Fixing a Dell server that required F1 on every boot

Last weekend, I dusted off (literally), my Dell PowerEdge 840 that was retired in favour of a low-power server a couple of years ago. My employer’s IT policies are making it harder and harder to do any personal computing from work (I know my laptop is for work but there’s a big grey area between work and play these days) and whilst the Mac Mini is fine for music, a bit of browsing and email, I wanted something a bit more “heavy duty” for some of my home computing needs.  With 8GB of RAM and a Quad core Xeon CPU, my old server is a pretty good workstation (7.0 on the Windows Performance Index for CPU and memory, 5.9 for primary hard disk, but only 1.0 for graphics!) and so it’s been brought back into service as a Windows 7 PC.

Unfortunately, every time I booted it, I had to press F1, until I worked out that it was still looking for some hard disks that I had removed.  Delving into the BIOS and switching the spare SATA ports to Off, rather than Auto, sorted out the problem and now the system boots without issue.

A quick introduction to Dell PowerEdge server naming

Last year I wrote a short blog post looking at HP ProLiant servers and how the model line-up looks.  I haven’t looked at IBM System x for a few years but last week I got the chance to sit down and have a look at the current Dell PowerEdge portfolio.

Just as for HP, there is some logic behind Dell’s server names, although this scheme is fairly new and some older servers (e.g. the PowerEdge 2950) do not fit this:

  • The first character is a letter indicating the chassis type: T for tower; R for rack; M for modular (blade).
  • The next digit indicates the market segment for which the server is destined: 1, 2 and 3 are single-socket servers for value, medium and high-end markets respectively; 4 and 5 are 2 socket value servers with 6 for medium and 7 for high-end; 8 indicates a special server (for example one which can be configured as a 2 or a 4-socket machine); 9 indicates a 4 socket server (Dell does not currently complete in the 8-way marketplace).
  • The next digit indicates the generation number (0 for 10th, 1 for 11th, 2 for 12th generation). With a new generation every couple of years or so, resetting the clock to zero should give Dell around 20 years before they need to revisit this decision!
  • Finally, Intel servers end with 0 whilst AMD servers end with 5.

There is another complication though – those massive cloud datacentres operated by Microsoft, Amazon, et al use custom servers – and some of them come from Dell.  In that scenario, the custom servers don’t need to be resilient (the cloud provides the resilience) but Dell has now brought similar servers to market for those who want specialist, high-volume servers, albeit with a slightly lower MTBF than standard PowerEdge boxes.  So, for example: the C1100 is a 2-way, 1U server that can take up to 18 DIMMs for memory-intensive applications; the C2100 is a 2-way, 2U server with room for 12 disks (and 18DIMMs); whilst the C6100 crams four 2-way blades into 2U enclosure, with room for 12 DIMMs and up to 24 2.5″ disks!

Controlling costs when buying a PC

Much of what I write on this blog is based upon my experiences as a consultant/infrastructure architect for a leading IT Services company but as my day job becomes less technical there’s an increasing amount written based on the time I spend working with technology on my home network.  markwilson.it doesn’t have a large IT budget and it’s become increasingly apparent that my pile of aging, but rather good, Compaq Evo D5xx SFF PCs no longer provides the hardware features that I need.  Consequently, I needed to buy a small server – ideally a dual-socket machine, with quad-core CPUs and up to 16GB of RAM (I had a couple of spare 500GB SATA hard disks to re-use and also some spare NICs). I didn’t have an exact figure in mind, but was hoping to spend no more than £500-600 and knew that specification would probably be too expensive but then I found an offer on the Dell website for a PowerEdge 840 – starting at £179 plus VAT and shipping.

The PowerEdge 840 is more like a workstation than a server but it has the option to upgrade the standard dual-core Intel Pentium processor to a dual- or quad-core Xeon.  For a dual-socket machine with the ability to go up to 16GB of memory I’d have needed to move up to a more expensive model but the PowerEdge 840 specification would give me what I need to set up a XenExpress or Windows Hyper-V Server server for evaluating products and running the basic markwilson.it infrastructure (everything except the website, which is hosted for me by ascomi).

I haven’t bought a PC for years (except my Mac Mini) and didn’t feel confident to make the right selections, so I called a trusted colleague, Garry, who may be a CTO now but still gets techie as required!  He gave me some great advice for keeping the costs down – and these are equally applicable to any major OEM PC/Server purchase:

  • Do you really need that optional extra?  Don’t be afraid to buy the basic system from the manufacturer and source additional components elsewhere. 
  • Use a cashback site (e.g. TopCashBack).  Using this, I was able to get cash back on the pre-tax value of the goods purchased.

