Ask LH: What Can I Do With An Old Server?

Ask LH: What Can I Do With An Old Server?

Dear Lifehacker, I have an old enterprise-class server that I’ve inherited from my office. It’s been replaced with a shiny new one, and it’s a little too powerful to just donate to charity. What can I do with it? Signed, Dumpster Diving IT AdminPhoto by Jamison Judd.

Dear Dumpster Diving IT Admin,

Congratulations! One of the perks of working as a systems administrator in a lot of data centers is that when the old servers are decommissioned, you get to use them for your own purposes, especially if the company is getting rid of them and just wants them out of the data centre.

There are a lot of things you can do with a rack-mountable server, even if you don’t rack-mount it. Since most servers are designed to be headless, there are a lot of great, out of the way uses for an old server or servers in your home that can help you learn something new, or make your life easier. Here are a few.

  • Try a New Operating System. If you’ve ever wanted to get your hands dirty with Linux, now’s the time. Since many flavours and distros of Linux have a strong foothold in the enterprise, its likely you’ll be able to find drivers for your old server hardware. You also have the benefit of using another computer to try out a new operating system without endangering your primary computer. If you mess up, just wipe it and start again. Once you finish setting it up, you can tweak the system as much as you like.
  • Build a HTPC/Media Streamer. Having a spare computer around the house, especially one that’s fairly powerful, means you have perfect hardware for a home theatre computer or a media streaming system. Plus, since you’re using an old server and it’s designed to operate heedlessly or be managed remotely, you have the benefit of a system that doesn’t need a monitor and keyboard plugged in to it at all times. Just connect a network cable and manage it remotely.
    Consider turning your server into a DVR, or storing your media on it and streaming it to any other computer in your house or your mobile phone using an app like Plex to stream your media to any device in or out of your home. Just watch how much bandwidth you use!
  • Roll Your Own Firewall/VPN using a Linux distribution like Smoothwall or IPCop, you can turn your old server into a firewall. This way you can use its two network ports (most servers have more than one — if yours doesn’t, you can add a second network card easily) to manage and protect your home network, and get familiar with advanced concepts like port forwarding, traffic shaping, and bandwidth monitoring.
    Sure, you can use a wireless router to do the same thing or install custom firmware like DD-WRT or Tomato on your router to get more control over it, but having a dedicated device functioning as your firewall gives you the ability to really get your hands dirty and learn the basics of networking and security.

    Also, if you’re concerned about security when surfing the web in public places like a coffee shop or even in a hotel room, why not set up that old server as a VPN using Hamachi, a VPN app we’ve mentioned before, or Open VPN, which lets you log in to your home network via an encrypted tunnel for safer surfing wherever you go.

  • Build a Network-Attached Storage (NAS) Device. If your old server has enough storage in it, you can use FreeNAS to build your own backup, streaming, or torrenting machine. Most servers have multiple hard drive bays, and you can easily add more drives if they’re not already filled and you need more storage.
    The benefit to having a NAS go beyond having a dumping ground for your files or a backup location for your important data. You can also use a NAS as the home streaming box we mentioned earlier, or even set it up as an FTP server so you can get access to your files when you’re away from home.
  • Use it to Fight Cancer or Search for Intelligent Life. Both are causes close to my heart, but if you have the spare processing power in your home and you’re willing to endure the boost in your power bill by keeping your server on, why not install [email protected] or [email protected] on it and participate in the search for intelligent extraterrestrial life, or help more earthbound researchers find treatments for cancer. Both projects can use all of the processing power they can muster, and a spare server, even if you’re using it for another purpose, has the horsepower to help crunch data while you sleep, or while you’re doing something else, like streaming a movie or downloading files.

This isn’t an exhaustive list of things you can do with a spare server (or even multiple unused servers) by any stretch, but they’re great starter projects that can help you learn a lot without needing new, high-end technology to try them. Good luck, and let us know how your projects turn out!


PS: Do you have any additional uses for an old, decommissioned server that you can suggest? Share your ideas in the comments below.


  • If you can’t think of an answer to “what can I do with this computer?” then you don’t need it. And why is it a little too powerful to give to charity? Sounds like the perfect thing to give away, since you don’t need it.

    • What is a charity going to do with a server/filehead? They have plenty of money to spend on making sure their organisation runs smoothly (tech wise).

  • Rack mounted servers are crap for home use. In most cases they’re designed to be mounted in a server rack in a data centre or server room, not sitting underneath your desk or by your TV. They’re loud, use a lot of power, and run very hot. Not to mention they can be expensive to upgrade/repair (try picking up a hot swappable SCSI hard drive). In all reality you could probably sell it for a couple of hundred dollars and use that money to buy a desktop that would be just as powerful, if not more, have much more storage, and run a lot quieter.

      • It shits me when people use “newer equipment uses less energy” as a justification for throwing out perfectly functional older equipment and replace it with brand new.

        From a purely financial point of view, the initial outlay required to purchase a new server is going to take quite some time to regenerate, if you’re looking at the difference in power consumption between old and new hardware.

        The same argument also applies to eco-cars; leading evironmental scientists have frequently gone on the record stating that keeping that old petrol guzzling bomb of a Commodore/Falcon running for as long as possible is far better for the environment than throwing it out and buying a Prius; due to the amount of emissions required to build two cars instead of one.

        • “newer equipment uses less energy” can be a perfectly valid reason. Newer servers tend to have more compute power so you can do more with them, particularly if you use some sort of virtualisation. You could take 20-30 older machines and run them on a single grunty server. You can get an ROI in less than 6 months with the power savings alone.

          As for the old “it takes more energy to make a car than it will ever use”, that’s been proven to be false so many times that any “leading environmental scientist” who still uses that line can only be leading numpties.

  • Who says that: I got this thing I don’t need, but it’s too good to give to someone who might need it. I think I’ll just keep it in the closet.

    I think you start a charity and host it on it. Reset Karma before it bites you in the arse.

  • I can appreciate the suggestions in the article, but really as Cameron said, data center servers a really really NOT supposed to be run in anything but a data center. I’ve seen what happens when ppl try to run racks in non-dedicated aircon rooms, and you have to wear ear protection. The things are LOUD and HOT. Much better to sell it on ebay, and buy the pieces for a micro-itx system, and do everything that was suggested in the article. And learn more about hardware in the process.

  • I work for a non-for-profit. We don’t need many servers, and donating hardware to charity is a really common choice – even I have some servers lying around unused. Smaller charities might have more need, but you’ll also have to donate your time to get things running.

    As a side note: Old servers often don’t make for a good NAS. They tend to be noisy, use more power, and take non-standard drives by default (like ultraSCSI variants).

  • As another option, give it to me! I can always use another computer and I need to keep up on server tech just in case anyone ever actually employs me for my IT skills.

  • I was in the same boat, inherited an old server, but still plenty of RAM, a RAID setup and multiple CPUs…so I built a free private World of Warcraft server…managed to build it up to about 1000 regular players over 2 years, before the legality became an issue and I shut it down. Never thought an old server could cause so much fun though 🙂

    Power usage was MASSIVE and you can see the clear spike and drop on my power bills marking the start and end of the little project.

    If you want a NAS/HTPC, buy an AMD Fusion ITX motherbaord for $150, best money I’ve spent. Add a few drives, TV tuner card and a case, cost me $350. Uses less than 30watts (as apposed to my server’s 1 kilowatt!) and can play back full 1080i video at the same time as torrenting and serving files on the network. Perfect little machine.

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