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Pros and cons of buying used networking equipment on eBay

To buy or not to buy used networking equipment on eBay, that is the question. Here are the pros and cons, as well as best practices for making a gray market purchase.

When it comes to buying used networking equipment on eBay, Craigslist or other gray market channels, opinions -- and results -- are mixed.

David Wood, CEO of Trondent Development Corp., a corporate travel software provider, said he's become a big fan of getting aftermarket gear on eBay, having landed several pieces of expensive equipment there at a fraction of its original cost.

"We've gotten good use out of it," Wood said. "It's a lot like buying a car. Why pay top dollar for something that is going to quickly depreciate?"

Others, however, have horror stories of getting stuck with defective devices that vendor warranties no longer cover. A user on Meraki's community message boards recently shared a cautionary tale, reporting that he purchased a used switch for $1,000 on eBay, only to have it stop working about a month later. He learned the hard way that, when used networking equipment changes hands in an unauthorized third-party sale, vendor guarantees rarely follow the product to its new owner.

"The main pro -- really the only significant pro -- is you can get things at a fraction of the original cost," said John Burke, principal analyst at Nemertes Research, based in Mokena, Ill. "The downsides are really the same as you might have buying anything aftermarket on Craigslist or eBay. Typically, there's no warranty, and it might be impossible to get maintenance on it."

Who should buy used networking equipment on eBay

Network engineer Joe Franzen said he believes buying pre-owned, unauthorized gear makes sense only for small businesses that need to save money where they can.

"An installer should be very upfront and clear about the risks," Franzen added.

[Buying network gear is] a lot like buying a car. Why pay top dollar for something that is going to quickly depreciate?
David WoodCEO, Trondent Development Corp.

Even eBay enthusiasts like Wood say they deploy used networking equipment strategically and in select cases, in which the benefits outweigh the risks. Sagy Langer, founder and CEO of Philadelphia-based IT consultancy Networx IT Solutions, agreed, saying his team buys gray market gear for internal lab environments only.

"The availability of almost any model -- old or new -- and affordable prices makes it a best fit when we need to mimic a customer's setup for the duration of a project," Langer said. For production environments -- with their higher stakes and narrower margins of error -- however, he secures hardware directly from a vendor or authorized reseller.

Burke said he also sees organizations turning to eBay to find obsolete parts for their own end-of-life technologies, such as additional cards for aging on-premises phone systems.

"It can be a way to get gear that is hard to find elsewhere," he said.

Burke added that he has known network pros who have played around with inexpensive routers or firewalls they bought on eBay in an effort to advance their professional skill sets.

"If they want to get comfortable with command-line configuration or using some kind of scripting tool to automate settings changes, it doesn't matter how old the stuff is," he said. "They can still learn a lot of useful networking skills that way."

But geriatric hardware won't help those studying for specific certifications on current platforms, Burke added. Franzen -- who owns and operates a network certification test prep service called AlphaPrep -- agreed, saying he advises students not to worry about working on real gear until they've landed their first job.

Best practices for buying used networking equipment

Langer said his team follows several best practices when buying used networking equipment on eBay or similar sites. First, they read the listing carefully, alert to any nuances that might reveal something about the seller or the gear itself. They consider overall condition, exact model, firmware version, etc., as well as the seller's reputation, reviews and geographic location.

"We wouldn't want to wait for three months for the product to arrive from China," he said, adding that they also pay close attention to shipping costs. "Sometimes, it is more than the product itself."

Langer noted that, while equipment purchased on eBay often doesn't have manufacturers' warranties, service or support, customers do have recourse should it fail to work right out of the box.

"If it is dead on arrival, you can return it,'" he said.

That's why, for organizations that turn to eBay to stock up on spare gear as part of their management strategy, Burke suggests testing used networking equipment as soon as it arrives, before putting it on the shelf. If something doesn't work, they can then send it back within the designated return window.

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