Buying a Used Server

Ever wonder what happened to all the shiny new servers at the dot-bombs - companies that went bust?

Turns out they're all on eBay. Like the rest of the equipment they couldn't afford, the servers ended up at foreclosure auctions and bankruptcy auctions all over the country, and made their way into the hands of eBay resellers. Companies that need a file server, a general-purpose server, or a testbed machine can get a great deal - if you know what to look for.

Experienced network admins often build their own boxes for menial tasks like file serving, printer serving, and backups. However, consumer-level off-the-shelf gear doesn't have the advanced redundancy features that come with two- to four-year-old high-end boxes. Hot-pluggable SCSI backplanes that allow for quick drive changes, double and triple redundant power supplies, hot-pluggable PCI sockets, and SCSI tape drives are all commonly included with used servers in the $750-$1,500 category.

What To Look For

When buying a used server from online auctions, make sure it comes with all possible accessories. Don't buy a halfway-equipped server expecting to cheaply find available parts: it's much easier to get all the goodies included right from the start. For example, if a server can handle four CPUs, but it only comes with two, don't assume that the other two will be easy to get.

Pictures of used servers don't always make it clear whether the removable drive trays are actual trays, or just plastic blanks. When a server is purchased new, and the buyer doesn't get all of the possible hard drives, server manufacturers will often use plastic fake drive trays to take up space where there aren't any drives. As the buyer orders more drives, they also have to order more removable trays. While these trays aren't terribly expensive, usually $30-$70 apiece, they're still a cost, and they're not always easy to obtain on short order.

It's a buyer's market, so don't compromise: make a list of exactly the features you need, including a RAID controller, number of hard drive bays, the hard drive sizes, and memory. Then, be patient, and ask lots of questions. If a seller has a model close to what you're looking for, don't be afraid to ask the seller if they can add the drives or memory you need. Most dot-bomb resellers maintain a fairly large inventory that surpasses what they list on eBay.

Finally, if you've already got two or more of a particular server make and model, consider getting an identical model. Businesses with two or more identical servers can cannibalize parts from one to the other, and it also becomes more sensible to keep a spare set of parts on hand. Ideally, all of the boxes should be configured identically with the same RAID cards, network cards, etc., so that you can clone the drives and build redundant machines faster.

Valuable (and Not-so-Valuable) Extras

A valuable inclusion is a remote-administration card. Server vendors make PCI cards that plug into a network jack or phone line and allow the servers to be diagnosed, monitored, and even rebooted remotely. These cards don't usually make sense for small businesses to purchase, since they can retail for hundreds of dollars, but they're often included with used dot-bomb servers.

When estimating the hard drives to purchase, add at least one extra and designate it as a hot spare. RAID cards included with server-class machines have the ability to automatically replace bad hard drives and rebuild the array on the fly without any user intervention. Since hard drives are the most likely component to fail in a used server, plan ahead.

While a tape drive may seem like a great part, even the best free tape drives aren't worth a dollar until you purchase tapes. Tapes are usually the most expensive part of a backup solution, so don't get excited about a tape drive unless it matches a tape format already in use at your business.

Batteries Not Included

Auctioned servers almost never include Windows operating systems due to licensing restrictions. A single copy of Windows 2000 Server can cost over $800, so when doing price comparisons against new equipment, take the licensing into account.

Warranties vary from a basic no-dead-on-arrival guarantee to 30 days money-back to the remainder of the manufacturer's warranty. If the auction doesn't clearly state that the manufacturer has a warranty remaining on the unit, then there's not a warranty on it - and you take your chances.

When To Buy New Instead

While used servers offer a lot of high-end features to promote reliability, they don't offer the most processing power for the buck. Applications that depend on fast CPU speeds are better off running on new Xeons or Athlons.

Buyer Beware

Shipping costs for large, heavy servers often surprise novice buyers: make sure the auction states the exact shipping cost and shipping method. It's not uncommon to pay $250 for shipping and handling - well worth it when the server is well-packed.

Finally, as with any online purchase, it takes a great deal of courage to send a complete stranger $1,000 or more. Look for a seller with a long history of great feedback, and specifically a seller that deals with a lot of dot-bomb equipment. Ideally, find one near enough that you can visit their warehouse, and build a permanent relationship with your next server supplier.