You’ve replaced an aging workstation with a new model. The new model has a modern CPU, more RAM and gobs of storage. But the workstation it replaced is only a few years old. Assuming it has no major hardware issues, does it make sense to repurpose it within your organization?
I talk to a lot of customers who recently replaced an aging workstation or server with a new model, and this is one question I’m asked often. I wish I had a more definitive answer but it really depends on a number of factors.
This week I want to look at the types of systems that make good repurposing candidates along with one that does not. My suggestions won’t make sense in every situation, but I hope they will provide some guidance as you consider how the older computers are used at your company.
Servers are nearly always configured with components to perform a specific task. A database server will need a lot of RAM while a NAS will need an appropriate amount of storage. Because they are customized to the task, they can be tricky to repurpose.
Maybe you’ve recently replaced your SQL database server with a higher performing model. The older server might work just fine as a file server for the marketing or finance department with minimal changes. Two upgrades that are generally simple to perform and can provide a significant boost to performance are RAM and storage, assuming the older server has open RAM slots and SATA ports. I’ve worked with a number of customers who were able to double the RAM and install a SSD as the OS drive at a reasonable price.
Upgrades that make less sense include the CPU and adding a dedicated RAID cards to an old system. While some servers might allow for a straight-forward CPU upgrade, many will require a newer motherboard. And that often leads to upgrading your RAM and even the PSU. If you have to upgrade the motherboard to get the performance you need, you’re better off purchasing a new system.
Installing a RAID card isn’t difficult, but it’s often the hottest running component in your server. Older servers might not have adequate cooling to handle this hot-running device. Also, if your workload requires the redundancy RAID provides, it’s best to start with new parts that have been proven to work together. Matching your RAID card to proven hard drives is well worth the extra cost and effort if RAID is required.
Given how difficult server chassis can be to work on, I’ve seen a customers repurpose a server using only software, such as FreeNAS instead of upgrading the hardware. I’m not going to cover FreeNAS in this article, but I’m sure many of you have heard of it or are already using it. It provides many server functions and happens to have reasonably low hardware requirements making it a good option for older servers taking on new roles.
Workstations, like servers, also tend to be configured to perform specific tasks, but they have one big advantage when it comes to repurposing: Case capacity. It’s simply a lot easier to upgrade components in a tower case compared to a rack server. That means adding additional storage, a modern GPU or any number of controller cards is usually a quick process.
If you’re adding additional storage, especially mechanical drives, or a newer GPU, you’ll want to make sure you have adequate cool air moving through the case. Heat is one of the main, if not the primary enemy of computer components, and is often overlooked because it’s not easy to measure. Most workstation boards have sensors that allow you to monitor the heat from within the operating system. At Puget Systems we use a FLIR IR Thermometer to accurately measure the heat inside each computer.
Workstations make good candidates to repurpose. One scenario I’ve seen is a company that has a number of creative professionals who use Adobe Creative Suite. Or maybe your company has an employee who works in AutoCAD and requires fast dual CPUs and professional grade GPU like the NVIDIA Quadro or AMD Firepro. Such systems are made to handle complex workloads and are built with high quality components. Such a workstation can easily be passed along to an employee who needs a solid desktop computer that supports multi-monitors, but doesn’t require a cutting edge CPU or GPU.
If your office is anything like those I’ve worked in over the past decade, laptops dominate as the choice of most employees across all departments. Unfortunately, they don’t make very good candidates to repurpose for a number of reasons.
Laptops seldom perform as well as desktop computer so they start their life behind the performance curve. And that’s just fine for many office tasks such as email, web browsing or creating PowerPoint decks. But they take a beating, and are not easy to upgrade. You might be able to upgrade the RAM and hard drive, but that’s usually the extent of it.
It’s wise to consider the benefits and risks of repurposing computers. Even when you know an older system can be used elsewhere it may not make economic sense for the company because someone in IT will have to spend many hours preparing it for use when a new computer may come in and work from day one.
The warranty may also be a good reason to purchase a new computer, especially for laptops which tend to require more repairs. Small shops with limited IT help may find that repurposing hardware to be too much of a hassle.
Software licensing is another consideration that could influence your decision. There is a lot of open-source software that can transform an older system into one that provides a valuable service. But there will be work involved, and for many, that’s half the fun.