20 Old Hardware Uses for Linux Geeks

To put things in perspective, we landed vehicles on the moon using 1960's technology. A Commodore VIC 20 would have been a marvel to the technology of that day. So, when you hear yourself saying, ``What can I do with this old 486 or Pentium 200?'', just remember this. Assuming you can figure out how to use Category 5 networking cable in your home, you could delegate many everyday functions to other boxes on your network, thus reducing the load on your everyday computer as well as giving new vitality to your so called ``worn out'' computers. Here are twenty purposes you can assign to ``old'' computers that will suit a 486 or early pentium class architecture:

  1. Internal router or gateway. As you acquire more ``old hardware'' or find yourself increasingly connected to the Internet (with Cable or DSL), you should think about segmenting your home network. You might be using one of the many off-the-shelf home routers, and those might satisfy your needs for now, but eventually you should think about dividing your home network into ``public'' and ``private'' segments. You could easily use a very humble old 486 with two network cards to accomplish this.

  2. Fax/Print server.

  3. Telephone messaging device. You could have a Fax server on one modem and an answering machine on another (voice) modem both on the same machine.

  4. E-mail server. This is perhaps the heaviest and most-required network service in use; you could easily delegate this task to an old computer.

  5. Small database server. With the numerous free databases available, you could easily move this service to a dedicated box, and export the results either via http or NFS or via the databases own protocol.

  6. MP3 server/player or NAP server. Since MP3s require some CPU cycles for decoding MP3s, yet not an inordinate amount, you could let an old pentium computer do this all by itself. This can additionally connect to your stereo system and play your playlists that way. You could alternatively use an old 486 to serve filesystems of MP3s to local clients instead of trying to decode them. With a larger hard drive (and a not-so-old pentium processor), you could also build a dedicated Nap server.

  7. Nostalgic gaming machine. Sometimes you don't want to clutter up your desktop machine with games or other distractions. But you could easily run one of the old Atari or Commodore emulators and run terrific old games built for those platforms. They are still around, and the old games work great.

  8. Dial-in server for you and your friends. You too could be a small-time Internet service provider. Or you could provide yourself dial-in service when you are on the road with your laptop. (It helps if your home network is connected with high a bandwidth connection.) This will require some security consciousness on your part, since others could connect to your dial-in server.

  9. Small or specialized webserver. If you just want to serve up home pages for your family, or if you have modest amounts of content to a small number of people, a web server could fairly easily run on an older computer. A specialized database of MP3s could be served up to your local family members, or you might host your recipe database to the outside world. Again, if you're sharing with the outside world, think security.

  10. Fileserver. Some directory hierarchies might be better exported from a central source to reduce redundency on other machines on your network. For example, you could mount /home/you or /usr/local from a central server, or /usr/share or something like that. It's not always necessary to duplicate these files from machine to machine, assuming you're running the same operating system between them. (If not, you could export /usr/share/debian and mount it as /usr/share on your debian machine, export /usr/share/freebsd and mount it on all your FreeBSD machines, and so forth.)

  11. Experimental workstation. Ever wanted to run OS/2 Warp? Minix? Run old DOS applications? Dedicated your machine for compiling source code? CPM? Do development for your Palm Pilot? Program assembly language? You could reserve an older machine for just such a thing. I have an old 486 that happily runs OS/2 Warp that I still get a kick out of using.

  12. Intrusion detection device. I haven't seen any off-the-shelf home network gateways that adequately provide intrusion detection. You could place some lightweight intrusion detection software on an old 486 that actually lets you know when or if the bad guys get into your home network.

  13. Network time server. Synchronize all your network boxes to a single computer whose sole purpose in life is to tell the correct time.

  14. Distributed network client machine. Use your old 486 to donate CPU cycles to any of a number of worthwhile projects, such as searching for extraterrestrial life or cracking cryptographic keys.

  15. Dedicated website mirror. Keep a local mirror handy of your favorite websites.

  16. Dedicated smalltime news server. Like to follow a few newsgroups but get tired of expired articles? Run your own newserver. Watch out, this can eat disk space galore if you're not careful.

  17. DNS Server. Though DNS can get wildly complicated, it's not too bad on smaller networks. It's a security risk, so be careful with this one. Using your own DNS server can give your network a lot of added flexibility when that becomes important to you.

  18. Voice Over IP Terminal. It's possible to use one of your boxes as a telephone terminal, replacing a telephone to talk with others over the Internet instead of using your phone. There are some tricks and traps you can learn about in the VoIP-HOWTO at linuxdoc.org.

  19. Dedicated MP3 Burner. You won't gain much in speed by using an older machine for this. In fact, an older machine may cause problems. But, assuming your extra machine is up to the task, you can take the load of this task off your primary workstation so it won't interfere with your other work.

  20. Combination server. Combine some reasonable number of the above functions in a single server on your network.

These ideas can actually be projects in their own right. Older hardware, sometimes combined with larger hard drives or specialized devices on PCI or ISA slots, or even MCA or VLB slots, should suffice, except where processor intensive routines are required, as with encoding and decoding compressed media or with compressing and decompressing files. Database and webserver applications, for example, that rely heavily on the processor should be avoided on older hardware. In other words, keep it simple.

Oh, and if you're using relatively new hardware, there are many other uses you could consider: streaming media server, digital VCR, ultimate gaming machine, archival back-up server, video conferencing station, large development machine for compiling sources, and, of course, a dedicated Quake server!

David S. Jackson <dsj@dsj.net>