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