Servers

10 things you can do to give old servers a second life


If you're responsible for a network, you've probably seen Moore's Law' marching relentlessly on your servers. Today's cutting-edge server can be tomorrow's entry-level home PC.To run with the pack in terms of performance, productivity, and competition, servers that are long in the tooth have to be put out to pasture regularly. But there might be (and usually is) some life left in these early retirees, and they can still be put to good use. Often, you can give old servers a new lease on life by upgrading to a bigger hard drive and adding RAM. The nature of your network will dictate what's best for you, but here are some ways you might get additional mileage from an old server.


This entry originally appeared as an article and as a PDF download. We're presenting it here as well so that we can build a "10 things" archive.


#1: Turn it into a patch management server

Patch management is the bane of the network admin's life. In a Microsoft network environment, everything -- from PowerPoint to Windows Server 2003 -- needs to be regularly patched for vulnerabilities. Setting all clients (I'm not even mentioning servers) to auto-update is not the wisest decision. Apart from being a waste of bandwidth (so many clients going out on the Net to download the same patches), you might (rightly) not like the idea of surrendering control over what needs to patched and when to some automated process. You need a centrally managed system.

If you're a small to midsize enterprise, you might find the cost of commercial offerings to be too high. A reasonably good -- and free -- alternative, is Microsoft's Windows Server Update Services (WSUS). You'll find a step-by-step guide to installing, configuring, and using WSUS here. According to the guide, the hardware recommendations for a server with up to 500 clients are a 1 GHz processor and 1 GB RAM.

#2: Create a NAS server for backups

Backups are the other bane (pain!) of the network admin's life. Here, also, that old server can provide relief.

Thanks to some great software available at a very reasonable price, you can quickly and painlessly turn an old server into a network-attached storage (NAS) device. Apart from the software, NASLite-2 CDD, you'll probably just need to add some big drives to turn your old server into a monster backup server. You'll find the software and more info here.

NASLite-2 CDD is bootable from CD as well as USB. As you'll read on the site, "NASLite-2... is optimized to perform at maximum efficiency with minimum of hardware requirements." It boots directly into RAM and runs on a mere 8 MB RAM disk. Basic requirements are a Pentium processor and 64 MB or more of RAM.

#3: Use it for disk imaging

Having up-to-date disk clones (ghost images) of critical machines (and even noncritical ones -- e.g., in environments where you have many machines with the same hardware and software) can really save your bacon -- and save you time. Finding storage space for these big images is another matter, though. But an old server might do nicely, even if you can't afford the luxury of buying software to re-image network clients from a central server. You can add some big drives to the old server to merely use its capacity to save all the images, which you can then use to re-image from a client (e.g., just copy the image to a removable drive and restore the image from there).

#4: Put it to work as a firewall

In need of a firewall? If writing Cisco access control lists isn't your forte, and your budget doesn't allow for a hardware or commercial software firewall, consider SmoothWall. This is a refined open-source firewall that will give many commercial apps a run for their money.

According to the site, "SmoothWall includes a hardened subset of the GNU/Linux operating system, so there is no separate OS to install. Designed for ease of use, SmoothWall is configured via a Web-based GUI and requires absolutely no knowledge of Linux to install or use."

#5: Make it a test server

Why not use that old server for testing purposes? In a lab/test environment, you don't need top specs. (In fact, testing with minimum specs might be the point of the exercise and could be a good indicator of expected performance.) If need be, just throw in some extra RAM. You can use such a machine for testing new applications and new server offerings or even to practice your "alternative" operating system administration skills by installing Linux, UNIX, or FreeBSD.

Another good idea is to install virtual PC/server software on such a PC. With the competition between Microsoft and VMware heating up, expensive versions of these virtual machines are now available for free. You can get Microsoft's Virtual PC 2004 and Virtual PC 2007 (with support for Vista) here. Virtual PC 2007 was in beta at the time of writing. Microsoft Virtual Server 2005 R2 is also available as a free download. VMware's server offering is available here.

#6: Turn it into a file/print server

If you have a small department with its own needs, an old server can come in handy as a dedicated file/print server, easing the burden on your main file/print server(s). Installing a file server is simple enough. For more on Windows Server 2003 Print Services, see this article.

