5 Great Ways to Re-Purpose Old PCs for Customers

recycle-computers

Any computer repair technician should be able to properly recycle an old customer PC after wiping it effectively. But this shouldn’t be the only course of action to recommend to customers. Perhaps a client is looking to make use of a still-capable system in some other manner. Having a few tricks up your sleeve never hurts, which is why I wanted to show some of the ways which my company FireLogic has internally “recycled” older PCs to fit niche functions for customers. All of the options described below entail free or open-source software, and usually require no further upgrades of the hardware inside of the machine in question. If a hardware upgrade is recommended, I make note of it for you.

Before I go over these 5 neat feats of PC re-purposing, I’d like to tackle how these mini projects serve both the customer and your own business in a positive manner. First off, the customer will fully appreciate that you aren’t pushing new hardware on them to fit newfound needs. Saving customers money is what we need to be mindful of whenever we are consulting on projects. Likewise, this will also help us keep hardware out of the recycling centers and put it to good use.

I’m not going to say than an old PC is ALWAYS the best fit for any of the projects described below, so use good judgement. Trying to re-purpose a Windows 2000 system to run as a file server? Probably best to invest in a NAS-box for the customer instead of sipping hundreds of watts of energy to power a dinosaur of a system. But most of all, these are all great ways to provide some extra income from systems that would otherwise be saying hello to the recycling bin.

Without any hesitation, here are my top 5 ways to re-purpose old PCs for your customers:

5) Setup a Free Open Source PBX Phone System on Asterisk

This particular scenario involves a little more Linux than some may be comfortable with, but luckily there are already pre-built distributions available that do most of the legwork for you. My personal favorite happens to be AsteriskNOW which includes the open source Asterisk PBX software configured on top of a ready to go Linux installation. But there are a few other choices out there – and if you are Linux-proficient, you can even install Asterisk on the distro of your choice.

What can you do with Asterisk? I won’t go over all of the many uses, but to sum it up, it’s pretty much an all-out PBX phone system for your home or office (for free). There are no catches to it. As long as you can follow a simple guide, like this one put together by the folks at Maximum PC, then you can provide your customers with a completely free phone system like the big boys use.

The above guide goes into tying Google Voice to your Asterisk system for a truly 100% free in/out calling setup, but this may be a bit of a stretch for some businesses. I suggest you play with such a setup first before recommending and installing this for customers. The Asterisk website has a full archive of excellent help videos for first time users in getting setup, configuring IP phones, and much more.

4) Configure an Open Source FOG-based Cloning Server

If you thought Symantec Ghost or Microsoft System Center were the only players in the IT management market, think again. A wonderful free and open source alternative is available now by the name of FOG. The name is short for Free Open Source Ghost which is a full blown PC management server utility that replicates much of the functionality of a suite like Symantec’s Ghost platform. Any old PC a customer may have can be turned into a Linux box and have FOG installed on top of it, in essence becoming a central management point for all of the systems in a company’s network.

Keep in mind that the follow through on getting this setup properly is what counts, and an effective rollout of a FOG-based managed network takes time. One of the caveats in order to utilize FOG fully is that your client PCs all have to support PXE boot and you need to be able to place PXE into the first spot of the boot order. Many OEM systems do not offer this capability yet, but it is definitely growing. However, if a prospective customer does meet these requirements, then you can deploy a FOG server and offer things like centralized system imaging, virus scanning, disk wiping, and even patch management. The best part about FOG? It requires no client software to be installed. How about that!

You can download the latest version of FOG anytime.

3) Turn an Old PC Into a High End Open Source Firewall with IPCop

Nothing beats a standalone quality hardware firewall, except for one that happens to be open source and replicates most of what the big players do for the price of free. If one of your customers is looking to filter out traffic or particular websites, look no further than IPCop. This all-in-one Linux distro with powerful firewall functionality can be easily deployed onto an aging system that can likewise be turned into the primary firewall of a small business (or mid-size business, if you so wish.)

While this nifty system is quite powerful, it does require some re-architecture of a company’s network, so you will need to plan your downtime and installation path appropriately. A great overview of the layout of an IPCop protected network can be found on their installation guide. One of the other requirements you will need to be mindful of is that each “logical network” you want to configure within IPCop will require an additional network card with patch cord tying back into the physical infrastructure. This may be a challenge for PCs that may have only 1-2 PCI slots that are full. A system best suited for running IPCop will likely be a mid-tower to full-tower ATX system due to the hardware requirements.

Feel free to download the IPCop Linux distro for evaluation and see if it will work for your customers.

2) Ditch the Old Fax Machine and Setup a Windows-based Fax Server

I hate the word “fax” just as much as the next tech. In the year 2012, email should have taken over faxing of all forms by now. Unfortunately, many businesses (and home offices) still rely on faxing for one reason or another. Instead of trying to coerce customers to ditch the technology altogether, offer them a cost-saving solution: turn an old Windows PC into a fax server. They can easily add up all of the electricity, toner, paper, and upkeep costs that are going into the old 14.4 fax machine year after year.

