Unfortunately, most of the off-the-shelf solutions to the problem are beyond what I need and way too expensive. So given that various friends had old hardware they were willing to donate to the cause, I decided to attempt to build another computer. Because this computer was to have a very specific purpose and didn't need to be particularly powerful, I could get away with skimping on a lot of things. But even with the parts my friends donated, I still needed to buy some stuff. The grand total I spent on this computer was about $80 and I had the system together in no time.
The computer is a 386 DX 40 with 8 megs of RAM, monochrone video, and a 400 meg hard drive. No color graphics. No sound card. No mouse. I added a network board and serial ports so that I could connect it to my local area network and to a modem to dial up the Internet. For those of you who have no clue what any of that stuff is, it's basically a computer powered by mostly 7-year-old technology. Windows 95 or Windows NT, more "modern" operating systems, will run on old systems like this, but Windows 95 and NT are very ill-suited to the task I built this computer for. Aside from the overhead these operating systems incur, I would need to purchase additional software to do what I expect of it and it would not give me nearly the same functionality that I got by choosing a different operating system.
There is one operating system out there that does what I want, runs at acceptable speeds, even on an old 386, does everything I need, and doesn't cost me a cent -- Linux. Linux is a "free" Unix-type opearting system originally written for Intel 386 CPUs or later. Sure, it supports most modern hardware, but a lot of older hardware is supported as well. It runs in a text-mode screen and does not require graphics of any sort. It also includes just about everything I need to make this computer do what I want. What is not included can easily be obtained free-of-charge.
The big thing that Linux has going for it, aside from the fact it's free, is support for a feature called "IP Masquerading." What this allows me to do is access the Internet from any computer on my LAN as if it were directly connected to the Internet. A request from my LAN is sent thru the machine on my LAN that is actually connected to the Internet. Those requests are then changed "mid stream" to look like they are coming from that machine so that when the requests are answered, they are directed back to that machine. The machine knows those requests originally came from a machine on the LAN, and they are passed back to that machine.
Another program, called Samba, basically makes my Linux computer look as if it were a Windows machine to my other Windows clients. I can set up my printer in such a way that I can use my existing Windows 95 software to access my printer and data on my Linux machine. This software is free and works very nicely.
Despite what the computer and software strores will tell you, just because your computer is "old" doesn't mean it's usefulness has run out. Obviously, my approach to solving my particular dilemma is not for everyone, and not all old hardware can be used in the way that I've used it. I am a demi-geek. I understand what a lot of computer hardware and software can and can not do. $80 has bought me a Windows-compatible file sever and print server. Not to mention a nice little router that lets all my machines access the Internet. And it runs on minimally upgraded 7-year-old technology. Not a bad deal, I say.
The Official Linux Homepage:
IP Masquerading Homepage (for Linux users):