#7: Create a terminal server

If ever you wanted to try out the capabilities of Terminal Server services (especially the application server features), that old server could be just what you need. Just remember to put in lots of RAM. For a technical overview of Windows Server 2003 Terminal Services, download this Microsoft document.

If you like what you find, check out Deb Shinder's article "Create a scalable thin client solution with Terminal Server farms" for even more inspiration.

#8: Use it as a DHCP server

In the article "Create a superscope to solve the problem of dwindling IP addresses," I wrote about the problem of running out of IP addresses and explained how introducing superscopes could solve the problem. An extra DHCP server to help dish out addresses on another subnet can sometimes come in very handy in this situation.

#9: Make it a mail /SMTP server

So the big boss listened to the Linux guys and dumped Exchange Server. But now he and the rest of management want all the Exchange features and guess what? No can do. But maybe an open source product (there's also a network edition) called Zimbra is the answer. I haven't tested it, but it looks like a real contender, particularly for midsize and smaller companies. Try it on that server you're using for testing! For more information, go to http://www.zimbra.com/community/documentation.html. The requirements for evaluation and testing are an Intel/AMD 32-bit CPU 1.5 GHz, 1 GB RAM, and 5 GB free disk space for software and logs, as well as additional disk space for mail storage.

Editor's update: For a closer look at Zimbra, see Justin James' review, "Introducing Zimbra Collaboration Suite," and the accompanying cost comparison worksheet.

#10: Convert it to a monitoring server

Call me superstitious, but I like to keep my servers clean and pristine and dedicated to their primary roles. So yes, as a WAN manager I need software to sniff and ping and enumerate resources and to scan and inform me about the state of my network. But no, I'm loathe to install such software on my domain controller or other server performing some dedicated role. That's why I used the first old server to be retired for this noble task.

I gave the job to Spiceworks IT Desktop. (You can read Justin James' review here.) IT Desktop is a free, easy-to-use browser-based solution. You can believe the site when it says that the product takes less than five minutes to get up and running. It's designed for organizations with fewer than 250 devices on their network. System requirements are Windows XP Pro SP2 or Windows 2003 Server; a 700 MHz Pentium class processor; and 512 MB RAM.

You could also put The Dude to work. It does a great job of mapping your network and can be used for pinging, port probes, and outage notifications.

Some of your retired servers may not make the grade. But if you keep in mind these possible uses, I'm sure most of them will be able to perform some of these roles, thus giving new life to a potential doorstop.

31 comments
CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

If you use older equipment in a semi-critical production capacity (file server, DHCP server, etc), remember to make support plans. Annual third-party maintenance contracts on older equipment may exceed their replacement costs. If you have a couple of off-line spares for parts replacement, this won't be an issue. Otherwise, be sure you weigh all maintenance costs against the application gained before reusing an older system. Older machines can still perform useful functions (I've got a couple as a Ghost warehouse and a test server), but make backup plans before implementing one for a critical use.

Timothy J. Bruce
Timothy J. Bruce

Create a Content Management System to help you document your own network. Software like Drupal, BlogCMS or WordPress could be used for this.

wschalks
wschalks

You can use Windows NT 4.0 with the Internet server and have your own site . With this going on, you can use the index server included in the option CD to have a data center where you put all the word, excel, powerpoint, etc documents and let the server find the document you are searching with some example web pages that come in the option CD. I have used it and works fine and fast. Everytime you add any document in the files to be indexed are done automaticly

Dr_Zinj
Dr_Zinj

I thought the article said "Old TIMERS."

danrdj
danrdj

What about PostPath to replace Exchange and offer similar functionality? I haven't tried it myself, but I will as soon as I have the hardware for it. http://www.postpath.com/

Tachyon
Tachyon

This article could easily be titled... "10 ways Linux can revive your old equipment" Pretty much all of these jobs are things where Linux excels, and your outlay cost would be zero given you are re-tasking old hardware. In fact if you run an imaging server, you can replace the expensive ghost with G4U and a simple Linux FTP server with a good sized HD slapped in it and a tape drive or mirroring. In fact we have hoardes of little Linux boxes quitely puttering away on re-tasked hardware. They never complain, they never fail. They just work. They make great departmental print servers/spoolers too. Especially if you setup a PDF printer that dumps PDF output to a shared folder for pickup. Sure cheaper than installing distiller on 100 machines.

