Computers for Durham Community Support Centre

Here is an example of a project that we’ve completed, taking two old computers out of retirement and putting them to a good use.

We’re affiliated to the Durham Community Support Centre, a joint venture between Durham Miners’ Association and Unite the Union. Unite had two computers that they were not using as they were considered too old and slow. We had a chat and decided to set them up for visitors to use, to enable them to apply for relevant jobs or benefits, access educational materials and organise campaigns.

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The computers were IBM ThinkCentre machines with 2.93GHz Celeron processors, 40GB hard drives and 512MB RAM (some of which is shared with the graphics processor, so the memory available to the operating system is actually less than this). These resources aren’t nearly enough to run a modern version of Windows, but are enough for a general-purpose desktop GNU/Linux system.

Choosing an operating system

There are plenty of different varieties of GNU/Linux and other free operating systems to choose from, so here are the things we considered when narrowing down the options:

  1. Must work well on the hardware available – this means that fancy desktop environments like KDE 4 and Gnome 3 would be less suitable than lightweight environments like LXDE or XFCE
  2. Must be suitable for people who have only used Windows before, and for people who are just interested in using the computer as a tool to get a task done (rather than learning how it works – although we hope people will be tempted by that too)
  3. Must be easy to set up and maintain, because we’re doing this in our spare time.
  4. Must be supported (i.e. receiving security patches) now and at least two years into the future.
  5. Must provide access to quality-controlled repositories of free software, to make it easy to install the programs that most people will need for general office use.

We opted for the current long-term-support edition of Linux Mint with XFCE desktop as a good match for these criteria.

Preparation

Usually when you turn on this kind of computer, it runs the programs stored on the hard drive inside. When you’re installing a new system, you don’t want this to happen, you want it to start an operating system installation program that you’ve supplied. With modern machines, it’s easiest to bring this on a USB stick, however these machines were built at a time when it was common for computers to be able to boot up from CD-ROM and DVD drives, but not from USB sticks. So it was important to prepare the correct installation medium before we could start. These machines had DVD drives, and the version of Mint we used fitted easily onto a DVD, so we used another computer to download and burn the image to a disk.

If you do this using a version that’s just been released, you’ll only need the installation disk, and any future updates can be downloaded one by one over the internet. However because Mint 13 is already nearly two years old, we could anticipate that there would be a lot of updates needed straight away. We could have let the operating system update itself over the network in the support centre, but we weren’t yet sure how we would connect to the internet, and also we wouldn’t want to do a large amount of downloading when other people in the office were trying to get work done over the same network, as it would slow it down a lot. Not how to make friends and influence people ;-)

A handy trick – AptOnCD

In this situation, it’s good to download the updates using another network (or at another time), and there’s a useful tool for saving the updates to another CD or USB stick included with Mint – called AptOnCD. “Apt” stands for Advanced Packaging Tool, and is the name of the program that Mint (and related systems) use to handle software installation and updates; “on CD” is because the software gets written to a CD rather than being pulled over a network connection, which is the more common way to use apt. The procedure breaks down like this:

  • Install Mint on a test machine (we used a virtual machine, but that isn’t important)
  • Run the update manager (under the ‘system’ menu) on the test machine and install all updates
  • Run AptOnCD (also under the ‘system’ menu) and click the ‘create’ button
  • After it catalogues your software, click the ‘Burn’ button
  • Choose to write an image file (.iso) and save this on a suitably-sized USB stick.

Performing the installation

First off, we double-checked with the previous user of the machines that there was nothing important stored on the hard drives, and that it was OK for them to be wiped. Then we inserted the DVD containing Mint 13 into the DVD drive, rebooted the machine and pressed F12 as it started up. This brought up a menu to choose which device to boot from – in our case, we chose the DVD drive.

The actual installation software started up automatically, and by following the on-screen prompts and accepting all of the default options, it was self-explanatory. The difference between this and installing Windows is that you don’t need any hardware drivers (the Linux kernel detects most common hardware without any help), and there’s no product activation key or horrendous legalese license agreements. When it’s finished, it tells you to take out the DVD and reboot.

The first time it ran from the hard-drive, we used AptOnCD to restore the updates we’d saved on a USB stick from our test machine.

