New Dell Server

My Dell PowerEdge T105 server (as referenced in my previous post [1]) is now working. It has new memory (why replace just the broken DIMM when you can replace both) and a new BIOS (Dell released an “Urgent” update yesterday that fixes a problem with memory timing and Opteron CPUs). The BIOS update can be installed from a DOS executable (traditionally done from a floppy disk) or an i386 Linux executable. As I didn’t have a floppy drive in my new server I had to use Linux (not that I object to using Linux, but I’d rather have had the technician do it all for me). I used rescue mode from a Fedora 9 CD that was convenient, mounted a USB stick that I had used to store the BIOS update, and then ran it.

The Dell service was quite good, on-site service and the problem was fixed approximately 27 hours after I called them. Replacing a couple of DIMMs is hardly a test of skill for the repair-man (unlike the time in Amsterdam when a Dell repair-man swapped a motherboard in a server with only 20 minutes of down-time). So I haven’t seen evidence of them doing anything really great, but getting someone on-site close to 24 hours after the report is quite decent, especially considering that I paid for the cheapest support that they offer.

When I got it working I was a little surprised by the memory speed, I had hoped that a new 2GHz Opteron would perform similarly to an Intel E2160 and better than an old Pentium-D (see the results here [2]). Also the memtest86+ run took ages on the step of writing random numbers (I don’t recall ever seeing that step on previous runs, let alone having a system spend half an hour doing it). It seems that the CPU (Opteron 1212) doesn’t perform well for random number generation.

In terms of actual operation all I’ve done so far is to install Debian. The process of installing Debian packages was quite fast (even with a RAID-1 reconstruction occurring at the same time) and the boot time is also very quick.

The hard drive “rails” seemed a little flimsy. The way they attach to the drive is that they have screws that end in pins, so you screw them into plastic and the pins just sit in the holes in the drive where screws normally attach. I think that it would make more sense to have them not screw onto the plastic and instead screw onto the disk. Then if the plastic part that connects the two sides was to break it would still be usable. In fact they could just make the “rails” be separate rails as most other manufacturers do.

One thing that surprised me was the lack of PS/2 keyboard and mouse ports. I had expected that such ports would last longer than serial ports and floppy drives. However my Dell has a power connector for a floppy drive and has a built-in serial port (with some BIOS support for management via a serial port – I have not investigated this because I always plan to use a keyboard and monitor). Of course I expect that most other machines will start shipping without PS/2 ports now and I will have to dispose of my stockpile of PS/2 keyboards and mouses. I generally like to keep a few on hand so that I can give friends and relatives a chance to try a selection and discover which type suits them the best. But I probably don’t need a dozen of them for that purpose.

While a comment on my previous post noted that the floppy drive bay can be used for another disk, it seems that a disk is not going to fit in there easily. It looks like I might be able to install a disk there from the front if I unscrew the face-plate – but that’s more effort than I’m prepared to exert for testing the system (for production I will only have two disks).

In terms of noise, the Dell seems considerably better than a NEC machine which was designed for desktop use. Of course it’s difficult to be certain as part of the noise is from hard disks and one of the disks I’ve installed in the Dell is a WD “Green” disk and the other may have newer technology to minimise noise. Also the mounting brackets for disks in a server may be better at damping vibrations than screwing a disk to the chassis of a desktop machine. Finally the NEC machine does seem to make more noise now than it used to, so maybe it would be best to compare after a few months use to allow for minor wear on the moving parts.

I was initially going to run Debian/Etch on the machine. But as Debian didn’t recognise the built-in Ethernet card and the Xen kernel crashed when doing intensive disk IO I was forced to use CentOS. CentOS 5.1 didn’t start my DomU’s for some reason (which I never diagnosed) but CentOS 5.2 worked perfectly.

Finally I was shocked when I realised that the Dell has no sound hardware! When the CentOS post-install program said that it couldn’t find a sound device I thought that meant that it didn’t support the hardware (it’s the sort of thing that sometimes happens when you get a new machine). But it actually has no sound support! It seems really strange that Dell design a desk-side server (which is quiet) and don’t include sound support. If nothing else then using something like randomsound to take input from the microphone line as a source of entropy is going to be useful on servers.

While the seven USB ports initially seemed like a lot, being forced to use them for keyboard, mouse, and sound (if I end up using it on a desktop) means that there would only be four left.

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