Following Garry’s advice, I could see that by sticking with the basic memory and disk options (being ready to take them out when it arrives), I could buy larger components elsewhere and still save money.  I upped the CPU spec, but left the rest of the system almost at the basic level with 512MB of RAM, one 80GB disk (to take out and use elsewhere – or even just give it away) and one 250GB disk (to downgrade my external hard drive and use the 500GB disk from that instead).  I stuck with the basic DVD-ROM drive (I’ll take the writer from one of the PCs that this server will replace) and rejected options for floppy disk drive, modem, additional NICs, tape backup, UPS, etc. as I already have these things at home.  I also rejected options for RAID controllers as I can pick up a less capable but inexpensive SATA RAID controller elsewhere.  Finally, I said no to operating system and backup software – whilst Small Business Server 2003 R2 may have been nice, Windows Hyper-V Server will only be a few pounds when it releases later this year and XenExpress is free.  As I’m not in the market for Windows Server 2003/2008 Enterprise or Datacenter editions I’ll have to deal with the guest VM licensing separately – but that’s no different to my current situation.

After this, I had my server ready to order, at a total price (including shipping and VAT) of just under £392 (and around £14 cashback due).  Then I started looking at the last part of the solution – 8GB of DDR2 SDRAM.  Interestingly, although the PowerEdge 840 supports up to 8GB of RAM, the "build your system" website only lets me choose up to 4GB – in 1GB DIMMs.  I needed 2GB DIMMs in order to get the maximum memory installed.  Dell would sell me these at a competitive price of £49.02 each but wanted £22.33 to ship four of them to me (total price £218.40).  My normal memory supplier () could sell me two 4GB kits (each 2x2GB) for £244.38 (although the price has since fallen to just £164.48) and I could earn cashback on both of these offers but the non-ECC RAM available at sites like eBuyer was much less expensive.  According to Crucial, I can install non-ECC RAM in a server that supports ECC, but googling turned up some advice from newegg.com:

"[The] chances [of] a single-bit soft error occurring are about once per 1GB of memory per month of uninterrupted operation. Since most desktop computers do not run 24 hours a day, the chances are not actually that high. For example, if your computer (with 1GB of memory) runs 4 hours a day, the chances of a single-bit soft error happening (when your system is running) is about once every six months. Even should an error occur, it won’t be a big issue for most users as the error bit may not even be accessed at that time. Should the system access the error bit, this little error won’t result in a disaster either – the system may crash, but a restart of the system will fix that. That’s why ECC memory is not a necessity for most home users.

Things are very different when it comes to workstations and servers. To begin with, these systems often utilize multi-gigabytes of memory, and they usually run 24/7 as well. Both of these factors result in increased probability of a soft error. More importantly, an unnoticed error is not tolerable in a mission-critical workstation or server."

[Source: newegg.com article: Do I need ECC and registered memory?]

I decided to use ECC RAM as, even though my server is not mission critical, it will be on 24×7 and running several virtual machines – all of which could be susceptible to memory errors.  Dell Technical Support also advised me that non-ECC RAM would cause POST errors.

I still needed to get the best deal I could on memory and Dell were only quoting me for PC2-4200 (533MHz) RAM when the PowerEdge 840 will take PC2-5300 (667MHz) RAM.  As the Dell RAM is actually from Kingston, I decided to see what Kingston recommended for the PowerEdge 840 and found that there is a product (KTD-DM8400BE/2G) which is a 667MHz version of the 2GB 240-pin SDRAM that the server uses.  Furthermore, I could get it from SMC Direct for £53.55 a module (£219.58 for all four, shipped).  Then, Dell Technical Support advised me that there is little advantage in buying the faster RAM as the front-side bus for my Intel Xeon X3210 is 1066MHz and the 2x multiplier matches whereas the 667MHz RAM would match a 1333MHz bus.  On that basis, I stuck with the Dell quote, saving myself a fiver and potentially earning some more cashback (actually, I didn’t get cashback because it was a telephone purchase but that was more than offset by Dell waiving the shipping charge as goodwill for the problems I had experienced when buying the server).

So, here I am, a couple of weeks later, with a quad-core system, over a terabyte of storage (after swapping some disks around) and 8GB RAM for less than £575.  Buying my RAM separately (even from the same supplier) got me a better deal (although Crucial’s subsequent price drop would have made an even bigger difference) and Garry’s TopCashBack advice saved me some more money.  This is how the costs stack up (all including VAT and shipping, where applicable):

Item Price
Dell PowerEdge 840 server £391.98
4 Kingston KTD-DM8400AE/2G DIMMs (from Dell) £196.08
Additional disks, NICs and CD/DVD writer (sourced from existing PCs) £0.00
Cashback -£14.23
Total paid £573.83

Further information

Memory specification terms
Memory terms glossary

Online Cashback

How my Dell customer experience suddenly got better

Last week, I wrote a post about the poor customer service I had experienced as part of my recent Dell server purchase but the very next morning things started to improve.

