press DEL when prompted and check full access to the BIOS.
  22. Done. The server is now ready to have your chosen OS loaded.

The re-purposing process (with pictures)

  1. Do not connect any power to your GSA just yet. Open the top lid of the GSA (image below – use a screwdriver to move the latch to the ‘unlocked’ position), and change the ‘clear nvram pin’ to yes, and the ‘bios password pin’ to no (image below – pull pins upwards to remove). The location of the nvram and bios password motherboard pins will be shown clearly on the inside of the top lid (image below).
    google gsa lid lock
    google gsa bios and nvram jumper settings
    google gsa jumper setting motherboard location
  2. Pop the server HDD disks out, and leave them hanging from the front of the server. (image below – the front bezel needs to be removed first)
    google search appliance hard disk drives
  3. Plug in your bootable USB stick. I usually plug the USB stick into the USB port on top of the motherboard. (image below)
    gsa motherboard boot disk
  4. Re-install the top lid of the GSA.
  5. Connect your monitor, keyboard and mouse, and plug in the GSA power.
  6. Power on the GSA. Press F1 to continue when prompted. (image below)
    gsa nvram_clr jumper
  7. Press CTRL – R when prompted by the BIOS, and enter the RAID configuration screen. Clear all of the configuration, including all volumes. (images below)
    press ctrl r to enter the raid controller bios
    gsa clear raid config
    gsa clear raid config warning
    gsa no raid configuration present
  8. Reboot the GSA.
  9. Allow the GSA to boot into your USB stick (Windows 10 in my case). Press SHIFT – F10 when at the installation prompt to launch a command prompt. (image below)
    gsa firmware command prompt
  10. Navigate to c:\BIOS
  11. Run your Dell supplied BIOS file (the one relevant to your GSA model: T2. T3. T4)
    gsa dell bios 1
    gsa dell bios 2
    gsa dell bios 3
  12. Reboot when prompted. (image below)
    gsa dell bios 4 reboot
  13. Allow the GSA to continue booting, as the BIOS will have a second part to check and install. Reboot when prompted. bios flash part 2
  14. Allow the GSA to boot a final time, and shutdown the server once your bootable stick is back at the Windows 10 install prompt. Remove power.
  15. Open the top lid of the GSA, change the ‘clear nvram pin’ to no, and leave the ‘bios password pin’ at no.
    gsa jumper setting location 2
  16. Remove your bootable USB stick.
  17. Re-install the top lid of the GSA.
  18. Pop in the server HDD disks.
    replace the gsa hard drives
  19. Plug in the GSA power.
  20. Power on the GSA.
  21. Press DEL when prompted and check full access to the BIOS. gsa bios unlocked
  22. Done. The server is now ready to have your chosen OS loaded. unlocked gsa complete

Good luck. If you have anything to add to this process, please reach out and let me know! 🙂

14 thoughts on “Repurposing a Google GSA

  • Hello,
    i tried also repurposing my GSA. But don’t get to the point where i can Press Ctrl + R, it asks me a password before. (After Configuring Memory, initializing iDrac and Caution NVRAM_CLR jumper … Two Processors… System Memory Size: 96G RAM, and then it displays:

    Type the password and…
    … press <Enter to leave password security enabled.
    … press to disable password security
    Enter password: _

    It seems that the password disable jumper has no effect…
    Any clues?

    Thank you in advance!

    • What model of GSA are you trying to repurpose? T_?
      From my experience, the CTRL-R option appears as a keyboard prompt during the boot process (POST).
      I normally don’t get prompted for a password unless I try and access the BIOS by pressing F12, and this is impossible prior to cracking the GSA, as no-one knows the password other than Google.

    • TJ you are absolutely correct. I haven’t been able to find a way to change the “Google GSA” BIOS splash-screen back to a standard blue and white Dell logo. Even with a completely unlocked BIOS, there is not provision to upload a replacement logo. If you find a way, please share it with me.

  • Yep I have the same issue as Jonas…
    I have a GSA T4 with 96Gb ram etc… but cannot bypass that password. It is the the password to prevent system to boot from media not to access to bios. If asking password only when want access to bios that will be great!
    Stuck on password

    • It is critical to follow the steps that I have provided. That BIOS password is only known by Google support, and you’ll never get it. To repurpose the GSA, you must take away the HDD boot options from the GSA, so that it is forced to search for an alternate boot method (USB stick in my case). I will endeavour to post a video recording of the entire GSA re-purposing process the next time I do it.

  • Thank you for your guide, on my GSA T4 (Dell PowerEdge R720xd) worked perfectly.
    The harder part is find the right bios from Dell and the right live image to use for flash, I used Win 10 PE SE x64 and BIOS_H5VF3_WN64_2.6.1.EXE bios.

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