Why Dell is not right for us and probably not you, either.

Disclaimer: unless you’re in the market for a server, you’ll probably not find this post too interesting.

We have been running a small web-hosting company for about 14 years now. We have always used Dell hardware for our servers. Our first server wasn’t technically a server, but it did the job and even ran as a secondary DNS server for more years than I care to admit. We exclusively run FreeBSD, and we have found that it runs great on Dell hardware without any driver/hardware issues you may expect to see with franken-combinations of hardware. There have been a few failures over the years such as hard drives and power supplies, but with the redundant nature of our infrastructure, it has never been catastrophic.

The ordering experience for replacement parts, on the other hand, has always been something of a nightmare. Dell’s phone is system has to be one of the worst out there. It’s almost guaranteed to be different each time you call (“our menu options have changed, so please listen closely”), and half the time, it simply doesn’t work. You’ll go through a maze of menu options, and it will just hang up. Or you’ll get hold music for a second, and then silence. Is it working? Will this ever be answered? Who can tell. Wait times are so long that it’s a pretty big gamble to continue to wait without any assurance that the call will eventually be answered.

And I’m not sure why, but you cannot order replacement parts online. It’s almost 2014! And still no online ordering. Insanity! Finally, ordering replacement parts from Dell turns out to be way more expensive than through other sites on the internet that sell the very same, Dell-certified parts. Just yesterday, I had to place an order for a replacement 73GB SAS drive. I went through their Hell of a phone system only to get silence a number of times. I tried going through a different department (extended warranties) as I had a hypothesis that it would be better staffed. Sure enough, I got a human relatively quickly. But she was in India, and was not able to do anything. She offered to transfer me to the parts department, and I asked if it was just going to be the same as my previous, failed attempts. She didn’t seem to understand or just ignored the question. I pleaded with her to stay on the line to ensure I was connected with a person, but again she ignored the request and transfered back to the broken system.

So, I emailed the “server team” who “assisted” in our last server order along with every other Dell email address I had collected over the years requesting that someone help with a simple part order. (In a previous exchange with them, they said I’d have to call the parts department.) To their credit, a Senior Account Manager in the Business Development division did respond relatively quickly, Cc’ing someone in the Parts Division supporting Canada to request that this new person assist me. Six and half hours later, I hadn’t heard anything back, and this Senior Account Manager sent another email to a different person in the same department. The next morning, I did get a quote back. But this person claimed the 73GB SAS drive was no longer available and gave me a price for a 146GB drive for a whopping $363.86.

In the meantime, I had found the drive I needed on Server Parts Direct. I ordered online, and the price came to $136.43. They called me within 15 minutes to confirm the order and to fix something due to the site not properly setting the currency. The order has already shipped.

The above experience is relatively minor, but speaks volumes to the kind of service Dell provides. And it’s actually just the precursor to the bigger experience that is driving my motivation for making this public.

The real story

Last March, we decided it was time to replace an aging server. So, I spec’d out a machine on the Dell website, and was ready to place an order. I recalled that in the past, I could get a better deal on the same hardware if I placed the order over the phone, so I did just that. (Seriously, the online price is always more than over the phone.) Except this time, it wasn’t quite so simple. The “associate” on the phone needed to assemble a “server team” and arrange for a big conference call so that they could ensure we were getting the right server and that it was configured properly, etc. (And actually, if you have ever configured a server on Dell’s site, it’s a pretty confusing and frustrating experience trying to figure out which hardware options are compatible.) Rolling my eyes, I reluctantly agreed, and a couple days later, a hotshot server team and I went over the options and configured a server. The price was about $1,200 cheaper than the very same system when configured through the online system. The order was finally placed on March 13th after a couple of frustrating exchanges where the payment method was discussed.

The server took two weeks to be built and arrive at our office. When we plugged it in and booted it up, we were greeted with an error saying that the “PCI riser was not detected”. We opened up the case, and found what we assumed to be the PCI riser. After pushing it down a bit (must have come loose in transit), it got past that point of the boot process. But then it stopped again:

PCIe Degraded Link Width Error: Integrated RAID
Expected Link Width is x4
Actual Link Width is x2

System halted!

This was March 28th, 2013, and so I sent an email to our server team. On Monday, April 1st, I got a response instructing me to phone the server tech support division. We somehow got past this second error when the third started up:

E1000 FailSafe voltage error

The server kept shutting off after random periods of time. Dell dispatched a technician who came to our office to take a look. Things were tested, and some replacement parts (two power supplies and a new power distribution board) were ordered and eventually installed by the technician. The problem persisted, and so he ordered an entirely new motherboard. On April 9th, the server had no video output and continued to randomly shut off. And the fans were going nuts. So I insisted that we not waste any more time on this dud of a server and just replace the server outright.

On April 16th, I got an email from of the server specialists informing me that the original processor option was no longer available because of some “known” issues with the memory in the system. They would have to downgrade the processor. No offer of a partial refund was made. Then the next day they reversed that and said the server would in fact had the original configuration.

On May 7th, the new server was finally ready to ship. During the lengthy time it took to assemble this server, I was frequently requesting updates and trying to communicate the increasing urgency of getting this replacement server. More than once, I requested that when it was ready, that Dell ship the replacement to us in an expedited method, preferably FedEx. And did they? Nope. They shipped it ground via Purolator (one of the worst shippers!) from somewhere in the USA.

The server arrived at the end of the day on Friday, May 10th. So that took about two months to get a server from Dell. I asked that they do something to make up for this inexcusable amount of time for a server. I made some suggestions on what they could do. Dell did absolutely nothing. They, quite frankly, don’t give a shit. We’re just a small customer whose business has no real impact to their profits, and they don’t care how much we were inconvenienced, nor do they care that we had to push deadlines, shuffle around schedules. They have no appreciation at how much their screw-ups, inefficiencies, ineptitudes, and terrible service cost a long term customer.

So, we will not be buying any more servers from Dell. As we retire our servers, we will be looking at HP and IBM to see how they treat small businesses. We’re ultimately looking for a vendor that will work with customers to provide systems to allow us to grow a relationship together. We do not want another vendor like Dell who will just take our money and run.