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When To Upgrade PCs: 4 Tips For A Smart IT Strategy

Figuring out a corporate-wide PC upgrade timetable has never been easy for enterprise IT managers. These days, cloud-based applications and evolving Bring Your Own Device policies are among the factors complicating your decision-making process. Here are four tips to help you determine the best PC refresh strategy for your enterprise users.

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Figuring out a corporate-wide PC upgrade timetable has never been easy for enterprise IT managers. Ideally, the sweet spot for an upgrade is right before employee output begins to suffer due to slow, unreliable, or incapable hardware. Easy to say, not so easy to do.

Employee duties vary widely from user to user -- and from one department to the next. If you're in charge of determining PC-refresh timelines, you probably have your power users identified, and you're likely using a fixed rotation schedule. In my experience working with IT professionals, a fixed upgrade schedule is no longer the best PC replacement method. Cloud computing and Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies are among the factors changing user behavior, and directly impacting how you approach your PC upgrade strategy.

These days, your PC fleet should be evaluated annually, and upgrades should be budgeted based on these four key factors:

1. OS Upgrade Strategy

Over the past few years, I've noted that the primary reason why many IT departments were replacing employee PCs was to coincide with a major Operating System upgrades. For example, moving from Microsoft Windows XP to Windows 7 by replacing not only the OS, but also the hardware, was seen as the path of least resistance to get end-user buy-in. The same can also be said if your enterprise is ready for the transition from Windows 7 to Windows 10.

[What you need to know about USB Type-C. Read USB Type-C: Not All Cables Are Created Equal.]

By and large, a clean installation of a new OS is a better option than an in-place upgrade, which can have adverse and unpredictable effects.

2. Quality of Current Hardware

If your users aren't running into frequent hardware problems, it's easy to justify holding off on purchasing new PCs. But if you find your IT team is struggling to keep end-user PCs running properly, you have to consider new gear. To figure out what's right for your organization and your users, you need information about what's happening throughout your PC fleet.

A robust service desk ticketing system that tracks various hardware failures -- and the amount of time spent working with each end-user to resolve hardware-related issues -- is essential for figuring out the total expense of maintaining PCs that are past their shelf life.

(Image: alphaspirit/iStockphoto)

(Image: alphaspirit/iStockphoto)

It's also important to measure lost productivity every time users have PC problems and can't perform their work.

These analytics -- generated using IT support software Gartner Research calls IT service support management (ITSSM) tools -- are invaluable when performing a simple cost/benefit analysis. After crunching some numbers, you might be surprised to find a full replacement of employee PCs is far less expensive in the long run than constantly patching up older PCs that have been proven unreliable in the field.

3. New Hardware Features

In years past, many peripherals -- including printers, scanners, plotters, and other devices -- were constantly changing input types with little to no backward compatibility. These presented a key reason to upgrade your users' PCs.

These days, many printers, scanners, plotters, and other devices are network connected, rendering moot any concerns over input types.

Still, standards are changing, and there are legitimate reasons why users must upgrade to new hardware in order to take advantage of the latest PC input/output ports. For example, the USB 3.1 standard offers users faster data transfer speeds and increased power-over-USB compared to previous versions. Additionally, the USB 3.1 standard introduces a Type-C interface which changes the physical plug connectors for many newer peripherals.

4. Legacy Applications, Mobile Apps, and the Cloud

Application upgrades that run locally on PC hardware also influence whether or not you should upgrade PC hardware for your end-users. If an application upgrade requires a significant boost in memory, processing, or graphics power, it may be the primary factor in deciding to upgrade this year.

Keep in mind, however, that enterprise applications are increasingly performing complex computing operations on backend servers. Many organizations are also making use of cloud-based software-as-a-service applications that require minimal computing power for end-users.

Depending on your application portfolio, you might be able to squeeze another year out of your currently deployed PCs.