JodyGilbert
JodyGilbert

Do any of these suggestions sound like they might help you extend the life of your old servers? What other creative uses have you found for that old equipment?

mford66215
mford66215

There's a fine line between utilizable and costing to much for maintenance...but if you can keep the distinction in mind you'll be ok. 1. Parse out your network functions and deploy them on paired servers...two old machines may equal the performance of one new one while providing reduncancy. This works well for external DNS servers, internal DHCP machines, print queue managers and the like. 2. Move the old hardware to the lab - and then take the old lab machines over to your nearest school or charity. The non-profit can use the equipment, and your company will get a reasonable write off come tax time. Be sure to use an OS that is legal, and wipe the data before your begin. 3. Take the old hardware and use it to host forums for the linux/windows flame wars. Never seem to have enough bandwidth for all the heat generated by that topic.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Some of these suggestions are ones that may be critical or at least ones that can't afford to be down for too long. The problem we're having with older hardware is getting maintenance coverage on it. Coverage for some of our four and five year old servers costs more annually than a new box. This needs to be considered when selecting a use for an old server. One good solution if you have more than one of the same thing is to mothball one for parts.

dawgit
dawgit

That I see only a Windows Solution being offered? There are other ways to re-utilize most IT equipment. For instance as a Linux School server. :D

danrdj
danrdj

Good call. I think the differences b/w the two would be notable. PostPath is said to be a "drop-in alternative to MS Exchange" and even works alongside existing Exchange servers in the same environment. Also, full collaboration features, Outlook compatibility, etc. without the use of plugins. I'm unfamiliar with Open-Xchange, so I don't know how it stacks up in that regard. Another big difference is that Open-Xchange is GPL, whereas PostPath is "free for up to 12 users." Looks like TR blogged about it just recently: http://blogs.techrepublic.com.com/networking/?p=174

Tachyon
Tachyon

We have a few customers that we moved to the SuSE Linux Open Exchange server package and it's a really good product. stable, fast, and relatively cheap. PLus it's much less resource intensive, so it's easy to move onto existing equipment. For example, one customer was going to upgrade their MS Exchange hardware becaue usage growth had led to performance issues. We convinced them to keep the hardware, and move to SUSE/OpenExchange. Not only did performance improve, but we were also able to add all the users from their other plant onto it as well, and still had plenty of overhead on the server. They were also able to stop wasting a salary on a full time MCSE to maintain the MS EXchange server which had required a full time administrator.

apotheon
apotheon

1. Redundancy is good. Cheap redundancy is usually better. 2. If you're giving away systems that have had sensitive data on them, you may want to go further than simply wiping the hard drives. In fact, the law may well require it. You may have to junk the drives entirely, and let the nonprofit pay for new drives (or swap in some drives that didn't have sensitive data on them). Hey -- at least the hardware was free. 3. Of course, such servers for Linux/Windows flame wars should be running FreeBSD or OpenSolaris, just to be fair (and because MS Windows would be terrible for servers on outdated hardware).

Dumbterminal
Dumbterminal

Maybe I read a different article than the majority of the posters read. Merely suggestions, a person can go about implementing them any way they like.

louisn
louisn

I was merely writing with a Windows network in mind, but of course that would another good use for an old server (and there are many more, e.g. Linux/Unix/FreeBSD mail server, Web server, proxy server or firewall. In mitigation, I did mention you could use it to practice your "alternative" operating system skills ;)

apotheon
apotheon

It's not my fault someone decided to wrap up his whole career in a single certification. I'm Microsoft certified too -- but I make my money in ways completely unrelated to that, and I like it that way.

apotheon
apotheon

. . . and some solutions require much more than others.

