Dell t300 – Buying an ancient server

So, one of my office servers was misbehaving – and random crashes finally tipped me over the edge.

Read on a blurb of text about buying an ancient computer from ebay and some uninteresting pitfalls encountered.

The old server’s main role is to store backups of my development environment (hourly snapshots of files and databases for the last few days etc), and over time I’ve moved my internal SQL databases onto it and backed up a few remote servers there too.

However, it seems to enjoy crashing once a week. Recently I’ve caught a few of the kernel oops messages and they seemed to indicate a hardware problem. Given the motherboard was a cheap and cheerful desktop variant from about 8 years ago, I thought perhaps it was time to replace it.

First up, I wanted something I could power cycle remotely. So in my mind that means it needs IPMI. Supermicro and Asusrock do a few motherboards that support this – but they’re all about £200-300 and would have required a new CPU too (Intel,  £100-200+). I’d almost certainly need new RAM at this point too – so that’d be another £100 ish … and case/PSU too … another £50-80.

So, perhaps £500-600+ … for something that just needs to ‘sit there’ and behave….

Then I remembered buying some old Dell rack mounted servers off eBay for a stingy customer a couple of years ago – which worked out really well (again, IPMI was a crucial requirement). A quick hunt around, led me to :

  1. Dell T300 from BargainHardware (EBay) (£199). (24Gb of RAM. 4 core Xeon). With IPMI and plenty of room in a midi-tower case. I think it’s about 8 years old, but should be more than fast enough for me.
  2. Given the “core” computer was cheap, I opted for a new Crucial 500 gb SSD (£149) for my development databases to run from.
  3. And, I found one slightly faster processor (drop in replacement of the provided 2.5ghz L5420 Xeon to a 3.16Ghz X5460 Xeon – (£25)). There’s a small performance jump from this, but not really much.

Random findings:

  1. Dell’s Perc controller thing (possibly a PERC 6i) didn’t support disks larger than 1Tb. As I already had 2x3Tb WD reds to fit in it, this wasn’t helpful.
  2. The motherboard has 6 onboard SATA connectors/slots/things – which all seem to work fine… and support disks of at least 3Tb in size.
  3. IPMI works as expected (so I can reboot it remotely, yey!).
  4. Because of the inbuilt PERC controller, there was some weird wire which had fused data and power connectors for SATA/SAS disks. While I’m sure it made the case wiring nice and tidy, it was a pain given the PSU only provided two SATA power connectors which were very short. Thankfully, one replacement Sata cable (£12) thing fixed that.

So, total cost: ~£380.

Thankfully, no issues with Linux compatibility (not that I expected there to be any). Thankfully the Dell case fans throttle down automatically and are barely audible without me needing to find some random combination of drivers.

Potential issues:

  1. It only supports SATA 2(?) or whatever it is that’s 3Gbps. So I might need to buy a PCI-Express SATA card in the future.
  2. I have a now old Asterisk T400 card (so the analog phone line can be dealt with by Asterisk). This requires an old-style ATA power adapter – so I’ll probably need to spend £50 buying a new PCI-Express T400e card – or not bother.

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