Update 2010/04/23: Our keyboard deafness problems (both via USB and over DRAC) were apparently due to problems with the DRAC card itself. They remained after a downgrade to v1.4.5, but went away with replacement of the DRAC card.

I have spent a considerable amount of time trying to fix a Dell PowerEdge R900 server since it started reporting vague but serious memory errors last week. Since it's quite awkward to physically visit, I have been making extensive use of DRAC 5 (Dell Remote Access Card). Unfortunately, DRAC has a slew of poorly documented and poorly understood restrictions, which vary between hardware (DRAC 5) and software (v1.4.5/v1.5.1) versions.

Dell recommends Windows and supports certain flavors of Linux, but the farther you get away from the ActiveX control for IE under Windows, the more difficult things become. Since we use CentOS (unsupported) and don't have any Windows hosts on the private network with the DRAC interfaces, we have to jump through a few hoops to connect.

The compatibilities are complicated enough that I put together a table of what the different DRAC versions and components require (these are the issues I've encountered -- there are probably more in the release notes, and undocumented), with workarounds where available:

DRAC Compatibility Firefox Java keyboard stability security
DRAC v1.4.5
  • Incompatible with 64-bit Firefox.1
  • Serves ActiveX plugins to Firefox/Linux & Firefox/Mac.2
Input is garbled with Mac keyboard (even running Firefox on Linux via X11 from Mac).3
DRAC v1.5.1 32-bit Sun JRE 1.6.0-11 or earlier (-18 is current). Remote & USB keyboards are both unreliable (may be a local problem, rather than DRAC).4
  • Login errors.
  • Plugins crash more often than run successfully.
vmcli v1.5.1 Requires password on command line.5
Note .jnlp files do not launch javaws by default (not Dell's fault).6
  1. Workaround: rpm -e --allmatches firefox; yum install firefox.i386
  2. By default, DRAC attempts to serve up the ActiveX controls to Firefox/Linux. The workaround is to manually specify 'Java' rather than 'Native' for VKVM & VM.
  3. Direct login from a Mac browser shows the screen properly but typing produces the wrong characters. X11 forwarding from a Mac through a Linux system is the same. Workarounds include running Firefox in a Linux VM and tunneling X11 through ssh, or connecting to Firefox running on the Linux host via VNC.
  4. This may be an unrelated problem, which coincidentally appeared after upgrading to DRAC 5 v1.5.1. I hope to determine this soon. This was apparently the fault of a bad DRAC card.
  5. Partial workaround: precede vmcli with a space, to avoid recording the DRAC password in bash history. This does not help with ps sniffing, though.
  6. Workaround: specify a suitable javaws (such as /usr/java/default/javaws/javaws) from a compatible 32-bit Sun JRE. Additionally, saving .jnlp files for later use without redownloading in Firefox does not work. We do this on Solaris ILOM, as it avoids having to launch Firefox, login, and redownload a fresh .jnlp file for every connection.

Unfortunately, this all is poorly supported and understood by Dell. Phone techs can do 3 things: tell you to update (BIOS, DRAC, etc.), provide update URLs, and help work through the release notes for incompatibilities. Anything else is hit-and-miss. Specifically, mention of "CentOS Linux" tends to end support; X11 forwarding causes confusion and generally exceeds their knowledge and ability to assist. There are back-end folks they can escalate to, but I never managed to escalate successfully -- I had to give up after a half-hour on hold. But I did get (via a painfully long and circuitous route through our sales team) support from a helpful gentleman on the OpenManage team, who didn't have answers but was helpful in verifying problems.

To me, the moral is that Dell doesn't do software well (I haven't used their other software, so I don't know if this really generalizes, but I'm sticking to it unless I see a counterexample). It's such a small part of their business that it's not really surprising, but still a problem when you need a piece of Dell software to work, or to figure out what's wrong.

See also http://www.dell.com/downloads/global/solutions/DellRemoteAccessController5Security.Pdf.