Do something useful with your old PC by converting it into a network server
I’m often asked if it’s a good idea, or even possible, to use an ordinary desktop PC as a network server.
It's mostly home and small-business users who, having bought a new desktop, want to do something useful with the old one.
The answer is usually yes, although there are a couple of things to bear in mind.
The hardware in question
The first thing to take into consideration is the nature of the hardware involved, especially if the PC is more than a couple of years old.
There’s not much you can do about the processor, but the good news is that if you only want to share files it’s unlikely to be an issue, as there’s very little processing involved.
You don’t normally need much memory for such tasks, although if you do have some spare Ram lying about it won’t hurt to fit it – assuming it’s compatible.
However, if you have less than 512MB overall I would recommend an upgrade to at least that amount, or more if you want to run applications such as a web or email server.
The video interface can also be left as it is, but on an older PC you may find you’ve only got a 10Mbits/sec network interface, which could be something of a bottleneck, even if the server will just be used for sharing files and printers. Fortunately a Lan interface is easy and cheap to replace and plug-in PCI Gigabit Ethernet adapters, for example, are available for around £10-£20.
The hard disk, too, might need to be swapped for something bigger and/or quicker, and the older the PC is the more you’re likely to have to do to bring it up to spec. However, keep a close eye on costs, as new entry-level servers are available for well under £200 and small network storage appliances for a lot less.
The operating system
Next you will need to look carefully at the operating system on the PC, which is almost bound to be a version of Windows. If it’s anything earlier than Windows XP, I’d forget it. At a pinch you could get away with Windows 2000, but it’ll be a struggle and the effort involved in configuring this or even older software is unlikely to be worth it.
There are also hidden connectivity limits associated with all desktop versions of Windows. For example, if you’re running XP Professional, you’re limited to just 10 concurrent TCP/IP connections, with a ceiling of just five on an XP Home PC.
Those restrictions may not be an issue on a home server but could be a real problem on a small-business network. For this and other reasons I would never recommend using Windows XP Home, even on a small home network.
Upgrading to Windows Server will be expensive and the only real alternative is to install a version of Linux, such as Ubuntu or Opensuse Linux, which won’t have any connection limits or need any client licences like a Windows server.
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