Firstly, my server turned up a week early.  That’s good – exceeding customer expectations gets a big tick from me.  Ordered at 2pm on Friday, order accepted (i.e. payment cleared) on Sunday, server built to order, shipped from Ireland and delivered in England at 9.15am on Wednesday.  One happy punter.

Then I got an e-mail and a phone call from one of Dell’s Technical Account Managers, who’d seen my blog post and wanted to talk to me about my experience.  I was only to happy to give him feedback on where it all went wrong for me, and in return he promised to look into it and get a server specialist to call me right away.  Sure enough, a few minutes later the phone rang and it was a really helpful representative from the UK and Ireland SME Silver Support Team, who took me through the configuration options on my server that had confused me so much (I’ve added a comment to my original post with the details).

As a gesture of goodwill (and I think it’s only fair to disclose this as I’m now writing so positively about Dell!), they also waived the shipping charge on the extra memory I was about to purchase and shipped some additional SATA cables to allow me to connect a third and fourth drive to my motherboard.

All of that is good news for me but what about those who can’t publicly throw their toys out of the cot (i.e. write a stroppy post on their blog) and who need technical pre-sales support?  Dell’s advice is to either:

  • Click on the Request a Call link on the Server page before starting the system build;

or:

  • Click on the Purchase Help tab to view contact details for Sales Support.

(As this second option leads to the same page I used before ending up in Dell phone system hell I’d suggest the request a call option.)

Dell customer service fails again

A few years back I had the misfortune of using a Dell Latitude D600 notebook computer for my work.  At the time I wrote about the problems I experienced with Dell customer service and it seems that Michael Dell’s return as CEO isn’t doing much to improve the customer experience.

Then, last week, I bought a Dell PowerEdge 840 server.  I did it because it was cheap.  So, one might ask what am I complaining about but, even though £391.98 is very inexpensive for a server, I expect some service when I’m trying to buy something from someone.

I suppose I’m spoilt because normally I buy many servers at a time, have a technical account manager to help me select the right options and it’s someone else’s money if I miss something and need to buy some more components.  Oh yes, and I buy HP servers where possible.  This time I was spending my own money and wanted the best deal possible.

As I worked through Dell’s "build your system" website, I wanted some technical support for the RAID connectivity options which, after telling me that the server supports up to 2 cabled or hot-plug SAS or SATA hard drives, the website listed as:

  • C1B – Motherboard SATA cabled, min 2, max 2 Hard Drives connected to onboard SATA controller.
  • C1C – Motherboard SATA cabled, min 3, max 3 Hard Drives connected to onboard SATA controller.
  • C1D – Motherboard SATA cabled, min 4, max 4 Hard Drives connected to onboard SATA controller.

I was confused.  If the server only supports 2 cabled or hot-plug drives, then why is there a no-cost option to have 3 or 4 hard drives connected to the on-board SATA controller?  So I called Dell.  Only to find after about 8 (no kidding) menu options on the phone system that the "small business" department I needed to speak to was closed and only works from 9 to 4.30 Monday to Friday (part-timers…).

I bought the server anyway because the discount was due to expire (it’s since been extended) and called back on Monday. After making 4 menu selections I got to a person who was somewhere in South Asia and sounded helpful but was clearly following a script.  She redirected me to someone in Ireland who sounded annoyed that I was taking up her time and told me that my query was a technical one (not sales). She put me through to technical support, who were confused when I said that I didn’t have a service tag because my system was still being built but put me through to the PowerEdge department anyway.  They were busy but after 5 minutes on hold I spoke to a person who was helpful but didn’t really fill me with confidence in his advice as first of all, he told me that the PowerEdge 840 supports up to 4 drives (good) but that the options may be for different backplanes.  Then he checked and said that the system supports 2 drives on the motherboard but drives 3 and 4 would need a separate RAID controller.  As that seemed to contradict the options at purchase time and he couldn’t comment on the "build your system" website, I’m still no clearer.

I guess I’ll find out how many drives I can get in this server (and what the C1B/C/D options mean) when it arrives next week…

If only all warranty calls were like this…

A couple of years ago, I had the misfortune to require warranty support from Dell (a frustrating experience). Then, problems with my IBM ThinkPad left me stuck between a 3-year hardware warranty and a 90-day software warranty. Well, thankfully my recent experiences with HP have been considerably better.

Last year I had some warranty repairs carried out on a couple of my notebook PCs – the warranty cover was for a back-to-base repair: a courier arrived from DHL and packaged the computers, then a few days later they were returned with the faulty components replaced.

