My most significant tech purchase of the last five years
With a title like that, you might think I’m about to talk about some expensive fancy gadget or high-powered laptop or something. That would be wrong. No, the device I’m talking about has turned out to be worth a great deal to me, but it hardly cost me anything to purchase.
I like thrift stores. I’ve haunted them for about 25 years, from the time I was a teenager, all the way through graduate school, and even now 10 years into a career as a professor. I just can’t help popping into Goodwill or Salvation Army to see what bargains there might be.
Almost a year ago, I found an old desktop computer at the Goodwill in Scott, Louisiana. Actually it wasn’t even that old, probably about four or five years old, but it was one of those cheap computers by eMachines that they used to sell at Wal-Mart. It had 512 MB of ram, a 160 GB hard drive, and an AMD 64 processor. It cost me $7.99. I brought it home, wiped the Win XP installation off of the drive, and installed some flavor of GNU/Linux, probably Crunchbang, but I don’t really remember now. I intended to use it as a backup desktop machine for the day when our Apple eMac would finally bite the dust (still chugging along now after more than seven years).
It would have served fine for that purpose, but a few things happened right around that time that gave the machine a new destiny. First, my boss was cleaning out his house and gave me his old router, a Linksys WRT54GS. I had been looking for an extra router for quite awhile because I wanted to try flashing it with open-source firmware to turn it into a wireless bridge, partly as a fun nerdy project, but also to provide ethernet network access to remote parts of our house. I successfully loaded DD-WRT firmware onto the router, and set it up as A wireless bridge in our detached office, which meant that I could plug the eMachines computer into the router and have internet access in the office. This was important, because this cheap computer was too noisy to keep in the main house.
The second thing that happened was that Statusnet 1.0 was released, and not too long after that, they upgraded the most prominent instance of Statusnet, identi.ca, to the new version. There immediately followed some serious problems with identi.ca, resulting in days of downtime for the service. This was a problem because identi.ca was my lifeline, my connection with all of the other free software nerds of my acquaintance. After a week or two of very spotty service from identi.ca, droves of users abandoned identi.ca in favor of Google+, but a bunch of users began to set up their own private instances of the Statusnet microblogging platform and connecting with one another in this decentralized way, rather than relying on a single giant instance (identi.ca).
This is where the eMachines computer comes in. I had already set up a private Statusnet instance at school to use with my students, so I knew how to do it, but I did not have a server at home. I decided to turn the eMachines box into a webserver so I could host my own instance of Statusnet at home and stay in touch with the other nerds even when identi.ca was down. It did not take too long for me to decide also to host my main web site (this very site in fact) on the server as well. I already had a web site elsewhere but it was old, outdated, and composed almost entirely of static HTML. I wanted something more modern, so I got a new domain name, and experimented with content management systems, and eventually decided to go with Wordpress. Once I had the basic LAMP setup in place for web apps like Statusnet and Wordpress, I found it was very easy to install others like Moodle, owncloud, and roundcube mail.
Now back to the title of this post. The reason this piece of junk eMachines computer is the most significant tech purchase of the last five years for me is that no other purchase has given me the opportunity to learn so much. By fiddling around with an $8.00 computer, I have learned about Apache, mySQL, content management systems, cron jobs, backup scripts, nameservers, SSL certificates, and the list goes on. I have gotten tons of experience administering a web server in an environment where nothing really critical is riding on it, and as such have felt free to try things out and and have learned many lessons that I’ll remember if I ever end up in a situation where I manage mission-critical servers. I feel almost as though I have retrained myself for an alternate career for nothing more than eight bucks and many hours of fun.
Since getting the eMachines box (which now hosts my Moodle and Piwigo instances), I have expanded the “Goodwill Cluster” to include three more routers (all hacked to run DD-WRT firmware, none costing more than $6.00), a Dell Dimension 2300 ($3.99, hosting my ownCloud and Friendica instances), and my most recent and favorite of all, a sweet little Mac Mini, which is now my main web server residing inside the house because it is so quiet.
It has been very satisfying, empowering even, to find all of these castoff machines and pull them together into my own little cluster, hosting my own web site, keeping control of my data, learning something new every day about servers and network adminismtration. Oh, and a little bonus: my wife approves of this hobby because it costs so little and because she knows how much I am learning from it. Thrift clusters FTW!