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Hardware Buying Guide - some tips for not getting ripped off


Resident Grinch
May 29, 2011
jgreco submitted a new resource:

Hardware Buying Guide - some tips for not getting ripped off - Buying used gear means you can get amazing stuff for a fraction of its original value

I've been giving this information out piecemeal for years, and should maybe have it summarized in one place.

There's been a lot of people who are wary of secondary market sources for hardware, such as eBay, due to bad experiences with other random crap and bad sellers. This is certainly a thing, which afflicts both eBay and Amazon, and you're right to be concerned. However, you can also have a high chance of success if you're smart about it.

Over here, we build servers for in-house use, and also refurbish lots of gear, often for businesses or charities without much budget. Brand new server-grade components can be hideously expensive. An LSI 9240-8i costs hundreds of dollars new, but refurb Dell H200's or H310's are around a tenth of that. Why buy new if you can get a serviceable part used?

A lot of electronics are produced in Shenzhen, ranging from top-of-the-line to bottom-of-the-barrel. The stuff that is not produced there might still be cloned there.

1) Know what you are buying and why

There are numerous examples of people wish-buying hardware, such as random Broadcom 10G cards or Supermicro X8 servers, and then being disappointed when things do not work out. I strongly recommend that you research what you need here in the forums, first, and THEN go shopping. You do not want a random Broadcom 10G card because so many of them are unsupported or work poorly -- check the 10 Gig Networking Primer FIRST. You do not want an old Intel Nehalem or Westmere server, they're expensive watt-burner gear that is sold cheaply because no one wants it anymore, doesn't support virtualization well, etc. There is a hardware guide that makes specific used recommendations (link needed XXX). You want to buy something compatible, which means you may need to remove a RAID controller and replace it with an HBA.

2) Be aware that there's a knockoff problem

Because servers are built in great numbers, and often retired after 3-5 years without strong demand on the used market, prices for legit used gear are often really cheap. However, there's also a flood of fakes coming out of Asia. These may be cloned fake knockoff cards such as cards claiming to be "Intel X520" but are just knockoffs from some Shenzhen back alley. In some cases, fakes are good enough that distributors such as NewEgg have picked them up as bulk discount cards. This is unusual but not unheard-of.

3) Understand the likely targets of the knockoff problem

Highly popular profitable devices like Intel X520's, LSI HBA's, etc., are common targets. During their peak sales period, these devices are insanely profitable for their legitimate manufacturers. So they're also profitable to the counterfeiters. You are not likely to see knockoff Chelsio or Mellanox cards, as these have a virtually nonexistent retail channel, and are usually sold by the manufacturer directly to OEM's, system integrators, or to large-scale customers who do their own integrations.

For stuff produced in Shenzhen, not every product is perfectly produced. PCB's can contain errors. Assembled boards can fail testing. Chips can be rejects. These things should technically be destroyed, but sometimes they aren't. So if someone runs off with a pocket full of Intel ethernet controllers, maybe real ones that really work, or failed ones that don't, you can find someplace to make a passable version of the PCB and some child slave labor to solder the bits together, bang it into a box, and sell it to some naive computer parts distributor in North America like NewEgg (I've got knockoff examples sold by NewEgg so I get to use them as a poster child). Worse are all the things "from China" on eBay.

4) Understand who is likely to be selling decommissioned, i.e. legitimate and well-tested, gear

Used devices are admittedly a crap shoot. Best luck is to be had buying from a company that is clearly and obviously de-racking servers from data centers. That eBay seller registered on eBay for a year or more, with a company name, and twenty different kinds of server chassis and a hundred of each of them, who's also selling cards and CPU's and memory, they are clearly partsing up old data center racks in volume here in the US, so if they have thousands of sales and 99.9%+ reputations, that's legit basically 100% of the time. On the other hand, the eBay seller kittyboo28314 registered last week in San Jose CA with a hundred X520's but other listings including bulk tennis shoes and children's toys, RUN LIKE HELL, you can be pretty certain they're fakes that just came off a container ship from Asia.

Even if you find a legit vendor, the process of partsing up servers can sometimes result in damage to a card, so while unusual, be sure they have a reasonable 30 day return policy and that you can test your purchase within the timeframe.

5) Location and other paranoia (US-centric)

In general, I recommend against buying gear by sellers that are likely in Asia, or direct representatives. Check their eBay profiles and Google them to see if you can find websites, etc. I am also skeptical of sellers in places like "San Jose CA" or "Los Angeles" because these tend to turn out to be a representative -- usually just some person operating out of an apartment who is unloading stuff from Asia that came across in a container. Major port cities could be a suspicious flag. Lack of a company website could be a suspicious flag. But the Bay Area is also home to many reputable businesses (including our friends at iXsystems!). And just because someplace is a company does not make them not-skeezy. I had a purchase go bad after the eBay window closed but before the promised warranty on the device was up. No response to e-mails. I suppose they felt it unlikely that someone from the Midwest would show up in the Bay Area, but, alas, one of our data centers was right down the block, and I was in the area...