For the past few years, I have slowly discovered a great amount of Free and Open-Source Software (FOSS) that can compete with and replace expensive corporately created closed-source products. Recently, I have made the decision to take this theoretical knowledge and put it into practical use. In this series of "Zero-Cost" articles I will go over the trials and tribulations of setting up a larger, corporate style network using FOSS and donation-worthy hardware.

First off, let me clarify and define "Zero-Cost". Zero-Cost does not necessarily mean free, it means zero costs out-of-pocket. This includes hardware, software, setup, and usage. This website is a perfect example, and I will go over the full details in another article. Using old, end-of-life, donation worthy hardware, Free and Open-Source software, I am hosting this website for no money out-of-pocket. I will go over this setup, as well as others that I set up in this Zero-Cost out of pocket.

Like any setup, this has its advantages and disadvantages, and I will discuss them as they arise. As I go along and come across other pros/cons, I will keep this list updated, and post the edit dates when they are made.

Advantages Disadvantages
Free Hardware No Service or Uptime Guarantees
Free Software End of Life Hardware

Defective or "Sketchy" Hardware

Support Support

Advantages:

  • Free Hardware

This can be done with Donation-Grade/Worthy hardware. Personally, I am using some old personal desktops that have long since ended their usefulness. So this is roughly "free" for me. That being said, there are some components that have been pulled out of other, old donated computers. If it operates just fine, then I feel no personal need to throw it away. In fact, if it operates, I feel a personal responsibility to keep it out of the trash bin and help reduce waste overall. Depending on your ultimate end-goal, you may want to fork out a bit of cash here. For example: while a particular hard drive may work for now, it is inevitably going to die, and since it is donation hardware, this date is likely sooner rather than later; you may want to purchase a new hard drive if you are worried about data.

  • Free Software

This is the other key component I am working on, keeping the software free. For the most part, this is one of the biggest areas of savings with my Proof of Concept. I have seen companies save thousands and thousands of dollars by switching to FOSS. A perfect (quick) example of these savings can be seen comparing LibreOffice with Microsoft Office 360. While Microsoft has different pricing options, the cheapest will set you back $70 for the year. And you only have access to it for that 1 year, for 1 single person/PC. LibreOffice on the other hand, is 100% free, and has all the features and abilities of Office 360.

  • Support

Yes, you saw correct, Support is indeed listed as both an Advantage and Disadvantage. Most FOSS support is community-driven, meaning that the users and developers all help each other through the use of forums and mailing lists. It is an advantage in the fact that this can create a very large community with a wealth of knowledge ready to help. And they WILL help you work to accomplish out-of-the-box type projects, create and work on otherwise non-officially "supported" configurations, and just about anything you could possibly want. This differs from most corporate-style "support" where they help ensure that the product operates as they intend it to. They typically will not help with any kind of "unsupported" kind of configurations.

Disadvantages:

  • No Service or Uptime Guarantees

When you pay for a hosting service, most of them offer some kind of service or uptime guarantee. This means that your website/server/device will be accessible 99.999% of the time (or whatever the guarantee is). And when they fail to meet that guarantee, there are usually penalties (to the provider) of some kind. With my Zero-Cost approach, there is no such guarantee. In my personaly setup, I have this website hosted on an old PC in my basement. If/when the power goes out, my website goes down too. Granted, for some high-level, high volume eCommerce sites this may be undesirable, but for some small, non-profit or community organizations, this may be acceptable. For me, if the power goes out, there's no way for me to access my site anyways, so it's ok for me.

  • End of Life Hardware

As mentioned in the Advatages, we are dealing with a lot of Donation-Grade/Worthy hardware. Rare are the times I have seen something donated while it still had some kind of support tied to it. 99.99% of the time, the hardware being donated is either recently end of life, or long since end of life. Either way, the hardware is no longer supported, so when it dies, it's dead, no replacements. Again, a large eCommerce site will likely find this to be completely unacceptable. But organizations with a really tight budget... This may be acceptable.

  • Defective or "Sketchy" Hardware

This is probably my biggest hurdle when dealing with Donation hardware. Most of the time, the known-dead hardware ends up in the donation bin along with the still operational hardware. Sorting through this can sometimes be a pain, especially when the hardware is mostly defective stuff. The worst though, is the "sketchy" hardware. This is the hardware that sometimes works, sometimes doesn't, and the original owners have given up working with it. A fine example is a NIC card I came across recently. It works fine, but seems to lose the connection at random, until I unplug and replug the network cable. I could go on for ever on the troubleshooting that I myself have done on that card, but that is my final conclusion. To be honest, I would have tossed this to the donation bin myself.

  • Support

Now for the downside of community driven support... First off, if it is a small project with a small community, it makes for a much smaller knowledge base in support. This can also cause very long delays in getting help for any kind of problem. Unlike commercial support, where there's a number to call and you KNOW (for the most part) that someone's going to be there for help (commercial support horror stories aside). Though I find that community-driven support is usually done by people who WANT to be there and WANT to help, unlike some support guys who are there because it's a job that is paying the bills... This usually leads to better, more direct help, rather than being jerked around by some guy who just wants to close a case or get you off the phone.

Some people will look at these disadvantages and pale, and for large eCommerce sites, or sites that have an absolute need to be available 100% of the time, they are unacceptable. But there are a lot of crash-strapped organizations and individuals who need to work with that Zero-Cost, and this is the perfect solution. Through the effective use of donated hardware and FOSS, you can obtain corporate styled results for little to no cost out of pocket.