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 Folding@Home or SETI@Home 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.

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