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.

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!

Cheers Lifehacker

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

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    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.

      I would also like to add the point of power usage. The old servers especially aren't designed to be as power conscious as their new brethren.

        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.

    Be sure to wipe any company data from its drives before parting with it!!

      ...and be sure the company data is safely on the NEW server before parting with it :)

    I was in the same boat, inherited an old server, but still plenty of RAM, a RAID setup and multiple 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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