Many techs may not know it, but Microsoft has been supporting native faxing in Windows since before Windows 2000. For the sake of brevity, I’m going to only touch on this native capability of all the recent common Microsoft operating systems including Windows XP, Windows Vista, and Windows 7. The steps to get faxing setup and working differ slightly in each version, but the notion is the same. Windows can easily take any run of the mill fax modem card and turn it into a full blown fax server for any phone line. Windows will then take incoming faxes and save them into a centralized fax console. Users with access to the system can then take the faxes and export them or print them. I’ve setup numerous businesses with this free functionality and they have been running marvelously ever since. Look – no more fax toner needed!

1) Convert an Old PC Into an Open Source Storage Server with FreeNAS

I’ve long been a proponent of cutting down on overspending in small business IT, namely in the form of full-blown Windows servers (my company decommissions old and overkill servers on a monthly basis.) Most small businesses don’t need them, and are paying dearly for keeping all aspects of such a server running including licensing, electricity, upkeep, AV protection, and so on. I’ve previously penned about my love of QNAP NAS (Network Attached Storage) boxes for SOHO and small businesses, but if your customers are on the budget-conscious side, they may prefer the “re-use” route instead.

A great piece of free software is thankfully available in the form of FreeNAS. Like some of the other solutions I mentioned earlier, this open-source Linux distribution is geared towards users who are newer to Linux and may need some hand-holding in the process of getting a box configured. FreeNAS is very powerful in that it supports all of the advanced technologies that the expensive NAS appliances do like ZFS support, spanning volumes, RAID 0, RAID 1, RAID 3, and full sharing support for Apple Microsoft and Linux machines, just to name a few features.

The system requirements on FreeNAS are a tad higher than some of the other uses I mentioned, but trust me, you will be pleased to see what this system can provide. For the cost of a used PC, an extra stick of RAM, and a few hard disks, you can put together the equivalent of a $2000 Windows Server box for a few bucks. And the best part is that the entire box can be managed remotely over a web interface, meaning you don’t have to wade through dialog boxes like in a traditional server environment. It’s worth a shot.

You can download FreeNAS in x86 or x64 flavors right off their home page, and learn more about the product off their excellent installation guide WIKI page.

Have other great uses for retired PCs that are otherwise hitting the recycling bin? Post them in the comments section below!



Derrick Wlodarz

About the Author

Derrick Wlodarz
More articles by me...
Derrick Wlodarz is an IT Specialist that owns Park Ridge, IL (USA) based technology consulting & service company FireLogic, with over 8+ years of IT experience in the private and public sectors. He holds numerous technical credentials from Microsoft, Google, and CompTIA and specializes in consulting customers on growing hot technologies such as Office 365, Google Apps, cloud hosted VoIP, among others. Derrick is an active member of CompTIA's Subject Matter Expert Technical Advisory Council that shapes the future of CompTIA exams across the world. You can reach him directly at derrick@wlodarz.net.

Comments (16)

  • Big JIm says:

    I use Freenas at home and whilst it is very good at what it does, I don’t think it is fair to directly compare it to a windows server.
    If all you need is a file server and a basic FTP site then yes Freenas will be perfect, It won’t handle DHCP though for example or active directory (not that I actually know how to configure DCHP or AD properly on a windows box)

    I actually run an old Dell Poweredge server in my shop and all it is doing currently is running FTP and acting as file server.
    I do plan to use it for other things eventually, however what I like about it is that is does TRUE RAID as a pose to software RAID that freenas offers and it has 2 of everything should something die on you it will keep running.

    James

  • Jeremy says:

    While FreeNAS is great there are a couple of details id like to poimt out about it.

    First, it is NOT based on Linux but on FreeBSD Unix.
    Second, the original developer has left and is now working on a NAS project built on top of Linux called OpenMediaVault.
    Third, the new FreeNAS 8 does have fairly high syatem requirements, but there has been a fork of the previous generation which ia being developed under the name NAS4Free.

    all of these projects are worth checking out.

    Jeremy

  • Digsyn says:

    I think just an article on open sourced file servers would make a great article. I want a file storage solution to hold media, docs and pictures and I cannot decide on Amahi vs. FreeNas? Do they compare? Any others I should consider?

  • Scott says... says:

    How about those people that just want a spare machine for the internet and the occasional word doc? Or those that are on a tight budjet? Many parents will buy one for the kids to keep them off their main computer. I provide a lot of refurbished lower end systems for these people. Computers that I pick up from the local recycler or from a customer that does not want to spend the money to fix it. Any P3 or P4 will do just fine with XP loaded. Even a P2 with adequate memory will run XP. I think you well see far more re-purposing of old machines for doing basic Windows stuff, then you will for open source applications mentioned above, but these are some good alternatives for an old machine.

    • Tony says:

      If you use an older machine for just internet and docs them hey a good low end Linux like puppy our others and put Firefox or chromium on it with Libreoffice for docs.