Dumbterminal
Dumbterminal

I'm not used to more than about three hundred users. It sounds to me with that large of a demand, any solution is going to require a bit of administrative overhead.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

If you've got a large user base and a lot of turnover, along with a lot of servers requiring regular patching, I can see how that would be necessary.

apotheon
apotheon

If you've never seen a need for a full-time Exchange admin, you've probably never seen an enterprise network where Exchange servers operate under extremely heavy load, serving thousands of employees, utilizing a significant majority of the capabilities of the Exchange server "product" and a few third-party options besides. I have. It's not a pretty sight, and a full-time Exchange admin is definitely required to ensure reasonable uptime and performance.

Dumbterminal
Dumbterminal

"They were also able to stop wasting a salary on a full time MCSE to maintain the MS EXchange server which had required a full time administrator." I've never known Exchange to be that much work to need a "full time" admin. Someone must've been taking advantage of that company.

willjamr
willjamr

"They were also able to stop wasting a salary on a full time MCSE to maintain the MS EXchange server which had required a full time administrator." Which is why it is so rare for an MCSE to push Linux. ;-)

apotheon
apotheon

It's precisely because of experiences such as what you describe that I recommended going with something -- [b]anything[/b] -- other than MS Exchange at a previous place of employment. The VP was all gung-ho about migrating from a Qmail system to MS Exchange. To satisfy his desire for Outlook extensions and the bullet point feature list of Exchange, I ended up saying we should go with Open-Xchange instead. Anyone else at the company who had an opinion agreed with me as well, that MS Exchange would be a problem. Almost everyone at the company who did any of the real work there was on a Linux laptop or workstation (algorithms and tracking systems development). Introducing an MS Exchange server would have simply made life difficult for them. The VP's suggested solution: "Maybe we should just move everyone to Windows." That went over like a lead balloon. Among other concerns that were raised, was the "with every Exchange server you need a full-time MCSE to admin the thing" factor. Somehow, though, being basically the entire IT department myself, I ended up being the VP's target for his frustration over his "opinion" (mostly gathered from an advertisement he saw in a magazine -- really and truly, he showed me the ad) not being regarded universally as perfect and without negative side-effects. A conflict of personality began to grow at that point, ultimately leading to me and that company parting company. Other than the VP and the President, that was an excellent place to work. Such a shame.

Tachyon
Tachyon

Products like DBAN and others provide drive wiping that is good enough to pass US military standards. If it's good enough for that paranoid bunch, your corporate data should be wiped satisfactorily too. I think this "sensitive data" excuse was made up by companies as an excuse not to donate old systems to charities and schools.

apotheon
apotheon

You said "almost everything is free", which (if you're talking about how much something costs) has nothing to do with whether something is proprietary. There's a lot of proprietary software out there. Also, a lot of the stuff is actually costly, since it involves the use of Windows.

AlDavids
AlDavids

How can you say "All the solutions are costly, or proprietary" when almost everything is free? Having said that, I like SpamAssassin and Dan's Guardian.

linuxiac
linuxiac

All the solutions are costly, or proprietary, or lock you into someone else's AGENDA!!! How about the firewall, http://ipcop.org and on that, you run Dans Guardian webpage filter, if in a school or kids usage environment? http://dansguardian.org Plus, SpamAssassin!!! And, please don't forget all our spammers just waiting to get into the honeypot you could run! That really slows them down, if enough of us run one! At beginning of this semester the Linux Users Group here assisted is setting up a used QUAD server as the school server, plus 48 donated P4 Compaqs, all running Fedora Core 5, at a private Montoressi style school. The licensing costs of ~$84,000 for Microsoft and their 'Trusted Partners' crapware was beyond the pale! Linux does process upto 50X faster, and, one linux server can handle the workload and tasking of up to 12 Microsoft servers! Is it any wonder why the bean counters at MS insisted on running 45,000 Linux servers for Hotmail.com, MSN.com, Microsoft.com, the Linux Labs 400+, and, all Redmond Campus and Corporate firewalls, Aruba Routers, and systems? Now, my favorite noob distro, with 1900 FREE games and programs, is http://pclinuxos.com as it runs my old PII 300's through PIII 800's at speeds never envisioned by Intel! Just a few of the 310 Linux complete liveCDroms FREE at http://livecdlist.com Free help forums on the websites, to help you! Linux is FREE like speech, not beer. Try a bit of FREEdom of choice!

apotheon
apotheon

You mentioned setting up a firewall with Smoothwall. That should count for something, I suppose.

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