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Cisco Support - Download Software
In most cases you should have an active Smartnet contract to download IOS images, which require some kind of maintenance fee. In a nutshell, a Smartnet contract is a contract between Cisco and you as Cisco product owner. One advantage of having Smartnet contract with Cisco is that you are able to get IOS or any images to suit your need.
If you don't have current Smartnet contract with Cisco, it may be challenging to get legit IOS image. You may be able to get illegitimate IOS image, but it may or may not work; and worse, the illegitimate IOS image may break your equipment or your network.
When you buy Cisco gears off ebay or buy used Cisco gears, the gears may come with working IOS image. However the code may have been ipbase version or old image that don't support current technology. Those basic image version may get you pass CCNA or do some basic functionality, but at some point you may want to upgrade the image to make sure your knowledge is current, or to make sure your IOS image is stable and is able to provide the functionality you need.
There may have been a change of wind by the way for those who have monetary constraint. In some cases, Cisco does not always require active Smartnet contract for end users to download IOS images from their website. As long as you have registered Cisco account (that you can simply create for free through Cisco website), you may be able to download certain "unrestricted" IOS image for free.
Check out other links on this forum's FAQ for more info on Smartnet contract.
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