Building Our Repertoire
Free, open-source software (FOSS) affords us a lot of flexibility as we reuse computer hardware that has become prematurely obsolete. Because it is free of cost, we can use it without financial penalty. Because it is free of restriction, we can use it for whatever purpose we see fit without fear of legal repercussions. Lastly, because it is open source, we can participate in the process of improving and customizing the software to fit our needs. Below are many different uses for old systems in conjunction with FOSS.
Using Ubuntu, we can offer computer systems that are fully accessible to blind computer users and loaded with essential assistive technologies. We create two profiles:
- for partially-sighted users called “high-visibility” that uses
- largest screen fonts
- high contrast font settings
- a large mouse pointer
- mouse pointer location
- easy access to screen reader
- for fully-blind users called “screen-reader” that uses
- standard visibility settings
- Orca screen reader-enabled by default
We also enable the screen reader on the login page to eliminate the guess work.
LiveMedia for DV survivors
Computer Bob uses Linux to setup old computers for survivors of domestic violence.
GSTEP’s LiveSafe project exists in partnership with the Oregon Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence (OCADSV). The basic idea is that existing open source technology can help protect the privacy and safety of domestic violence and stalking survivors while facilitating their access to computing and internet resources. While it can’t protect against everything (such as hardware keyloggers), it can cut down on the mental energy and expertise needed to keep track of many other privacy and safety concerns and provide access to survivor-centered resources and other information with a consistent user experience.
Lubuntu lightweight desktop systems
One of the most obvious uses for an old desktop computer…is as a desktop computer. By running a lightweight operating system, the computer can start up and launch programs quickly, be responsive and usable while running up-to-date, modern software. The trick is in avoiding planned obsolescence by using software that has demands scaled to the capabilities of the hardware. When looking at computers in this light, it becomes clear just how ridiculously overpowered today’s modern computers really are for most computing purposes.
Dedicated hardware print servers are often finicky and non-upgradeable. You can turn any printer into a network printer by installing it on a Linux computer attached to the home network with a static IP address. You can even filter all network-ready devices through the server for a centralized administration solution. At this point, you can even set up the server to monitor (approve, cancel, archive) print jobs or create a Poor Lab’s Pay to Print system (see Pay_to_Print for details)
According to Tom’s Guide:
File servers give you central file storage on your network and are commonly called network attached storage (NAS) devices. You don’t have to worry about a particular PC being powered up like when using simple sharing with Windows. They can also give you support for cross-platform sharing, user authentication, media streaming, web-based access, and more.
You can use the same computer as a file and print server at the same time. Or increase your wireless security by setting up a Virtual Private Network server and wireless authentification radius server.
Home Theatre PC
A home theatre pc (HTPC) is a central place for you to store, access and play your media files: music, pictures and videos. Everything is on-demand from anywhere on your network. When you use an old computer, you can easily upgrade your software and often upgrade individual hardware components to retain compatibility with the latest media formats without having to go out and buy a new system or dispose of the older one.
Although it gives newer hardware examples, this article details the various components you’ll need in order to put together a complete home media solution using a(n old, in our case) computer. You can do the same thing with older, “under-powered” hardware.
If you add MythTV or Freevo and a TV tuner card into the mix, you can use your HTPC as a free digital video recorder (DVR). All in all, there are almost too many free choices for creating a solid media pc out of an older computer.
When using your system as a digital video recorder, you can use it to record video from home surveillance system with the help of network cameras.
Open Source Computer Labs
Linux and open source software make volume-level setup and administration a breeze. It can take a fraction of the resources (time and money) to setup, administer and maintain an open source computer lab, thanks to all the wonderful tools available:
- clonezilla allows you to make an exact backup of your entire setup, regardless of the operating system(s) it runs. If you have similar hardware (or are only runnign Linux, since it is much more forgiving about “waking up” on different hardware) then you can use your backup image to clone your updated setup to other computers in very little time.
- drbl, ltsp: Diskless Remote Boot Linux and Linux Terminal Server Project both fill largely overlapping niches of providing fat and thin clients. DRBL can also serve clonezilla images in order to replicate setups in a lab from one computer to many using very little time. <pictures>
- ofris — a free version of Deep Freeze custom-tailored to Linux. Ofris leaves the system-level protection to Linux, and focuses on locking down a user’s home folder to freeze settings, appearance, and prevent users from leaving behind documents, history or other potentially-sensitive information. When a user is done, they simply restart and the system is clean and ready to go for the next person. I find it superior to Deep Freeze on a practical level: It is faster to use, more transparent, and much easier to administer the computer since it works alongside your administrative password and account privileges, instead of working on top of it.
- New Guest Account features allow anyone to log in to a standardized desktop environment without a password. The Guest Account lacks any and all administrative access, so it is impossible to do system configuration from a Guest session. Lastly, all changes are volatile — meaning that the computer discards them on logout: new files, downloads, website history, login information, etc etc. Administrators can now customize the default desktop settings for the Guest session by creating customized standard user profile and copying it to the /etc/skel folder.