How do I get the most use out of 4 personal computers?
August 9, 2007 10:10 PM   Subscribe

What is the best/most efficient/most useful/coolest way to use 4 personal computers?

I have 4 personal computers (3 laptops, 1 desktop; specs will follow below). The good laptop is my primary machine now, but that leaves the other 3 not doing much. What's the best way I can configure this setup to be cool, useful, fun, etc? If it matters, I'm a student for another month, then a full-time software engineer.

I have a reasonable amount of music, and a decent selection of movies/TV shows, so I was thinking to use one for a media PC (MythTV?). I have Comcast digital cable, but no DVR. I also develop with Ruby on Rails a good amount, so maybe it would be useful to use one just as a staging ground and Subversion repository. I've come to realize how nice it is to have maximum screen real estate, so I want to either use two computers at once with Synergy, or use one with two monitors.

As another note, I split internet access with several other people in my house, and so would it make sense to get a wireless router that connects only my computers, and have that router hook up with the main one that the entire house connects to?

Main laptop - 1.6GHz dual core, 1GB RAM, 80GB HD, Windows XP, nice 17in monitor
Desktop - 2.6GHz p4, 1GB RAM, 400GB HD, Windows XP, 17in flatscreen monitor
Laptop 2 - 1.2 GHz p3, 512 RAM, 30GB HD, XP and Ubuntu - I feel fine switching to only XP or only Linux...whatever suits my purposes best. The battery is shot and as such this one only runs when plugged in.
Laptop 3 - 1.1 GHz p3, 512 RAM, 20GB HD Linux. Screen occasionally refuses to work

The desktop also connects to two external USB hard drives, one for music and one for backup (that I don't do very well). These are 30GB and 300GB.

I have an HP psc 1315 printer/scanner that apparently does not function as a network printer (connected to desktop).

How do I combine all this fine hardware into the ultimate computing setup?
posted by bangitliketmac to Computers & Internet (9 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
The coolest and most efficient thing you can probably do with them is leave them turned off. Sounds like you need the desktop as a server but don't really need the other two laptops.
Don't forget about the impact running an extra two computers will have an impact on your electric bill.
posted by demiurge at 10:20 PM on August 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

Well, I would say you could definitely take the desktop and turn it into a MythTV box. But IMO MythTV is an "appliance application." It's not something that you just fire up on your desktop PC, or on a PC that you still want to use for a lot of other purposes. (At least, not unless you like pain; it can be murder to get installed correctly.) And you definitely don't put it on a dual-boot machine, because it wants to run all the time. So if you can give up the other functions of the desktop box, I'd say go for it. (Though it could still function as a music server, and probably even as a low-traffic file server. But NTFS might be an issue if that's how your drives are formatted.)

I put together a MythTV box a few months ago for the first time and it's the first computer project that the S.O. has ever been impressed by. (I think the phrase was "changed our life.") Admittedly, we'd never had a TiVo/PVR before, so someone familiar with them might be less impressed ... but if SO-acceptance is a factor in your projects, you might be able to score big points there.

As for the laptops ... can you shut the screens off on either of them and run them with their lids closed without overheating? If so, you might be able to make little low-energy-consumption servers out of them. I'd put OpenBSD on one and make it into your 'gateway' machine for your home network. (Set it up and only enable ONE service on it, SSH. Then close all the ports in your router except port 22, and point it towards the OpenBSD box.) This, combined with a DynDNS name, would let you SSH into your home network from the road, and via the magic of SSH tunneling, would let you access anything that's on your internal network over SSH.

Ideally, you want you gateway machine to be the only thing that's exposed to the world (aside from your router, although you can set up an OpenBSD machine to do that, too, if you have one with two NICs), and you want it to be on a machine that doesn't do anything else and has no other running services.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:05 PM on August 9, 2007

Oh, and you can run one of the distributed-computing programs like Folding@Home on all the boxes you set up. It's probably not worth running any/all of the machines just for distributed-computing tasks, if you can turn them off, but any that you do decide to run would be well served by running it with their spare cycles.

Recent versions of Knoppmyth automatically install and run a distributed computing client when they're idle (it gives you the option during the install process).
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:08 PM on August 9, 2007 has long had a list of distributed computing projects, including the search for the world's largest known prime numbers. as i recall, there's a substantial prize for discovering the first ten million digit prime. enlist your boxes in the service of mathematics!
posted by bruce at 11:10 PM on August 9, 2007

Response by poster: @Kadin2048: In fact I was using one of the older laptops just how you described - keeping the lid closed and using it as a server. It worked pretty well, though I didn't use DynDNS; that would be a good addition.

What is the benefit of having a gateway machine, vs a properly configured router?
posted by bangitliketmac at 11:42 PM on August 9, 2007

What is the benefit of having a gateway machine, vs a properly configured router?

Flexibility, really. Having a unix box at home that you can remotely SSH into and run any *nix stuff off of (nmap is one I've frequently used) can come in handy. Just due to power savings my vote would be to setup OpenBSD on one of the laptops. Getting OpenBSD *properly* setup with a custom kernel, pf config, and a solid lockdown is one of the best self-educational experiences to be had for networking, general security, and *nix skills.

Also, I wouldn't run SSHD on port 22 - why help anybody who might be hostile by advertising what service it is by using the standard port?
posted by Ryvar at 1:33 AM on August 10, 2007

i'm a software engineer - i work from home, so have my own network. while having lots of computers can be fun at first, in the long run it just sucks time away from doing more productive things like actually programming. i currently have (turned on) a server/firewall and a laptop, and that is more than sufficient (i don't really need the laptop except that i like to work in different places round the house).

the only work-related use i can think of for more computers is doing continuous integration tests on a variety of different operating systems. or, perhaps, stress testing distributed code. there's no real need to physically separate work and play (although i keep things on separate disks, for example) - if you're using your computer to watch tv you're not using it to code.

if you want experience managing computers, then set them all up for different uses, or as a cluster, but a decent computer these days is more than sufficient for most dev work. again, if you want to be a software engineer (and not a sysadmin), i'd suggest putting energy into more relevant activities (developing software).

apart from which, you could give the stuff you're not using away to someone who needs it, or sell it for cash; and leaving them off is better for the environment. more doesn't necessarily mean better - it's very easy to spend way too much time doing tedious, repetitive maintenance work.
posted by andrew cooke at 4:41 AM on August 10, 2007

Subversion is really nice to have, but there's no reason that you need it on a separate machine rather than the main one. Off site backup is nice, but an external HDD connected by USB to whatever you have at home is sufficient. Do you do distro testing? That's the only thing that I've used a spare old machine for recently.

Just sell them, or give them to needy students.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 7:04 AM on August 10, 2007

Over the last five years, I've gone from using/managing a half dozen computers to using just a single imac, and I've got to say I'm way happier and more productive with one computer than I ever was with six.
posted by dmd at 7:13 AM on August 10, 2007

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