The PC Replacement Decision - InformationWeek
Hardware & Infrastructure
04:50 PM
Darrell Dunn
Darrell Dunn

The PC Replacement Decision

More companies are replacing all their PCs at once, rather than in staggered cycles; benefits include reduced maintenance costs

It's inevitable. Those sparkling, high-performance PCs you purchased to help run your business more efficiently a few years ago have become less productive and must be replaced with new systems providing the latest in technology advancements. The question for CIOs and system administrators is how much of their aging PC inventories should be replaced in any given cycle.

According to a recent survey that research firm Gartner conducted with 177 large businesses, the average life span of a desktop PC is 43 months, and only 36 months for mobile PCs. More than a third of respondents said the main reason for replacement of PCs is to improve user productivity, while more than a quarter cited escalating support costs with older machines. More than 20% said new software requirements led to the need for new computing systems.

Traditionally, many businesses have employed a strategy of replacing their PC inventories in staggered, one-third-per-year increments over a three-year cycle. In fact, the Gartner survey found that businesses often redeploy, or "cascade," about a third of all used PCs to other employees. More recently, large companies have moved to a policy of replacing their entire PC inventories once every two to three years, but some small and midsize business still regard that practice as cost-prohibitive.

"The reason many companies have used the one-third replacement model has been to spread the cost out over the lifetime of the computers," says Doug Hafford, VP of consulting services and co-founder of technology integrator Afinety Inc. "Unfortunately, what they're doing is robbing Peter to pay Paul. They're focusing on the cost of the hardware and software, which is really focusing on the wrong thing."

chart -- Reasons For Replacements: What's the main reason your company has replaced its PC's?The cost of PCs and associated software remains relatively stable from one year to the next, allowing businesses to build a consistent understanding of their infrastructure costs. Leasing programs also let businesses extend the cost of a replacement cycle over the lifetime of the equipment. While the cost of equipment and software remains constant whether a company uses a staggered replacement cycle or a single enterprisewide deployment, the maintenance costs associated with a staggered cycle can be 30% to 45% greater than a single-cycle approach, Hafford says.

When companies upgrade only portions of their PC inventories over a multiyear schedule, they often end up with workforces that are using multiple and inconsistent computing platforms, operating systems, and applications, Hafford says. Maintenance costs begin to skyrocket as technology staffs attempt to work with a variety of systems and software. When a company wants to deploy a new software application, technicians often will be forced to install it individually across the varying platforms, rather than completing a single systemwide deployment that's much more achievable if all systems are consistent.

By more consistently managing its total PC network, a company doesn't run into as many surprises and can avoid spikes in IT budgets, says Christina Garcia, technical training manager and computer application specialist at law firm Brown, Winfield & Canzoneri Inc. A staggered replacement cycle "makes about as much sense as replacing the tires on your car one at a time," Garcia says. "The different tires aren't going to perform the same. The tread wear is going to be different, and they're each going to handle differently. You need to buy all four tires at the same time."

Garcia learned the hard way how difficult it can be to manage a PC inventory and associated applications that are built up over a period of years. Her law firm provides legal input on real-estate transactions and has about 80 lawyers on staff. The lawyers used desktop computers that had been purchased and installed over a five-year period. "What we ended up with was a patch-quilt inventory, which brought no end to problems as far as support," she says.

These problems were compounded as the company combined old and new servers. "It was nothing short of a nightmare," Garcia says. "We were having increasing problems with document saving, software freezing, and it was affecting the productivity of the firm."

Last summer Brown, Winfield & Canzoneri decided to upgrade its server infrastructure and, after much debate, brought in Afinety to perform a companywide upgrade of its PC inventory. By October, the integrator had completed the installation of 80 Hewlett-Packard desktop PCs and four laptop systems.

Time dedicated to scheduled maintenance is now around 15 minutes a day, Garcia says, affording her the flexibility to create training sessions for the firm's attorneys. "That's really the other half of the equation that's improving our overall performance," she says. "You can have all the best and latest equipment and software, but if users don't understand how to use it, they'd be just as well off with an Etch A Sketch."

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