  • Blake says:

    A good use for an older laptop (because it doesn’t take up very much space) is to completely wipe/re-install/update it for home or small office use as a banking-only machine, i.e. sees NO other use such as email or searching or browsing, so as to eliminate the most common malware pathways. Most customers don’t want to use Ubuntu (on a USB stick or otherwise), and they are willing to pay a little more for a dedicated machine they know is secure.

  • PL says:

    The problem with recycling these old computers is mostly with their power consumption. They can certainly be used for fax/pbx, but it will cost you alot more in the long run in power consumption.

  • Tony_Scarpelli says:

    If you are not comfy or suited to set Linux then you can also use windows. Most boxes already have a license on them. We have been re purposing windows boxes since Win95. File servers do not require much horse power so the slight extra resource requirement of windows won’t often be noticed. Fax server, proxy server, firewall, print server, all can be easily setup and figured out by most windows users. I know the first few times I setup a linux distribution I could have easily paid for a new system with the amount of time I spent fooling around to get everything to work.

  • MT says:

    I repurposed one family’s pc to act as their media center..but there have already been articles on this. But as people start filling up their DVRs and moving their movie collections to digital media they are looking for such solutions.

    One family had over 1,000 DVDs. I backed them up to a HDD and repurposed their old machine with XBMC and now they can record their TV shows and catalog all their movies and recordings.

    We are becoming a media hungry society and the demand for such services as this are becoming a high demand item.

  • chrisbitz says:

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention my favourite, and that’s to tell the company that you’ll rebuild the PC to “as new” spec and give it to a charity, or someone that can’t afford a PC. Old XP machines are perfect for this.

    I’ve not had a company refuse yet, and they’re genuinely overjoyed not to be throwing away something that’s still working, and your reputation as a genuine honest community player goes sky-high too!

  • Sammy says:

    I support a number of small schools and when the main it suites get upgraded I usually re-use machines for them for “labour” costs”, i used to set up a lot as display machines connected to a tv in the entrance or office etc, but at present I am mainly installingthe old machines as office thin clients, I use free/cheap software offerings from 2x software amongst others (no connection to them – just good product IMHO)

    The last school I upgraded had 25 old pcs replaced in the teaching room, so I upgraded 4 of the machines with ram and drives from the others to max out the ram and have raided drives and then setup 4 “client” machines to lan boot from each “server”.

    10 machines in the library for web browsing, and 2 lots of 5 in the staffroom for word processing etc, plus a bunch of spares for parts, the school wanted to purchase “multipoint server” from ms and a bunch of pcs someone had said they “must have” to run it, but now they have “free point” and I have a customer who sees me as the go to guy for getting value for money on their it.

    Sammy

  • Matt D. says:

    Once again another great article from Derrick! I have also gone some of the same routes as this, but with the firewall option I have used Untangle (http://www.untangle.com/) with great success.

  • Mike Smith says:

    Love the asterisk idea! Who wouldn’t want multiple voicemail boxes and all the cool features of asterisk, working for their home phones. Plus that lady’s voice is cool. Did you know she does freelance personal recording too? Awesome.

    @Tony_Scarpelli
    The linux system requires less effort to maintain in the long run, uses resources more efficiently than windows, has more features, and faster updates. The learning curve for anything new is steep (but worth it) and after years of using both, I have found that linux just makes sense. I think you will too.

    @Big JIm
    Home routers do the DHCP, so FreeNAS doesn’t need to. FreeNAS can authenticate users via Windows Workgroups style which is fine for home use.
    Hardware RAID is fine, but not necessarily better than software RAID. Software RAID is easily more “true” when you think of recovery. If the software raid machine dies, move the drives into whatever machine is available and you can still read the data. Try installing HP configured raid drives onto a Dell perc controller and see what you can read. When the chips are down, and you need your data, waiting 4 hours or 4 days for a replacement contrller can be disasterous. Consider too that modern CPUs are many many times more powerful than the little chip on the hardware raid controller, and even a PC that is a few years old will outperform the hardware RAID controller.
    When you say you have two of everything, I hope you also have two identical raid controllers ;)

    @Digsyn
    A fun alternative is Owncloud. It’s like your very own dropbox server. Alfresco (my favorite) is also a great and secure alternative. With projects like these that are easy to install (apt-get install owncloud), and high speed bandwidth getting cheap, there will be an increase of personal file sharing among friends and family in the not too distant future. Best to be ahead of that curve :)

    @PL
    The difference in electricity cost per month between an old PC and a new PC is only a few dollars. Keeping the old PC is less than $20 a month in electric running 24/7.

  • brock029 says:

    All great suggestions for business clients who might need something for little cost. I know myself and loads of other people on the forum have been asking questions about refurbishing/repurposeing old computers but mainly for home users and now this answered my questions on what else you can do with an old pc. great read.

  • NetworkAssassin says:

    Running FreeNAS on an Old Celeron 1100mhz with 512mb ram. I flashed the mobo and have 4 500gb IDE drives in it. Runs a Itunes (firefly server), Storage for all my digital media backups, and FTP. Yes I know that the machine isn’t the most energy efficient. It runs great though. I was getting almost 4.0mbps on a transfer from a windows 7 machine. Very easy to setup and manage.