Dealing with an old computer can be difficult. Before it leaves your possession
you should securely wipe the hard disk of *all* data, something Windows can not
do. Although there is free software for this, tracking it down can be time consuming. Then, do you throw out the machine
and feel guilty about disposing of something with toxic waste or do spend the time, effort and money to try and
recycle it or donate it.
You can avoid this and turn an old computer into something useful with NASLite, a $16 program that makes a file server out of pretty much any computer. Think your computer is too old to be a file server? NASLite works on a 486 with as little as 16 MB of ram.
Everyone knows to backup, backup backup. After all, there is so much that can go wrong with personal computer. So very much. A network accessible file server is an excellent repository for your backup files. The fact that you can now do this for $16 is remarkable.
You access files on a file server (any file server) using standard,
ordinary Windows file sharing. The file server appears to your computer to be
just another disk drive letter. You read and write to files on this drive
letter exactly the way you do with the C disk.
The pre-requisites for this are a Local Area Network (LAN) and, of course, the old computer needs a network card. If you don't have a LAN, the hardware to set one up is fairly cheap (less than $100 to network a handful of computers) but not the subject at hand. Note that NASLite only supports internal network cards. It does not support external USB based models nor PCMCIA based ones for use with laptop computers.
NASLite runs off a bootable floppy disk, it does not get installed on the hard disk. When you buy NASLite, they send you the floppy disk. The boot floppy contains Linux, networking software and a web server. Quite a feat.
The fact that NASLite is Linux does not matter to your Windows computers. Linux computers can share files with Windows computers using the exact same rules and interfaces that Windows computers use to share files with each other.
Update: As of December 2004, there are three versions of NASLite: SMB, NFS and FTP. This write-up is about the SMB version. The NFS version is for use in a Linux environment and the FTP version is completely different type of file server.
Old computers have relatively small hard disks, but NASLite supports up to four
internal disks. For very little money you can add a new internal hard disk to the computer.
Old computers also have problems (due to BIOS limitations) accessing newer large capacity hard disks. However, NASLite does not depend on the BIOS but accesses the hard disks directly on its own and thus can read the latest large capacity hard disks, disks that Windows on the same computer could not handle.
Being Linux, NASLite requires a Linux file system, specifically ext2. When faced with a brand new hard disk, NASLite will format it for its own use. When faced with a hard disk with nothing but Windows on it, NASLite will again reformat the disk and all your previous files will be lost.
If you have partitioning software, such as Partition Magic from Symantec, then you can create an ext2 partition for use by NASLite and keep Windows in another partition. In this case, NASLite sees the ext2 partition, uses it and ignores Windows. You don't even have to make the ext2 partition the active, bootable partition. This way, the computer will boot Windows when the NASLite floppy disk is not present and boot NASLite when it is. A most unusual dual-boot setup.
Update: May 17, 2006. I have been told that NASLite requires its partition to be the first one in the Partition Table (I haven't look into this). If true, then it should not be possible to take a PC with Windows, shrink the Windows partition and use NASLite to access a new Unix type partition. I'm not sure.
Of course an old version of Windows could, on its, own be used as a file server. However:
The first time NASLite runs you need to run the text-mode Administration utility
to configure a workgroup name. you might also want to change the IP address and
subnet mask (it defaults to 192.168.1.1), the password for logging in to the Administration utility itself and the name used by the file server on your
network (it defaults to Naslite-smb).
Once NASLite is up and running, you remotely access the hard disks under its control using normal Windows shared files and directories. You can also access files and reports on the NASLite server via HTTP. Some of the web page based reports can be quite interesting, for example, the SMART report (a hard disk self reporting standard) shows how many hours the hard disk has been in use. Being Linux, NASLite also supports telnet access to the file server, logging in lets you run the NASLite administration utility.
NASLite is limited to: TCP/IP networking, hard disks (no CDs or DVDs), IDE (no SCSI or Serial ATA), internal disks (no external USB hard drives) and
peer-to-peer workgroup networks (no Windows domains). It also does not support user level security or file compression. If, for example, a NASLite server is shared by a family, the parents would not want to store files on the server that they wouldn't want the children to see. Let's not forget though, the entire system fits on a single floppy disk.
NASLite can be downloaded for free, but creating the boot floppy disk from the downloaded file is complicated. The floppy is 1.72 MB, not the normal 1.44 MB, so Windows can't deal with it. If you have a copy of Linux, the vendor (Server Elements) provides instructions for creating the boot floppy. If you only have Windows you can try using a program called rawwrite (alternate link). You have to judge the time and effort involved in dealing with rawwrite vs. the $16 price of convenience.
Update: May 17, 2006. Differences between the free NASLite and the commercial NASLite+ :
- NASLite is slower, boots from floppy disk and is free if you can create the floppy disks using a Linux computer. It costs $16 for a CD that can create boot floppies.
- NASLite+ is faster, boots from CD drive and costs $24 per computer.
NASLite is available at www.serverelements.com. I have no association with them, I just think its a nifty product.
The TV Harmony blog discussed NASLite in October 2004 and mentions a restriction on the largest file NASLite supports.