By Eric Geier
July 17, 2009
Do you have older hardware lying around? Don’t throw away those old PCs yet. Whether you’re cleaning or upgrading computers in the office or at home, you should be able to find something to do with them.
As we’ll see, you can use them for experimentation, routing, security, file service or the internet, etc. Use these five suggestions to make one of the projects your weekend late night business or your new project at work.
# 1 Install Ubuntu or another distro to experience Linux
If you haven’t already, you can experience the world of free and open source computing by playing with Linux. In about an hour, you can download and install Ubuntu, or one of the thousands of other distributions (distributions) on your old PC. You can even test it before installing anything on your hard drive, using the live CD mode of some distributions.
Ubuntu has become very popular, especially for those new to Linux. “Ubuntu” is an ancient African word, meaning “humanity towards others”, hence its philosophy and mission to improve the computing world. You can learn more about this distro and download Ubuntu from its site. (See also: Discover Ubuntu as a Windows user.) Other distributions can be found at DistroWatch.com.
Once you boot into a desktop version of Linux, you will find that although it is different from Windows, it still has the same main features. There’s always a start menu – usually better organized than in Windows – and icons on the desktop. Average users should be able to type documents, browse the web, and perform other basic tasks.
The biggest advantage is that you will now have access to hundreds of thousands of completely free applications. Some are small projects, but some rival those of their commercial counterparts, such as OpenOffice.org and Microsoft Office. Most distributions are actually loaded with all the software you will need on a daily basis: an office suite, an email client and calendar, a web browser, a photo editor, etc.
For additional applications, you can use the Package Manager to find and install other software listed in the distribution repositories; or download programs directly from a developer’s site and create them manually.
Linux is actually the operating system for many computers and network devices. The rest of the ideas in this article also use Linux based software.
# 2 Make it a router with RouterOS or ZeroShell
Advanced networking features, such as those found in Cisco equipment, can be at your fingertips with little or no cost. Linux-based operating systems can convert your old PC into a versatile LAN server. Use it to replace your standard router by running your network’s firewall and sharing internet access (with NAT). You can even connect your desktops to each other using the VPN server and client, offer public access by configuring the captive portal, or use balancing and failover for redundancy. The features and solutions are essentially endless.
RouterOS and ZeroShell are two popular projects you should take a look at. ZeroShell is free and can be run from CD with the configuration saved to a hard drive or flash drive. After minimal configuration on the console, you can administer it through a web browser on a remote computer. RouterOS has been around longer and more established. It installs directly to a drive and has several configuration interfaces, including a web application and a custom graphical interface.
(For help with ZeroShell, check out this tutorial series on our partner site, LinuxPlanet.)
# 3 make it a LAN file server with FreeNAS
If you share a lot of files on your network, you might have considered using Network Attached Storage (NAS) rather than creating basic shares with Windows. You might have also noticed that NAS enclosures (mostly small computers) don’t run cheap, and you have to buy the hard drives as well. However, you can create your own NAS box by installing a FreeBSD based NAS server, FreeNAS, on your old PC.
Using a NAS server means you don’t have to worry about other PCs being around to access Windows shares. Using FreeNAS gives you central storage space that is always accessible. It also offers better and easier control over stocks. It can store user details and authenticate users. If you are using Windows shares, you will need to duplicate each user account on all computers for similar share protection.
Like other NAS servers, FreeNAS offers you recycle bin support. If you delete a file from a Windows share, it is gone forever. However, if you delete a file from a FreeNAS share, it will go to the recycle bin, where you can later permanently delete it or recover it.
FreeNAS supports many different sharing protocols: CIFS (SMB / samba) for Windows, NFS for Linux / Uniux and AFP for Mac OS X. In addition, it supports FTP, RSYNC and iSCSI. It even has an iTunes / DAAP server, which allows you to share files between your iPods. It also has a built-in BitTorrent server.
# 4 run web, email, ftp and other servers with linux
While the prices for web hosting can be very reasonable, you might find it worthwhile to host your own website. This can also be useful when developing an intranet or when using special applications. You can host other services, such as mail server with POP3 and SMTP server, file access with FTP server, or database access using MySQL server.
The two main web servers, the Linux-based Apache HTTP server and Microsoft’s IIS server (available in Professional editions of Windows), are actually free.
When installing Apache, you can either install only the web server application (and other components separately, if necessary), or install a web server software distribution or package. When using Apache, it is best to install a set of servers. Apache2Triad is a great package for Windows. If you are using Linux, you may want to include LAMP when installing Ubuntu Server Edition.
(For more details, check out the Server Room DIY series on our partner site, ServerWatch.)
# 5 turn it into a hotspot with ZoneCD
Want to provide wireless internet access to your visitors or neighbors, but don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on a hotspot gateway? Well, you don’t have to do it; you can have a working Wi-Fi hotspot in an hour using your old equipment. One solution is ZoneCD from PublicIP.
ZoneCD is a Linux-based live CD that provides Wi-Fi authentication and web content filtering. It boots directly from disk and no changes are made to the hard disk. It only requires 128MB of RAM, a bootable CD-ROM drive, and a floppy drive or USB stick to store the configuration. Two Ethernet cards are also required. One connects to the Internet and the other connects to a wireless router or access point (AP).