Gulp! PC replacements a bitter pill you must swallow

You wouldn't run your car until the tires blow out, would you? So why would you run a PC until it melts down? Like a car, preventative maintenance is key. Unlike a car, preventative maintenance for a PC means a replacement.

Age discrimination is hardly politically correct. But when it comes to PCs, ageism can be an essential prejudice.

A company on a tight budget might see PC replacements as something that's easily put off. But executives with an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" attitude could be trusting precious data to machines that can't handle the workload anymore.

Today's PCs just aren't built to last forever, said Rob Enderle, of the analysis firm Enderle Group, in San Jose, Calif. Manufacturers make components to last as long as their warranty periods -- about four years. The "no man's land" of the expired warranty period is not a place you want to be, Enderle said.

"You should never keep it longer than [the] manufacturer will cover it. If they're not willing to take on risk, you shouldn't either," he said. "As these products have gone down in price, the quality of components has gone down as well. It's not in [a manufacturer's] best interests to build stuff that lasts forever."

"Years ago ... we did run them to death," said Roscoe Wasko, CIO of Rent-A-Center Inc.

"These days it's almost cheaper to replace than repair a PC when something goes wrong."

Enderle agrees. "Preventative maintenance is replacement," he said, adding that it's especially important to replace old laptops because if they go out, there's no easy way to get them back up -- especially if the people using them are traveling.

Enderle recommends that desktops be replaced every three to four years. Laptops every two to three years, he said, and neither should be put in a mission-critical position beyond their warranty periods.

Otherwise, "it's like playing Russian roulette," Enderle said. "The cost of a new machine is trivial compared to the cost of a breakdown."

If predictions from Gartner Inc. are any indication, many firms understand that the time to upgrade is nigh. The Stamford-Conn.-based firm predicts that global PC shipments will increase more than 13% in each quarter of this year compared to last year. Analysts also think that the strongest growth in North America will be in the second half of 2004, as decision makers gain confidence in the economy.

Richard Rognehaugh, CIO for the state of Tennessee, expects to replace nearly 5,000 PCs this year on the state's network. In an effort he calls "No PC left behind," a play on President Bush's "No child left behind" law, Rognehaugh has asked various state agencies to identify their weakest IT links, such as PCs that don't have the bandwidth to receive a security patch. The goal is to replace everything that's holding those agencies back by June 30.

"We have to lay a foundation for the weakest links in our core operating systems," he said, "knowing that these are not one-time fixes but [repairs that must be made] on an ongoing basis -- [otherwise] these weak links will disrupt the most beneficial and efficient deployment of IT strategies."

Rognehaugh also pointed out that upgraded desktops and laptops will prepare state workers for coming IT attractions, like Pocket PCs.

Luckily for him, his boss, Gov. Phil Bredesen, has an extensive IT background and didn't have to be sold on the idea, despite the state's tight budget. "I think there came a point [where] we couldn't slide much longer," Rognehaugh said. Bredesen has said he wants four years, at most, between PC-refresh cycles and three years for laptops.

While Tennessee looks to put a "skinny chicken in every pot," as Rognehaugh stated half-jokingly, Rent-A-Center's Wasko is thinking even thinner. Thin clients are a hefty part of the PC-replacement cycle at the Plano, Texas-based firm.

"We're rolling thin client technology out into the field," Wasko said -- the field being more than 2,500 stores in 50 states. "They're recycled every four to five years, and we can manage 9,000 of them from here."

The thin clients come with flash cards -- if something major happens, IT just tweaks the cards. It's much easier than having a store pack up a PC and send it to the home office if something goes wrong, Wasko said.

At the home office in Plano, where some 300 employees are based, the PC-replacement cycle is three years. Wasko said that the company recycles about one-third of its machines every year and staggers the replacements so that they don't end up replacing several hundred computers annually.

"The idea is to match need to speed," said Scott McIntyre, CIO of storage firm Quantum Corp. "We do let PCs run past their warranty -- we'll definitely hang on. But if it's [for] an engineer, no way."

McIntyre said that engineers on hot new projects will get the PCs they need. Otherwise, a mission-critical PC runs about three years. More seasoned machines sometimes end up on a test line and crank through a few tests every hour.

Wasko, Rognehaugh and McIntyre seem to be moving right along with their replacements. But other CIOs may need some help putting old PCs out to pasture. Enderle said that those folks need to understand the importance of replacing machines before they go down.

"You don't get to pick the moment, and the hardware has gotten so inexpensive [that] the cost of an outage is substantially greater than the cost of hardware," he said. "You've got to weigh potential lost revenue versus potential lost business."

Peter Kastner, an analyst with Boston-based Aberdeen Group, wrote earlier this year that his own firm didn't like the idea of coughing up cash in a down economy to upgrade its PCs. But in the end, Aberdeen decided that it couldn't afford the trouble of a disruption. "Tough medicine," he wrote, "but common sense."

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