Today I received a Dell PowerEDGE T105 for use by a client. My client had some servers for development and testing hosted in a server room at significant expense. They also needed an offsite backup of critical data. So I suggested that they buy a cheap server-class machine, put it on a fast ADSL connection at their home, and use Xen DomU’s on that for development, testing, and backup. My client liked the concept but didn’t like the idea of having a server in his home.
So I’m going to run the server from my home. I selected a Dell PowerEDGE tower system because it’s the cheapest server-class machine that can be purchased new. I have a slight preference for HP hardware but HP gear is probably more expensive and they are not a customer focussed company (they couldn’t even give me a price).
So exactly a week after placing my order I received my shiny new Dell system, and it didn’t work. I booted a CentOS CD and ran “memtest” and the machine performed a hard reset. When it booted again it informed me that the event log had a message, and the message was “Uncorrectable ECC Error” with extra data of “DIMM 2,2“. While it sucks quite badly to receive a new machine that doesn’t work, that’s about the best result you can hope for when you have a serious error on the motherboard or the RAM. A machine without ECC memory would probably just randomly crash every so often and maybe lose data (see my previous post on the relative merits of ECC RAM and RAID ).
So I phoned up Dell (it’s a pity that their “Packing Slip” was a low quality photocopy which didn’t allow me to read their phone number and that the shipping box also didn’t include the number so I had to look them up on the web) to get technical support. Once we had established that by removing the DIMMs and reinserting them I had proved that there was a hardware fault they agreed to send out a technician with a replacement motherboard and RAM.
I’m now glad that I bought the RAM from Dell. Dell’s business model seems to revolve around low base prices for hardware and then extremely high prices for extras, for example Dell sells 1TB SATA disks for $818.40 while MSY  has them for $215 or $233 depending on brand.
When I get the machine working I will buy two 1TB disks from MSY (or another company with similar prices). Not only does that save some money but it also means that I can get different brands of disk. I believe that having different brands of hard disk in a RAID-1 array will decrease the probability of having them both fail at the same time.
One interesting thing about the PowerEdge T105 is that Dell will only sell two disks for it, but it has four SATA connectors on the motherboard, one is used for a SATA DVD player so it would be easy to support three disks. Four disks could be installed if a PCIe SATA controller was used (one in the space for a FDD and another in the space for a second CD/DVD drive), and if you were prepared to go without a CD/DVD drive then five internal disks could probably work. But without any special hardware the space for a second CD/DVD drive is just begging to be used for a third hard disk, most servers only use the primary CD/DVD drive for installing the OS and I expect that the demand for two CD/DVD drives in a server is extremely low. Personally I would prefer it if servers shipped with external USB DVD drives for installing the OS. Then when I install a server room I could leave one or two drives there in case a system recovery is needed and use the rest for desktop machines.
One thing that they seem to have messed up is the lack of a filter for the air intake fan at the front of the case. The Opteron CPU has a fan that’s about 11cm wide which sucks in air from the front of the machine, in front of that fan there is a 4cm gap which would nicely fit a little sponge filter. Either they messed up the design or somehow my air filter got lost in transit.
Incidentally if you want to buy from Dell in Australia then you need to configure your OS to not use ECN (Explicit Congestion Notification  as the Dell web servers used for sales rejects all connections from hosts with ECN enabled. It’s interesting that the web servers used for providing promotional information work fine with ECN and it’s only if you want to buy that it bites you.
But in spite of these issues, I am still happy with Dell overall. Their machine was DOA, that happens sometimes and the next day service is good (NB I didn’t pay extra for better service). I expect that they will fix it tomorrow and I’ll buy more of their gear in future.
Update: I forgot to mention that Dell shipped the machine with two power cables. While two power cables is a good thing for the more expensive servers that have redundant PSUs, for a machine with only one PSU it’s a bit of a waste. For some time I’ve been collecting computer power cables faster than I’ve been using them (due to machines dying and due to clients who want machines but already have spare power cables). So I’ve started giving them away at meetings of my local LUG. At the last meeting I gave away a bag of power cables and I plan to keep taking cables to the meetings until people stop accepting them.