New life for an old PC—no geek card required

istockphoto.comDo you still have an old machine kicking around in the basement or the back room, long forgotten?
For no cost and almost zero effort, you can set it up as a dedicated network appliance, using one of the many turnkey products from the open-source TurnKey Linux project.

I’m serious. You don’t need to know anything at all about Linux to use one of these. Just download the image, install, and you suddenly have a full featured NAS file server, or you might have a database or a source code repository.

Last year I wrote an article on how to set up a NAS device using Ubuntu Linux. I have been a fan of Ubuntu since the start because it is a very easy distribution to install and configure. The down-side of using Linux has always been the fairly steep learning curve. Before you can get around to using the server, you need to get down in the weeds with configuration files and other stuff.

TurnKey Linux changes all of that.

Painless Installation

A few weeks back, I was setting up an aging PC as a standalone wiki server for a small office—this machine was going to provide a place for the office staff to document their procedures, how-tos, and other things.

I was about to set up an Ubuntu server, as I have done before many times, and install MoinMoin, like I did some months back. I remembered that it was a bit of a pain to get everything tweaked just right, so I did a quick check to see what kind of standalone wiki options were available online.

This is how I found TurnKey Linux. This project is all about single-purpose preconfigured Ubuntu server images.

One of those preconfigured images happens to be a MediaWiki appliance—the wiki engine behind Wikipedia—and I was in business.

The installation took about fifteen minutes, with very little user interaction. I answered a few basic questions and the installer took over from there. As soon as the install was done, the machine rebooted and displayed a message on the monitor with the IP addresses where you can browse to from any other machine.

Full Featured

The work that has gone in to these appliances is amazing. In fifteen minutes I had installed a complex configuration that has the Apache, PHP, MySQL, MediaWiki core, as well as maintenance utilities such as a neat tool that provides a Flash-based pure-AJAX-based SSH command line in a remote browser (i.e. your browser becomes a terminal). Even someone with Linux experience would have to spend quite a bit of time fiddling around with different packages and configuration options in other to provide the same functionality that TurnKey gives you out of the box.

As with most open source projects, the documentation is about 80% complete, with deep detail in some areas, but leaving others fairly sparsely documented. But don’t let this deter you: in most cases users know how to use the product they are installing (e.g. MediaWiki) but don’t want the hassle of configuring it on Linux. That’s where TurnKey shines.

Some Examples

In minutes, you can set up a NAS device. If you want to try advanced content management in your office, try Joomla or Drupal.

If you are working on a small project team and want to protect your source code, try Redmine or Trac and do your bug tracking using Bugzilla.

And while you are at it, you can document your organization’s working practices using a wiki such as MoinMoin or MediaWiki.

Don’t forget to back it up!

As with any computer, you should include your new TurnKey appliance in your backup strategy. The nice thing is that you don’t really need to care at all about backing up Linux or the other software; just back up the data. I don’t need to back up my entire MediaWiki machine; I just need to back up the database and image files. If anything goes wrong, you can rebuild the TurnKey appliance from scratch in minutes and then restore your data.

To save yourself some pain, keep notes on any small tweaks you made to the configuration.

One Machine, One Purpose

These disk images share common Ubuntu underpinnings, but they are referred to as Appliances because they turn your PC into a purpose-built appliance.

This means that if you want a content management system and you also want a ticket management system, you will need two old computers—not a rare commodity these days.

Take a look at what they have to offer and give TurnKey a shot—specialized software used in corporate environments is now within reach of small offices at the right price.

3 Responses to “New life for an old PC—no geek card required”

  1. Liraz Siri writes:

    Thanks for the great write up! A minor correction: TurnKey Linux uses shellinabox to provide the the web-based command line and shellinabox actually doesn’t use or depend on Flash. It’s pure AJAX, which is nice if you are accessing the appliance from a device that doesn’t support Flash (cough-iPad-cough).

  2. Tad writes:

    Thanks for the correction. When I am able to borrow the iPad from my wife, I’m going to give it a shot. I am sort of disappointed in the SSH offerings for iPad so far, so shellinabox will be refreshing.

  3. Brooks @ DocumentSnap writes:

    This is an awesome post Tad, thank you! I hadn’t heard of Turnkey Linux before.

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