Almost everyone reading the articles on this site will have spare computers languishing about. The rapid growth and improvements in hardware means that we cycle through a whole machine in only a few years.
If you have spare machines and parts languishing about, you can put them to good use! In this article I have outlined some of the purposes your old hardware can serve.
Local File Server
Everyone secretly wants one, and if you have the resources kicking around then why not have one?
There are so many reasons to have a personal server. I use mine for my media, so I can easily stream music and video around my house. Other folks may want to set up a system for family members to share photo’s or swap files. A lot of people also use a local file server to store their main computer’s backup files.
If you set up a Windows Share correctly, then you needn’t use FTP programs like FileZilla to conduct transfers. You can just drag and drop like any other folder. Windows Shares also allow media streaming.
This uses pretty much the same software and simple tech as the Local File Server. The system you have it running on is just set to accept incoming connections from the web too.
In order to achieve this properly, you do need to own a domain name or at least have a static-IP address. This way people can access your web server repeatedly, and not worry about whether your Internet provider has cycled your routers IP address. If you are sending or sharing small files only once, then giving out your current dynamic IP to people is not a problem. However for large files over a long term period, you have to ensure that your address will not change.
Don’t forget to set up port forwarding on your router, so that unknown connections on ports like 80, 22, and 21 are forwarded to your server. Ensure that the server has some good anti-virus and firewall software on it!
Companies like No-IP let you register a domain name to your host providers dynamic IP, and then attempts to keep the two synchronised. Most Internet providers cycle your router’s IP regularly, so an IP address you give out would need to be updated. If you wanted to run a web server from your home, try a free account with No-IP.
Of all the suggestions I will make in this article, this is perhaps the best in terms of making your hardware useful and helpful.
BOINC (Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing) is a wonderful piece of a software that allows you to donate your system’s processing power to help science. Many aspects of the sciences require vast amounts of computational resources to perform simulations and calculations needed to further our scientific understanding.
For instance, the SETI@Home project sends you genuine radio data from Arecibo, then has your computer run search algorithms across the data to find patterns or suggestions of extraterrestrial transmissions. When your machine has processed the data, pattern results are sent back to the SETI team. Another project called Rosetta@Home performs protein structure modelling and chemical simulations. This helps us get closer to finding cures for diseases like AIDS. Einstein@Home scans radio data for interstellar pulsars.
You get the idea, and all you need to do is install BOINC on an old machine, subscribe to some projects, and let it chug away happily. Mine runs pretty much 24/7.
All legal torrents of course! If you have an unlimited or large transfer limit with plenty of bandwidth or even a fibre-optic connection. Then you could be very useful by running a torrent system on one of your old machines. Many of BitTorrent’s aspects make it appealing to people who want to shift large files around. Many popular games that are available for download use BitTorrent, such as EVE and Black Prophecy.
If somebody has a poor connection they can complete a download over a long period of time, byte by bye. Something they would not be able to do through a direct file download. By acting as a Peer for these programs you are helping these folks get the large files. The whole point of torrenting is that somebody has to act as a seeder!
Note the ‘Drop Files to Send’ area in the bottom left corner of this torrent application: uTorrent. With this you can make torrenting more personal. If you have a 200mb video file you want to send to some friends, but can’t be bothered to set up a web share or wait hours on Skype, use this! Drop the file in there and uTorrent will give you a link you can send to your friends. This leads them to a torrent file uTorrent made for them, and within a minute they can start receiving the video bit by bit.
A Proxy Server acts as a relay and filter to traffic requests on a network. It behaves a bit like a network router, processing incoming and outgoing traffic and forwarding it to the appropriate destinations. However a Proxy Server and it’s filters can be configured to restrict and inspect traffic with more ease, and with far more scrutiny than a network router.
These servers are not very useful in a home environment, but in a corporate environment they are invaluable. You can put a stop to staff procrastinating on Facebook and Twitter, and restrict website viewing to what is necessary. If you like, lock down specific network ports, protocols and IP addresses to stop employees playing games, torrenting, using shells and so on.
A great list of proxy software can be found here.
If you have a small business, why throw away old hardware when you can recycle it? Many businesses use the SAGE system for monitoring financial data, and you could dedicate a whole machine to being your SAGE Server. Alternatively, set up a small Intranet system for shared data and an internal website for corporate announcements.
Many people would love to have their own Game Server. Popular games such as Minecraft and Cube2:Sauerbraten have small terminal/command prompt server processes you can download and run. If another member of your family plays these games, then you have your own Minecraft world or Cube2 arena to mess around in on your local network. Set up port forwarding on your router and you can open it up to friends too.
An alternative to port forwarding for gaming is Hamachi. This is a piece of free software which lets you link several computers together in a way that makes them think they are on the same local network. You need quite a decent connection for this to work without a lot of lag though.
These game servers don’t require much computational power either. For Minecraft, an old laptop would make a great server.
Give Your Kids A Computer
Kids love games and the Internet, but you probably don’t want to let them mess about on your expensive machine. Why not give your old machine to your kids, or scramble one together from parts? So long as it can play Lego Racers and show them pictures of animals pulling daft expressions, they should be kept happy. This helps to ensure there is no more ice cream and chocolate on your own keyboard.
Synergy – Mouse and Keyboard Sharing
I have four screens on my desk which consists of a dual monitor desktop and two laptops. Having to squirm around to reach each keyboard, mouse, and trackpad would be very frustrating.
Thankfully a program exists which sends the signals from my desktop’s mouse and keyboard to the other machines. The screens are ‘stitched’ together however I like, so scrolling to the right of my desktop’s screen moves my cursor to the laptop, and the same applies for the left of my desktop to the other laptop. When my mouse moves onto the laptops, all my keyboard presses are sent there instead of to my desktop. If you decide to re-use old computers, this tool allows you to use one keyboard to control them all.
Synergy is cross-platform too, so if you have a Mac or Linux box they can all harmoniously share the one keyboard and mouse. All the screensavers and password requests are also linked. Unlock one machine and they are all unlocked. Very useful indeed!
You can grab Synergy for free here.
These are all the uses I thought were worth writing about, but I am sure there are many more I haven’t come across.
If you can think of anything I missed out in this article, please mention it in the comments below!