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:
- 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
- Fax/Print server.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- Network time server. Synchronize all your network boxes to
a single computer whose sole purpose in life is to tell the
- 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
- Dedicated website mirror. Keep a local mirror handy of
your favorite websites.
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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.
- 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
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