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Some Uses for Old 486's
By Thiravudh Khoman

With the start of a new year, some people may be wondering whether their existing computers will be up to the task of a future yet to unfold, and whether and when they will need to get a new one. Users of pre-Pentium computers are probably most susceptible to these pressures, finances permitting.

I, myself, have two old 80486 computers left over from my earlier computing days. Both are in good working condition, although my wife and children seem to have a higher threshold for what "good working condition" means. Translation: it's up to me to put the 486's to good use, not them.

Fair enough. Although they are no longer my mainstay computers - they're 66mhz 486's with 16mb ram and 200mb hard disks - I do use them from time to time for "experiments". Based on the time I've spent with them, I have no doubt that one could still run Windows 95 and Microsoft Office on them adequately, although once again some people may define the word "adequately" differently.

In a business or development environment, such "legacy" machines can still be put to use as print servers, application servers, file servers, and backup servers. Here's how and why.

486's As Print Servers

On file server-based networks, it's not always best to connect printers to the servers per se, the reason being the servers may be located in a secure room or too far away from users who need to use the printers. An alternative is to setup remote printers. On Netware networks, any computer with a printer attached can serve as a non-dedicated print server by running Novell's RPRINTER program. Or old 486's, with or without hard disks, can be used as dedicated print servers by running the same RPRINTER program and of course Netware's client software.

On larger networks, though, it makes more sense to use modern print server devices. These devices connect directly to the network and come with one or more printer ports, eliminating the need for a PC. Numerous companies make these. Some printers even come with slots which accept print server cards internally. An example of this is Hewlett Packard's JetDirect card, which I've used both in both large and small companies.

These specialized print servers, though, represent an added cost for smaller networks such as Microsoft's peer-to-peer networks. Where cost minimization is a priority, it's preferable to setup a "printer share", whereby a printer connected to a non-dedicated PC can be shared by other users on the network. The weak point here is that the computer connected to the printer must be turned on before the printer can be shared, something not easy to coordinate nor guarantee.

One workaround for this is to have a 486 act as a dedicated print server as in the Netware example. Simply attach a printer to the 486, install Windows 95 or Windows for Workgroups 3.11, install networking and the printer drivers, setup a printer share, and the 486 becomes a dedicated print server.

486's As Application Servers

Some people may wonder about by my suggestion that 486's be used as application servers, especially those who think of application servers in terms of powerful Unix or Windows NT boxes capable of running the likes of client/server databases. Needless to say, 486's are inappropriate for such tasks as they're too slow and invariably lack the required memory. However, in development environments with very small numbers of users and money in shorter supply than patience, even 486's could support some of the heavier apps.

Looking at "applications" in an internet/intranet sense though, 486's should be up to the task of serving as in-house mail or even web servers. I emphasize the word "in-house" because 486's could never hope to decently serve the needs of hundreds or thousands of users on the outside world.

Linux advocates often cite the ability of their operating system to run on older machines such as 486's. My personal experience indicates that this is true of text-based apps (including the aforementioned mail/web servers), but I would avoid running graphical or X-Windows apps on 486's - they're just too slow.

486's As File Servers

Can 486's really function as file servers? The answer is "of course", after all that's what we used before there were such things as Pentium chips! Actually, the above question depends to an extent on the network operating system used. While it's probably asking too much to run Windows NT server or maybe even the newer Netwares on a 486, I've run Netware v3.12 nicely on a 486 server, serving up to 50 users. I've also used a 33MHz 486SX (even a 25MHz 386SX!) as a personal server when I was designing a Netware system.

The performance of the 486 server also depends on its other hardware. For a single user server (e.g. for development purposes), an IDE hard disk is adequate. But for greater numbers of users, a SCSI hard disk is preferable, since disk processing can be offloaded from the server's CPU to the SCSI controller. And of course, the more memory, the merrier. My 486's both have at least 16mb, which I consider to be a minimum for any kind of server. Don't try this with 4mb or 8mb 486's.

Besides the aforementioned apps, 486's running Linux should also be able to function adequately as a file server, using ftp, nfs, samba, or even Netware emulation under Linux. But again, this depends on the number of users and the hardware.

486's As Backup Servers

I've used what I call "backup servers" a lot to back up file servers and workstations. A backup server is simply a repository for storing files which exist on other computers (whether servers or workstations). At my old finance company, we would backup files from 5 production servers to a single backup server every night. The backup server was an old 486 full-tower with enough bay space to hold five 4gb drives or 20gb in total (a big deal back then). Because the process was automated and took place at night, the backup process (about 2-3gb worth of files per day) didn't take very long even with the 486 backup server. What took much longer was the copying of the backup server to tape.

A backup server doesn't necessarily need to run a real networking operating system like Netware or Linux (remember 486's don't run NT well), but could run something as simple as Windows 9x or Windows for Workgroups 3.11. At my current place of work, we backup about 10 computers to a non-dedicated backup PC (albeit, not a 486) with a 13gb hard disk. The backup PC runs Windows 98 and has a CD-R/RW drive which is used to save the backed up data to removable media. However, the backup PC could just as well be a 486 running Windows for Workgroups 3.11 and the backup device located on another computer running Windows 9.x.

486's As Windows Workstations?

As I stated early in this article, 486's should be able to adequately function as Windows 95 workstations running office productivity software. I don't recommend running Windows 98 on 486's though, because of Win 98's greater disk requirements and their support for hardware which almost certainly won't be found on 486's anyway. Also, if possible, stick with Microsoft Office 95 rather than Office 97 or Office 2000 which are fatter and slower. Granted, such 486 Win/Office machines aren't going to be able to run all of the newer software that higher class computers can, but that capability probably isn't needed on all computers at any given workplace. Certainly they are preferable as spares or backups in the event of the breakdown of "first-string" PC's.

In my opinion, the limitations of 486's are mental ones, defined more by people's expectations than by technical limitations. Indeed, for basic word processing and spreadsheeting, even Windows 3.1 and Office 4.2 should suffice, but perhaps that's straying too far from the norm. Administratively, it's easier to manage a Windows 95-only site than one with a mixture of Windows 3.1 and 95.

Copyright © 1998-2000, Thiravudh Khoman