Two old PCs. Several limitations. What's possible?
April 7, 2009 11:07 AM   Subscribe

What should I do with these old PCs? Of course, there are some limitations...

I've got two old timey PCs hanging around. They're P4s, ~1 GHz, around a GB of ram each, give or take. HDD space is plentiful. They're my personal boxes, but I've got them here at work because I have absolutely no room for them at home. I work in a small dev shop without an IT guy at the moment, so us developers are wearing dual hats and essentially can do whatever we want, systems wise, as long as it doesn't cost any money. I've got a small switch into my area, can get the boxes static IPs within our internal networks, but they will be behind our firewall (that I co-manage, if a half-assed way). I have enough, but not excessive, amounts of bandwidth I can utilize. They can get out and see the world, but I need a VPN to get in past our firewall.

What on earth can I do with these boxes? Free is ideal. Nothing NSFW, obviously. We already have a music server. I'm looking for something fun, or useful (either for me personally or to be shared among a couple LAMP-type developers) or.. well, something. I hate to see these PCs just sitting here not being utilized.

I've currently got xubuntu installed on both boxes, but that can be changed; they're essentially clean slates. I'm pretty good with linux -- what I don't know I can probably google to figure out. I'm just not entirely sure what I can do with these machines, but I want to do *something*.

Any ideas? What would you do if you had these boxes laying around?
posted by cgg to Technology (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Grab a couple of flatpanels and mount to the wall. Cycle through the following displays:

Internal status:
various network statistics, most importantly the state of the connection to the outside world
remaining drive space on discs/partitions/volumes that matter
CPU usage on machines that matter

recent captures of various local webcams
weather forecast
select news feeds

Label monitor #1 "What's Up Inside?" and monitor #2 "What's Up Outside?"
posted by adipocere at 11:13 AM on April 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

Use 'em as load testers to beat up your web apps. Or as platform variations for other testing.
posted by wkearney99 at 11:20 AM on April 7, 2009

I know this isn't what you're looking for, but I bet that somewhere in your neighborhood, there's a poor family with kids who would really benefit from growing up with a computer in the house. Talk with your church (or a church, if you don't go) to make it happen and/or to get info on local charity organizations who can make it happen.
posted by Nonce at 11:25 AM on April 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

Local charities like your local foodbank can probably use them too.
posted by damn dirty ape at 11:26 AM on April 7, 2009

Donate them to a needy organization/family who can put them to much better use than you can.
posted by Simon Barclay at 11:26 AM on April 7, 2009

Distributed x264 encoding with x264farm.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 11:30 AM on April 7, 2009

I put Apache and a wiki on a similar box and use it to store notes, ideas, etc.
posted by COD at 11:42 AM on April 7, 2009

Local charities like your local foodbank can probably use them too.

In my experience in trying to offload many, many working, not-that-old computers cast off by businesses, I found that few charities want old computers. They want NEW computers, just like everyone else. They want to run the latest apps, just like everyone else. And they want to stay competitive, just like everyone else.

The family option is a better idea, but you'd best offer free tech support, too, or hook them up with some. A computer given to a family that has never had one is likely to be BSOD or nonworking in short order from the inevitable accidents of newbies.
posted by Mo Nickels at 11:55 AM on April 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

How about saving a little money and power by not running them at all.
posted by mark242 at 12:00 PM on April 7, 2009

- Set up a server for after-hours work LAN parties
- If in the SF Bay Area, give spare machines to the Alameda County Computer Recycling Center *

* tax deductible, and they have the skills to set the machines up and get them to a needy person or school
posted by zippy at 12:01 PM on April 7, 2009

If you want to donate them check with your local Marine Corps League (the Toys for Tots people)
posted by patnok at 12:02 PM on April 7, 2009

Also: If you can also give them Internet access, then you're really on to something.

Even a very poor family will tend to scorn a computer that does not connect to the net somehow. It sounds ungrateful but it isn't: it's honest.

What people want isn't hardware. It's the information and connections on the Internet. If they have to, they'll buy an iPhone or T-Moble G1 and use that for the family computer because it has net access. They'll use it in shifts or on certain days of the week or whenever they get good grades--because what they want is web, and email, and chat, and news, and information needed to live and do and be. And they want it cheap.

I know when you give people a computer and they have no Net access they often say things like, "Oh, that doesn't matter. We don't need to get on the Internet." They almost always say that. Half out of niceness, half because they don't truly know their own desires.

But next week, they'll be figuring out how to run an Ethernet cable from a neighbor's house or they'll be scouting around for a wireless card or the computer will be nothing but a warm, humming solitaire game as they start going back to the library for the half-hour a day they can get on the Net there for free. They DO want Internet access. If you give them a computer, try to find a way to give them Net access, too.
posted by Mo Nickels at 12:03 PM on April 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the suggestions so far. In terms of donating them to the technologically-needy, I've had the same sort of experiences Mo above has had, but have had success in donating to FreeGeek in the past. For the time being however, lets just assume I'm a greedy bastard and want to keep my machines, and don't have the time to provide free tech support to even my own parents. I'd rather not turn this into a debate over the worthiness of donating them. I just want ideas on what to do with the technology I have. Sorry to be persnickety, and I myself usually get annoyed when people try to moderate their own questions... but I guess I'm doing it anyway.
posted by cgg at 12:07 PM on April 7, 2009

expanding on mark242's suggestion, google gave me this page:

turn your old PC into a cat bed, toilet paper dispenser, mailbox, fishtank, pop/beer dispenser , etc etc

(I bet if you ask orange swan you'll get some other ideas too)
posted by mannequito at 12:11 PM on April 7, 2009

Depending on your operating systems' capabilities, use them to backup or mirror important things: rsync everybody's PC, spider websites, archive RSS feeds, etc.; if you've got the technology and the storage, it is always handy to have a spare copy locally that's searchable from the desktop, or at least to hopefully fix "damn, shouldn't have deleted that" moments.
posted by AzraelBrown at 12:36 PM on April 7, 2009

In my experience in trying to offload many, many working, not-that-old computers cast off by businesses, I found that few charities want old computers.

Err these are P4 machines with 1gig of RAM. You'd be surprised by the takers. Sure, it may mean a little leg work or sending out a few emails but you can unload them pretty quick. Ive seen modern day non-profits with piiis and lots of computers with less than 512megs of ram.

That said, how about zoneminder or joining the world community grid?
posted by damn dirty ape at 12:42 PM on April 7, 2009

Well, this probably won't help, but I was really cranky at my Dell tower when I replaced it, so we took it out to the woods and shot it with high caliber weapons. Granted, it was useless after that...but to be completely fair, it was pretty useless *before* then too.

We titled the video: Dude, I shot a Dell. Dell's marketing director thought the footage was hysterical, not so much their legal team.

Still, the most fun I've ever had with an ex-computer.
posted by dejah420 at 1:06 PM on April 7, 2009

In high school a guy I knew built a medieval catapult just for such conundrums.
posted by debbie_ann at 4:21 PM on April 7, 2009

I asked a similar question last week and got some interesting answers. I think the two best for you would be to either use them as media centers/retro gaming boxes OR as render nodes in a render farm.
posted by alexherder at 7:16 AM on April 8, 2009

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