It's equally important to monitor user behavior, to see if their PC usage is changing over time. Smartphone and tablet use through progressive BYOD policies within many organizations are pushing users away from the PC and onto mobile devices. Additionally, applications themselves are being reworked so that they can operate on lower-performance mobile devices. In many cases, the only option for PC users is to access applications using a Web front-end that requires very few computing resources.

The corporate-issued PC is becoming nothing more than a simple keyboard, mouse, and monitor portal, which connects to backend servers that handle the bulk of the processing power. That's why we see companies waiting for a catalyst event -- such as a major OS upgrade -- in order to justify new hardware.

Some enterprise IT professionals I've worked with also question the need for company-issued PCs in the first place. As it did with company-issued smartphones, BYOD may soon render corporate issued PCs a thing of the past. For now, be strategic about your upgrades, and only purchase when the timing is right.

What's your PC-refresh strategy? Is it driven by a major OS upgrade? Are you analyzing user behavior and helpdesk support metrics to determine upgrades on a user-by-user basis? What challenges do you face in figuring out when to upgrade? Tell us about it in the comments section below.

Andrew has well over a decade of enterprise networking under his belt through his consulting practice, which specializes in enterprise network architectures and datacenter build-outs and prior experience at organizations such as State Farm Insurance, United Airlines and the ... View Full Bio
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User Rank: Apprentice
7/20/2018 | 7:46:39 AM
Pending Review
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User Rank: Apprentice
2/11/2016 | 6:44:43 PM
Potential Tip #5: Investigate in-place vs wipe-and-load for SECURITY
Great article.
I would add that companies need to include investigation on the pros and cons of in-place vs. wipe-and-load migration process. A widely advertised feature of Windows 10 migration is the ability for companies to do in-place migrations.  But... an in-place migration may not allow you to take full advantage of the new Windows 10 security features, like Secure Boot, Device Guard and Credential Guard, which are built in to give enterprises added defense against malware. PCs need to be running UEFI in order to take advantage of these features and PCs that are currently running Windows 7 are likely configured for BIOS (and not UEFI). 

Thanks for the article and happy migrations.

Buffi Neal
Director of Strategic Planning, 1E
Read more about 1E Automated Windows 10 Migration @ 1e.com
User Rank: Ninja
1/31/2016 | 10:58:31 PM
Upgrades at glacier pace
This is a great list. I'm glad I'm not part of the group determining upgrade schedules (or unschedules)! There are so many options. It's good to know where to focus first since departmental needs vary widely. 
User Rank: Ninja
1/15/2016 | 1:06:00 PM
Re: Good Stuff
Duh. Sorry Andrew. I saw ad with Curtis's picture above story, mislead me to think he wrote this. I thought this was out of his normal domain. :-)
User Rank: Ninja
1/15/2016 | 1:01:16 PM
Good Stuff
You nailed it, Curtis. Our Corp leader established this ridicuously old school strategy of replacing desktops every 4 years and laptops every 3 years based simply on (industry produced) probability curves of when the mean failure rate begins to increase. His logic was that you minimize cost thru reduced downtime for end user by having sudden failures, then having to respond.

But his assumptions were faulty:

1) He assumed you would lease, so you just give back old and get new one. Reality is leasing was too expensive and unnecessary for many of smaller biz units.

2) So without leasing, and implementing this 3/4 year strategy, you owned many spare devices which had nothing wrong with them. So you had plenty of spares, with the enterprise software already installed, ready to deploy in a New York minute if unexpected failure.

3) Since he didn't envision spares existing, he did his downtime cost calculation based on the 1-2 week replacement time for new hardware. No one is leaving a key user without a computer for a week. You'd take one from conf room before you would do that. If user can last 1-2 weeks without computer, I'd question whether you really need that user.

So for me personally, everything you say above is exactly what we consider. It summarizes to: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Obviously the scale of your company comes into play, you don't want 25 spare computers. But 5 computers can be spares for 100 users, the probabilities of having that many simultaneous failures is miniscule.
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