Then, yesterday, one of my hard disks failed. I checked the warranty status on the Seagate website (one of the reasons that I use Seagate drives is the 5-year warranty) but it wasn’t valid as the component was originally supplied by HP. So, I called HP, who were happy to take my word that a few whirrs and clunks from the disk, then nothing (except a system that was stuck attempting to boot from drive C: ) meant that this device was broken and needed to be replaced (even if I did have to explain to an overseas call centre operator that I work for a company with 20,000 employees and I couldn’t check every address they had on their system for that company name, but that my home address certainly wouldn’t be there). Half an hour later, HP (or one of their agents) called me to check the part number and promised me a replacement within 24 hours.

By 9:00 this morning, I had a package containing a new drive in my hand (even if the courier didn’t know anything about collecting the faulty component) and a few minutes later I had installed it in my system. By lunchtime, everything was up and running again. Then, I found the instructions that told me to package the failed drive in the box used to ship the new replacement and peel off the label, underneath which was a pre-paid returns label. All that was needed then was a call to UPS to arrange collection and a few minutes ago, the same UPS driver returned to collect the package.

Overall, it was a positive experience (as positive as a wrecked hard drive can be) – less than a day of downtime on a standard parts-only warranty. Thank you HP.

Even more problems with a Dell Latitude D600

I’ve decided that the notebook PC that I use for work must have been built on a Friday afternoon (or a Monday morning). Over the last five months it has had a replacement motherboard (3 weeks, 4 engineer visits, 2 no-shows before the PC was fixed), a replacement hard disk, and last week the battery had to be replaced. Sure enough, Dell replaced all of these parts under warranty, but it doesn’t say much for the build quality of the equipment.

Bluetooth Drivers for Dell TrueMobile 300

Following my previous post about the trouble I have had getting the Bluetooth hardware in my Dell Latitude D600 repaired, I then had to reinstall the Dell TrueMobile 300 Bluetooth driver. During the three week wait to get the hardware repaired, I had installed Windows XP SP2 and as Stuart Preston reported on his blog, the Dell drivers do not function correctly under SP2, resulting in a requirement to use the native Microsoft drivers (which are less functional).

A hunt around the Dell Community Forum revealed many unhappy users (bizarrely mostly blaming Microsoft for releasing SP2!), but no real solution until a Google search came up with Dell support document FA1090448 (a search of the Dell website had failed to locate this), pointing to an updated driver that seems to fix the problem.

Dell fails on service delivery

My work laptop is a Dell Latitude D600 – the specification offers me all I need (well, I would like a Toshiba Portégé M200 tablet PC but that’s another story), including built in 802.11b and Bluetooth support. Except that it doesn’t – some of our D600s have had problems with the Bluetooth cards not being correctly seated or requiring motherboard replacements before they will detect the Bluetooth card – mine is one of those…

The trouble is:

  1. Convincing Dell that there is a problem.
  2. Getting Dell to send a engineer, at the right time and with the correct parts.

Its been three weeks since I first requested support and this is the catalogue of incompetence I’ve endured so far:

  • 16 August 2004 – Logged incident with Dell via their website.
  • 17 August 2004 – Initial reply tells me to check the BIOS settings – I respond immediately and tell them that the BIOS does not recognise my Bluetooth card (showing as not installed).
  • 18 August 2004 – Dell tell me to check the drivers in Windows! I reply and restate that the BIOS does not detect any Bluetooth devices…
  • 21 August 2004 – Dell diagnose that a new motherboard is required and request contact details to send an engineer/parts.
  • 23 August 2004 – Contact details provided.
  • 25 August 2004 – I chase lack of progress by e-mail. Dell respond and tell me there will be an engineer on site on 27 August (the day I am not available). Dell reschedule for 31 August.
  • 26 August 2004 – two e-mails from Dell regarding my service call, and a phone call from the same support technician I have been corresponding with – I repeat that I am not available on the 27th and Dell reconfirm that the engineer will arrive on the 31st.
  • 27 August 2004 – Dell engineer arrives on site, despite assurances that service request is booked for 31st!
  • 31 August 2004 – Engineer arrives with wireless network adapter! Confirms that the problem is the motherboard or Bluetooth card and will return with Bluetooth card on 1 September.
  • 1 September 2004 – Different engineer arrives with Bluetooth card, but wrong part number – will return on 2 September with correct Bluetooth card and a motherboard.
  • 2 September 2004 – No engineer visit – chased by e-mail. Dell respond that part will arrive on 3 September.
  • 3 September 2004 – No engineer visit, and no parts. I chase Dell by e-mail. No response to date.

Dell equipment may be (relatively) inexpensive, and (reasonably) well specified, but it now seems my argument for buying Intel-based servers from Compaq (now HP) and IBM rather than the less expensive Dell equipment is equally valid in the PC world – there is a cost in the overall quality of the product (and associated service) with any low-cost PC (and by that, I mean business-focused OEM equipment – of course you can buy no-name or consumer PCs for even less).

If you are looking for a new PC and you want my advice – don’t buy Dell.