Some ways that servers make their disks not hot-swappable

April 15, 2020

In yesterday's entry, I mentioned that none of our current crop of basic 1U servers have hot-swappable drive bays. A commentator then asked:

What exactly makes a "hot-swappable" disk bay? I had assumed that all SAS and SATA connections are always hot-swappable, with maybe the only difference being whether the OS gets automatically poked about new connections or not...

Since I am a little bit grumpy about this, here are some of the ways that servers can have drive bays that aren't hot swappable (I'm sure there's more because server vendors have many ways of making your life more annoying).

The most straightforward way is exemplified by our Dell R210 IIs, which do not so much have drive bays as drive cages. Their drive 'bays' are fully enclosed inside the chassis and can only be removed by taking the top off and then disconnecting separate power and SATA cables. In theory perhaps you could do this while an R210 II was running, but I wouldn't want to attempt it.

The more clever way is that of our Dell R310 IIs (in our configuration). These have externally accessible drive carriers that slide out the front of the chassis, so it looks like you should be able to hot swap them, but the carriers are held in place by latches at the back that can only be accessed by taking the top of the case off and they still plug into ribbon cables. For the Dell R310, Dell calls this the 'cabled hard drive chassis' and it is of course the cheaper option.

The final optional piece of cleverness is that some generations of Dell servers come by default with the BIOS set to explicitly disable any SATA ports that didn't have drives connected in the factory configuration, which generally means all but the first SATA port. This wouldn't stop a hot swap of an existing drive, because you'd already have enabled the SATA port, but it does mean that you can't add an additional hard drive without a trip through the BIOS.

(This can lead to comedy moments when you're setting up a server that's supposed to have a two way or three way mirror and wondering why the installer and so on can only see one drive. Since you have to manually connect the cabling, it's possible to spend some time wondering if you plugged everything in right or the drive is dead before you realize what the real problem is.)

Comments on this page:

By jonys at 2020-04-17 04:22:48:

Dell apparently likes disabling SATA ports in the BIOS so much, that one Dell workstation type we have (Precision T3500) will refuse to boot with an enabled, but unconnected port. And the BIOS setup is (of course) only available locally through the keyboard and monitor, no serial or IPMI. Changing the disks in those computers is really a pain. Thankfully, they are old enough that we only have a few still running.

By Uwe T at 2020-04-18 05:22:56:

refuse to boot with an enabled, but unconnected port.

I wish some thing like "VGA Dummy Plug" exists for SATA.

By 1000001101000 at 2020-04-22 13:53:21:

I discovered that the bay power for one type of system could be managed by using the GPIO driver for the underlying Intel Chip. At least for those systems this allows one to enable bays that didn't have a drive at startup.

Written on 15 April 2020.
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Last modified: Wed Apr 15 22:06:19 2020
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