Getting connected

There was already a computer in the room that accessed the internet over a wifi connection. We didn’t have wifi cards or dongles for our machines, so we looked at the alternatives; how could we connect these machines without buying any more equipment?

The router we wanted to connect to was in the room next door, and fortunately there was already a hole in a convenient place in the wall where we could pass a cable through. We didn’t have the right length of cable, but we guessed that lots of people would have some lying around unused so we asked on Freegle and were kindly offered what we wanted by someone who’d upgraded his home network to wireless. A short bike ride later, we had the wire and were all linked up.

But hang on, there are two machines to connect and only one cable… what to do?

Another piece of equipment that you can find a lot of these days is old ADSL modem/routers. It seems that most ISPs give you a new one when you sign up these days. We had one which had previously been used to connect to O2 broadband, and had been configured by them in such a way that it wouldn’t connect to any other ISP’s ADSL system. So the ADSL modem part of it was useless, but the same device also contains a 4-port network switch and wireless access point. We turned off the wifi to save energy, and hey presto, a 4-port ethernet switch. All we had to do then was plug one port into the ‘upstream’ cable (the long one to the router next door) and one port to each of the two computers using standard Cat5 patch leads.

Another option would have been to connect one computer to another directly, so the network connection was shared (using either a spare network card or other unused ports) but this requires that one computer is always turned on before the other will work. People can find that confusing. The option we used just needs someone to turn on the mains extension that powers the computers, then turn either on independently.

Summary

We took two old computers, three unused network cables and an old ADSL modem which would otherwise have been hazardous waste, and turned these into a resource for people to help themselves to the internet and general-purpose computing. We did this with no money, in our spare time, and now that we’ve done this we’re confident we could do it again on any similar old computers.

Do you have some old computers or network equipment that you’d like to bring back into use? The chances are that someone in our group will be able to advise you on how to approach the task, or point you in the right direction to get you started. Get in touch or book a place to come to one of our events.

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6 Responses to Computers for Durham Community Support Centre

  1. Dave says:

    This is cool. I had been thinking about installing linux for the first time but didn’t know the procedure, this makes it much easier. I am experimenting with Mint now. Thanks x

  2. Stuart Thompson says:

    I can’t help feeling you’re being a bit paranoid with “Must work well on the hardware available – this means that fancy desktop environments like KDE 4 and Gnome 3 would be less suitable than lightweight environments like LXDE or XFCE”. My 2000 vintage laptop (W98 machine too low spec to run XP – 500MHz/315Mb/6Gb) runs Ubuntu 10.04 with the Gnome desktop OK – though not with more than one serious application at a time! A more serious issue is that latest versions of Flash and Ubuntu Unity desktop require SSE2 (look under flags in /proc/cpuinfo ) which older hardware/processors don’t have.

    • mark says:

      Thanks Stuart.

      You may be right that we could have squeezed a bit more out of the machines, and it’s great that we have two identical boxes sitting side-by-side so we can experiment later.

      I was a huge gnome fan, am still using gnome2 myself and am sad that it’s not being continued. In Mint, there’s a desktop called Mate which is supposed to be similar to gnome2, but compared to XFCE it’s a novelty so lacks the same level of community support.

      Also I should probably mention that Barry and I left out a few technical points from the article for the sake of simplicity; one being that I tried running gnome 3 in a virtual machine with the same resources as the ThinkCentres and it was unsuccessful; another is that the choice of Mint 13 was partly influenced by it being the last one to support non-PAE memory architectures; and we’re trying to encourage all our new friends to use the same OS, to make it easier to learn from each other, and we wanted to be able to recommend the same system to people who have machines with even less resources / older CPUs than these.

      It’s always great to hear that old equipment is being put to good use. It would be cool if someone did some kind of survey to see who’s running which linux on what hardware.

  3. RALPH price says:

    Just got email forwarded from Nigel. Great idea! and slick presentation. Love this peer group support stuff. I’ll be there if you can find me space. I’ll sit on the floor if necessary.

  4. dfs3 says:

    More information about the memory requirements of different desktop environments:

    https://flexion.org/posts/2014-03-memory-consumption-of-linux-desktop-environments.html

    (hat-tip @mickfuzz)

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