RaptorCS's redemption: the POWER9 machine works

Published 2019-10-10 on Drew DeVault's blog

This is a follow-up to my earlier article, “RaptorCS POWER9 Blackbird PC: An expensive mistake”. Since I published that article, I’ve been in touch with Raptor and they’ve been much more communicative and helpful. I now have a working machine!

Picture of uname -sm showing "Linux ppcle64"

After I published my article, Raptor reached out and apologised for my experience. They offered a full refund, but I agreed to work on further diagnosis now that we had opened a dialogue1. They identified that my CPU was defective and sent me a replacement, then we found the mainboard to be defective, too, and the whole thing was shipped back and replaced. I installed the new hardware into the datacenter today and it was quite pleasant to get up and running. Raptor assures me that my nightmares with the old board are atypical, and if the new board is representative of the usual user experience, I would have to agree. The installation was completely painless.2

However, I refuse to give any company credit for waking up their support team only when a scathing article about them frontpages on Hacker News. I told them I wouldn’t publish a positive follow-up unless they also convinced me that the support experience had been fixed for the typical user as well. To this end, Raptor has made a number of substantive changes. To quote their support staff:

After investigation, we are implementing new mechanisms to avoid support issues like the one you experienced. We now have a self-serve RMA generation system which would have significantly reduced your wait time, and are taking measures to ensure that tickets are no longer able to be ignored by front line support staff. We believe we have addressed the known failure modes at this time, and management will be keeping a close eye on the operation of the support system to ensure that new failure modes are handled rapidly.

They’ve tweeted this about their new self-service RMA system as well:

We’ve made it easy to submit RMA requests for defective products on our Web site. Simply go to your account, select the “Submit RMA Request” link, and fill out the form. Your product will be warranty checked and, if valid, you will receive an RMA number and shipping address!

— @RaptorCompSys via Twitter

They’re also working on other improvements to make the end-user experience better, including more content on the wiki, such as a flowchart for dealing with common problems.

Thanks to Raptor for taking the problem seriously, quickly fixing the problems with my board, and for addressing the systemic problems which led to the failure of their support system.

On the subject of the working machine, I am quite impressed with it so far. Installation was a breeze, it compiles the kernel on 32 threads from spinning rust in 4m15s, and I was able to get KVM working without much effort. I have christened it “flandre”3, which I think is fitting. I plan on bringing it up as a build slave for builds.sr.ht in the coming weeks/months, and offering ppc64le builds on Sourcehut in the near future. I have another board which was generously donated by another Raptor customer4, which arrived last week and that I hope to bring up and use for testing Wayland before introducing it to the Sourcehut fleet.

P.S. For those interested in more details of the actual failures:

This machine is so badly broken that it would actually be hilarious if the manufacturer had been more present in the troubleshooting process. I think the best way to sum it up is “FUBAR”. Among problems I encountered were:

  • The CPU experiences a “ZCAL failure” (???)
  • The BMC (responsible for bringing up the main CPU(s)) had broken ethernet, making login over SSH impossible
  • The BMC’s getty would boot loop, making login over serial impossible
  • The BMC’s u-Boot would boot loop if the TX pin on the serial cable was plugged in, making diagnosing issues from that stage impossible
  • petitboot’s ncurses output was being piped into a shell and executed (what the fuck?)

In the immortal words of James Mickens, “I HAVE NO TOOLS BECAUSE I HAVE DESTROYED MY TOOLS WITH MY TOOLS.” A staff member at Raptor tells me: “Your box ended up on my desk […] This is easily the most broken board I’ve seen, ever, and that includes prototypes. This will help educate us for a while to come due to the unique nature of some of the faults.”

Not sure what can cause such an impressive cacophony of failures, but it’s so catastrophic that I can easily believe that this is far from typical. The hardware is back in Raptor’s hands now, and I would be interested to hear about their insights after further diagnosis.

  1. They did refund the RAM which was unfulfilled from my original order. 

  2. They did give me a little heart attack, however, by sending the replacement CPU to me in the same box I had returned the faulty CPU back to them with - a box which I had labelled “BAD CPU”. 

  3. Sourcehut virtual machines are named after their purpose, but our physical servers are named after Touhou characters. 

  4. This happened prior to any of the problems with the first machine. 

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