While PCs may have come down in price over the past few years, it doesn’t make the decision-making process for upgrading old equipment any easier, especially for budget-challenged SMBs. How do you know it’s really time to replace your PCs? Could you just add some RAM and get a few more years out of them?

While there’s no single solution to this dilemma, standardization is always better. Try to avoid using spot solutions as a migration path, because that means you have to support a diverse set of user configurations and manage fragmented replacement cycles, says Darin Stahl, lead research analyst with Info-Tech Research Group, of London, Ont.

Three choices

According to Stahl, there are three basic approaches to upgrading PCs: evergreening, cascading and overhauling. The first approach, evergreening, is based on a three- or four-year lifecycle, where three- or four-year-old PCs are replaced with new ones. The old PCs are decommissioned, donated, recycled or scrapped.

With the cascading approach, users are segmented into distinct groups based on software/hardware usage profiles. As the requirements of top-tier users increase, their PCs are upgraded and the old machines are cascaded down to the next group of power users. This makes sense for organizations with a wide variation between the requirements of different user groups.

Overhauling involves doing a complete revamp of all enterprise workstations based on a specific lifecycle. This works for enterprises that have cyclical cash flows and are forced into feast-or-famine budgeting, such as school boards.

To come up with a migration path for your organization, says Stahl, develop a view of your hardware and software. Identify what you’ve purchased, when depreciation stops and when your lease expires. Then determine how your computing requirements may vary among different user groups (try to create at a minimum three tiers and a maximum five tiers). Do a cost-benefit analysis to figure out what’s good enough versus what is actually hampering productivity.

Investigate volume discount

Even if you don’t qualify for volume discounts that larger enterprises enjoy, some vendors have programs in place for SMBs that help you take advantage of lower pricing. But it’s key to have some sort of consistency across the enterprise, and that will help you lower your total cost of ownership, says Phil Smith, product manager for commercial desktop solutions with HP Canada, of Mississauga, Ont. That’s more important than the initial cost of the product itself, since upwards of 80 per cent of the cost is actually in the management of the PC.

Ad hoc buying results in a lot of cost overhead on the back-end infrastructure, adds Eric Chong, national ThinkVantage IT architect with Raleigh, N.C.’s Lenovo. “[Organizations] usually have to test applications to make sure they work with a particular PC or environment,” he says. “If you don’t do that, there are support issues that may occur.”

As a best practice, try to maintain stability and standardization. Lenovo, for example, caters to that environment by offering PCs with a long lifecycle, so a year down the road you can buy that exact same PC for other users to maintain standardization.

Synchronize

Many organizations schedule their hardware upgrades to coincide with operating system migrations. With Windows Vista coming out in February, it’s a good time to put together a plan for your PC replacement cycle and decide when you want to adopt Vista. And you may want to consider more robust hardware configurations because of Vista’s ability to scale to the performance of the PC (either up or down), which is something we haven’t seen in a Windows environment before, says HP’s Smith.

With Vista, there is a premium in terms of hardware requirements, according to Eddie Chan, research analyst for mobile/personal computing and technology with IDC Canada. “With respect to an upgrade versus a net new purchase, we see that more as a net new purchase,” he says. “[But] it’s more evolutionary than revolutionary.” XP could suit your requirements for the time being, or maybe only top-tier users require early access to the new features that Vista provides.

Get thinner

There are a few other options to consider. Some organizations are delaying a refresh by upgrading users to a server hosted with virtual PCs, says Info-Tech’s Stahl. This means you can replace desktop hardware at your leisure with thin clients or terminal devices (devices without hard drives that rely heavily on the server for processing power). Then there are blades: You can virtualize your PCs and put them on server blades (self-contained computer servers, designed for high density), so the PCs “float” between several server blades. This means you can reuse and extend the life of your hardware.

But don’t be married to a specific PC refresh cycle, says Stahl, since PC hardware is improving and new operating systems are being released less frequently. If you can get more out of your existing equipment, it will save you money and a lot of unnecessary disruption.

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