What NOT to do with your old computers

Why throw away your old obsolete PCs when you can re-purpose them as a file/print server, firewall or some other single-purpose appliance? People have been doing this forever–at least since about 1988, when those old dual-floppy IBM 5150 PCs started getting obsoleted by PCs powered by Intel’s 386-based processors, and businesses were installing Ethernet-driven, Novell-powered LANs.

What could be more sensible than to re-use older PCs that aren’t fast enough to use for desktop computing anymore? It’s far better than simply throwing out the old machinery, which is full of toxic waste. I’m as guilty as anyone of promoting the idea of re-using old PCs for this kind of thing, but I wonder why people are still promoting it, as in this article, "Simple Home File Server (Based On Ubuntu)". I love HowtoForge, but this is kind of silly for home/family users, and here’s why:

  • Yes, it’s great to have a family file server for backups, for file sharing, and so on–but where do you put that system? You’ve got to find a place for it, which means giving up some of your precious living space for an appliance that you’ve been getting long without just fine, so far.
  • Yes, you avoid paying for a new computing appliance (were you going to buy one anyway), but you’re stuck with an older, full-powered, general-purpose computer to do a single task. That means running a key function in your household network on old equipment (think about that 10-year old hard drive, for example).
  • Power. A PC sucks up the power big time, and if you’re going to use it as a household server, you need to have it running all the time. If you power it on and off a lot, you’ll further tax the old, possibly nearly worn-out, equipment even further. If you keep it on all the time, you’ve got to pay the electricity company to keep that CPU cycling, the fans running, even the graphics card adapter (which you may not even be using if you’re running headless).
  • Failures. Did I mention this? Well it’s important, especially if you think you can save a couple hundred bucks on a firewall/gateway by using an obsolete PC. Dell and HP expect you to upgrade your PC every 3-5 years, so they don’t waste engineering on making hardware that’ll last for 10 or 15 years.
  • Complications. You’ve got to keep up with security patches on that system, not to mention general upkeep and maintenance. You’ll need a surge protector at least, if not a full-battery backup system as well as network connectivity. You’ve got to dedicate a power outlet to the system. Don’t forget how annoying the buzz of fans and disk drives can be, so you may want to avoid using an old PC to drive an entertainment system. And so on.

The thing is, we’re at the point where most of the functions you can use an old PC for can more economically be incorporated into single-purpose appliances (like the iPod, for example). Why run a full-blown PC as a printer server when you can buy a printer with the required functionality built-in? Why run a full-blown PC as a file server when you can buy a solid state USB file server?

So, what should you do with an old PC? I don’t know what the answer is these days. In general, schools and charities aren’t any more interested in using ancient computers than you or I; so you might not be able to find anyone interested in accepting them as donations.

What do you do with your old PCs?

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