Everybody has one. At least one. Collecting dust in a closet somewhere; waiting to be thrown away. It’s not a time capsule per-se, but if you looked at it now it would probably show you a snapshot of a life you lived not that long ago. It was once a source of pride, entertainment, accomplishment or perhaps comfort. Maybe it was a status symbol. Now you would call it useless, worthless, junk.
We’re not talking about the photo album from your dormroom party days, although it might still contain a copy. We’re talking about your old PC, laptop, netbook, or computer. That thing you spent hundreds or thousands of dollars on to sit in front of for hours doing whatever it is that you do. Maybe it helped you get a degree, or maybe it was your primary source of income. Doesn’t matter now anyway. Your smart-toaster does more MIPS and FLOPS with half the power! There’s no value in an old computer, right?
Wrong! If the commoditization of computing hardware and the steady marching of Moore’s law has done anything to old computers it has been to breathe new life into them. How, you ask?
Make Everything Obsolete. Constantly.
That might seem contrary to common-sense, but if you think of every new high-end piece of hardware it has the effect of reducing the price of whatever hardware preceded it. That doesn’t mean the preceding hardware becomes less capable. It means it becomes more cost effective to acquire.
On the consumer side performance is a luxury. The simple reason for that is that desktop applications typically don’t use even a fraction of the resources available to them. Having a faster computer these days (for most daily tasks) doesn’t mean that your tasks get done faster; it means that you can do more tasks at once.
Before you call me crazy, because I know what you’re thinking, let’s loop back to the part where obsoleting hardware drops the value of the hardware that preceded it.
If the advantage of having newer hardware is that you can do more concurrently, you can offset that performance gain with lower throughput hardware. You just need MORE hardware to make up the difference.
For example, a new-in-box 2017 Intel Xeon E3 1230 V6 costs about $200 at the moment. On the other hand you can get a 2010 Intel Xeon E5620 for under $10. From a performance perspective, the 8 year old CPU has the same memory bandwidth, more L3 cache, more bus throughput, triple channel memory, and the same 80W TDP. That means brand new servers are rolling out of factories right now that have the same performance characteristics as servers made nearly 10 years ago.
Despite what the benchmark gurus and marketing experts want you to believe, hardware has greatly outpaced software requirements to a laughable extent. So much so that the Cloud has made the execution of code a commodity. With competition like that the question isn’t how hard does your existing technology work, but how smart does it work. Is it being fully utilized and can its duties be optimized to accomplish more in spite of having less.
Brush Away The Cobwebs
This is where your cringy old computer comes into play. Some things I look for in old machines include…
- USB ports
- Multi-core x86–64 CPU
- SATA ports
That’s pretty wide-open, but realistic considering how forgiving many of the Linux based OS’s are these days. I recommend Lubuntu and an inexpensive solid-state boot drive. If that blows your budget and you still need more IO performance you can try using an SD card slot or USB port for a flash storage swap partition to give things a boost.
So Now What?
A good place to start would be to look at an online feature that you take for granted on a regular basis and try to internalize it. There’s a list of self-hosted applications for just this purpose on Github called Awesome-SelfHosted that’s, well… Awesome.
If you listen to Pandora, try installing Audio Streamer and have free access to your entire library of music wherever you go. If you use a ton of email requirements perhaps give Mail-In-A-Box a shot. If downloading a lot of torrents is your thing you can automate and organize the entire process with Sonarr and Radarr. If you’ve got a home theater you can use a Kodi server/client setup as an HTPC. If you’ve got some graphics power to play with consider using Steam in “Big Picture” mode to get some casual gaming going on your TV. Or if you’re the security-minded type you can setup a home firewall or intrusion detection device using pfSense by adding an extra 1000mbps ethernet card for around $10.
<plug>My favorite option, of course, is to install Our Entire Suite of open-source home server apps onto your PC, giving you total control over your own Cloud platform complete with virus scanning, file conversions, apps and app launcher, and personal assistant just to name a few.</plug>
Give It Another 15 Minutes Of Fame
I’m always impressed with how resilient old technology can be, especially after it’s lost its luster. If you’ve got a jalopy computer, crazy homelab, or a really good use of spare computing power that you’d like to show off I’d love to see it.
NOTE: An earlier version of this blog post incorrectly cited an Intel Xeon 1320 instead of a Xeon 1230, and also incorrectly cited the Xeon E5620 as being released in 2007.