Buying Dell servers? Consider the hidden costs.

The time is currently 5:30am. Normally, this would be the sort of time that I would enjoy sleeping. However, I have instead spent this evening, or morning, or whatever-you- call-it, working with our hosting team to fix a server that refused to start after installing a replacement part given to us by Dell. We finally got the server running again about an hour ago, and I’m now waiting for our slave database (corrupted during the crash) to re-sync. If I’m lucky I’ll hit the sack before sunrise.

While it’s always difficult to conclusively assign blame with a hardware problem, I think it is pretty safe to blame this predicament on a replacement Dell part we installed about two days ago. Prior to installing the replacement, this server would crash every 2-4 weeks, stating that its disks had become detached. We had an identical server, with identical software, that has yet to crash since we purchased it, so a hardware failure was the most reasonable explanation. Google search results on our error corroborated this. So, hesitantly, I picked up the phone and dialed Dell support.

The worst-case scenario would be that they spend hours arguing with me and making me go through rote debugging tasks despite the numerous facts I’d accumulated that all pointed squarely at RAID controller. The best-case scenario was that they looked at my purchasing history of almost $20k in hardware over the last year, noted that this is the first time I have ever asked for a replacement part, and give me the benefit of the doubt just this once.

Dial Dell. Quick arrival at support guy. Explain situation to support guy. Support guy starts reading debugging script. D’oh! Worst-case scenario begun.

As any business owner/IT manager can tell you, there is a very tangible time/cost equation that can be applied to any hardware debugging scenario. The question that one has to ask oneself, when entering into a support debugging script they know is unnecessary, is whether the 2-3 hours it will take to complete the tasks, multiplied by the uncertainty that the support person will agree a replacement is necessary, is less than the cost of just re-buying the part. When my hard drive failed on my Dell desktop, the answer quickly became “no” after I spent an hour on the phone with the tech over a hard drive that was probably worth $100 (I ordered the part off Amazon and my computer has worked fine since). It was my cautious hope that my buying history might earn me a more dignified treatment this time around. But after an hour on the phone with the tech, it quickly became clear that I was yet again headed down a multiple-hours debugging path for a part that would cost only $200-$300.

Then, a break of light. I learned of the Dell FastTrack program, which, after a test “certifies” that a person isn’t a dunce, allows them to order their own parts without the support script. A great solution to a hard problem. I quickly signed up for the program. Though it took me probably about 5 hours to complete it, I justified the time expense as a pre-payment on a lifetime of savings in support scripts.

Shortly thereafter, I became certified, ordered my replacement part, and it arrived only two days later. Great turnaround!

Then, today happened. Here is my rough table of the different paths I could have taken to get our server problem fixed:

Option Initial Cost Future cost Total cost
Buy a new RAID card. $250 None. Because new parts work. $250
Persuade Dell support person that you deserve a replacement part 2-3 hours of time 5-10 hours of IT debugging time * $100-$200 (after refurbished part fails) 2-3 hours of life + $500-$2000
Get Dell certified, order replacement part 5 hours of time 5-10 hours IT debugging time * $100-$200 hour (after the refurbished part fails) 5 hours of life + $500-$2000

The most maddening part of this story? That it makes perfect economic sense for Dell. Other than customer fury (which generally has no tangible cost), what does it matter to them if the replacement part doesn’t work? Why not just ship every returned part out to another customer, just to be sure that it is “really” defective? They kill two birds with one stone: they don’t have to spend money on a new replacement part, or in the worst-case scenario, they get a free test of their hardware from the unwitting consumer. Heck, maybe they send the replacement part, which fails, and the consumer gets so frustrated they start buying new parts instead of bothering their support team. They save time and make money.

Unfortunately, today I was the unwitting consumer. Rather than spending the $250 to buy a new part, I believed that Dell would send me a replacement that worked. Instead, it failed catastrophically two days after we installed it, and I was out 5 hours of certification time, plus $500-$2000 in IT time for fighting the problem. Not to even factor in the costs of site downtime, 10 hours of stress, and all the energy put into fixing the stuff that broke when the site crashed.

If the best part of the Internet is that justice can be served, I would like nothing more than to see Dell be served justice by consumers that are tired of refurbished parts, support personnel bent on denying necessary parts, and a general lack of benefit of doubt to the customer. 5:30am is not a time where I belong.

5 Replies to “Buying Dell servers? Consider the hidden costs.”

  1. We’ve experienced this issue ourselves. Basically, we opted out of Dell servers altogether. We also didn’t like the fact that we had to buy “propietary” parts. Why should a Dell power supply cost more than a well made “generic”?… because Dell’s has a different FORM FACTOR. They won’t keep with widely accepted standards, and make their own. The consumers pay the price in the end, and companies with practices, policies and proceedures continue to make the money. In my opinion, Dell is NOT good for small business.

  2. Yeah, T-mobile does the same thing with blackberries — if your nearly-new phone has a problem, they’ll replace it with a phone someone else reported broken. After going through their support script, I pleaded with the rep to try to get me a new replacement. She was too honest and couldn’t even pretend that I would get a new phone.

    That’s why I’m glad I lease servers. It’s amazing that the site I run for my day job handles 300,000 PV/day on 30% of a single core of a fall 2008 Xeon (which has 7 other cores our site isn’t using).

  3. I had some doubts, after reading this post Dell Refurbished Servers. I am cleared now. Keep up the good work. This blog is really interesting and gives good details.

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