Desktop upgrades

Many of the desktop PCs upgraded to meet Y2K's demands are close to their use-by date; some may even be passed it and wearing bandaid solutions to eke out their days. Rodney Gedda looks at the market.

Rather than throw more resources at fading assets, enterprises coming to the end of the over-hyped Y2K desktop upgrade cycle this year bite the budget, upgrade now to both alleviate maintenance issues and establish a potentially longer refresh cycle.

Transport company Mainfreight’s special projects manager Wayne Harris advises IT managers to “replace anyway”.

“But do it with the view that there is every likelihood you will be able to stretch an extra year or two productive life out of the machines you will be buying,” Harris said. “If you are leasing then this is a moot point, as it is just part of your standard overhead to your business – regardless of whether you replace or not.”

Harris, who presides over about 600 client machines consisting of some 500 desktops and 100 notebooks, said now, for possibly the first time, even base model PCs offer far more processing power and storage capacity than 90 percent of users are ever likely to need.

“Up until recently, the hardware has not kept pace with the development of newer (or better) software. User demand for the software has meant needing to upgrade machines to keep pace,” he said.

“Accordingly, it will be interesting to see what happens when these current 2GHz machines come to the end of their three-year lifecycles. Although they will be well out of date compared to whatever is available then, they are still quite likely to be more than adequate for most users.

"This may spark a change in attitude towards how long the enterprise should keep them.”

On average, Harris estimates that about 20 percent of IT budgets is sunk into desktop upgrades when they occur.

“Maintenance and repairs are also less of an issue than they have been as spare parts are cheap, and usually easy to install on most new machines,” he said.

“The components themselves are also becoming more reliable, meaning less need to open the case at all.”

As for ways to prolong the life of desktops without forklift upgrades Harris said up until recently a it had been a “tentative no”.

“The current batch of three-year-plus machines simply do not have the grunt that we take for granted these days,” he said.

“Even if they are rebuilt with Windows 98, 2000 or XP, they still lag behind newer versions in their capabilities.

When the current crop of PCs are up for replacement, I think that a good case can be made for simply rebuilding them to clean out three years of accumulated rubbish, and then rolling them out again.

"There is [currently] no reason why we cannot continue to use them until the software itself is no longer supported.”

When asked about replacing desktops with thin clients or notebooks given the opportunity during a refresh cycle, Harris said as notebooks become cheaper there is certainly the push to roll them out further into the business.

“However, unless there is a real need for a user to have one, I would still be reluctant to pass them out. Three cons with notebooks are the ease with which they can be stolen, the inherent increased security concerns with machines that by necessity often have direct access to the outside world, and they are more likely to suffer physical damage which often makes them uneconomic to repair,” he said.

“I personally see no benefit in moving to thin client devices at all. My feeling is that you swap one type of support cost for another, as you then need to obtain the specialist skills necessary to keep them operating efficiently.

"Essentially though, it comes down to how you choose to interpret the [supposedly] amazing benefit ratios that are touted by the suppliers of these devices, and also what type of applications you need to run over them.”

Although refreshing a desktop fleet is a fact of life for any IT department, the costs of “ageing” PCs should not be overlooked, according to Dell Australia and New Zealand’s corporate desktop business development manager, Frank Luburic.

“Having old PCs can increase the cost of the fleet in terms of security, management and performance,” Luburic said.

“Also, a lot of customers don’t look at how relevant today’s entry-level PCs will be in three year's time.”

Luburic said choosing under-performing PCs during a purchasing cycle can result in additional upgrades at even greater expense.

“Less RAM in a new PC may result in an upgrade later involving services, downtime, support, and security costs,” he said.

To ease the pain of upgrade cycles, Luburic recommends IT departments have the right management tools in place, which also minimise the cost of deployment.

“Ensure you have the infrastructure for remote management,” he said. “This allows BIOS updates and images to be deployed over the network.”

Luburic said despite all the “talk” about going mobile, the desktop’s value proposition remains strong and is growing again.

“Mobile adoption won’t be as dramatic as we thought as it doesn’t always justify the cost,” he said.

IBM Australia and New Zealand’s desktop brand manager, Kevin Yap, said the biggest TCO message the company has for customers regarding desktop upgrades is to work to reduce the high cost of “end user operations”.

“From our surveys the two biggest support costs involve password resets and the associated down time, and the PC not being functional,” Yap said.

In the event of a virus attack, it is estimated to take 24 hours for a PC to be re-imaged, he said.

Yap cited figures from Gartner that have the cost of end user operations at more than 48 percent of personal computing, while the hardware and software costs are just under 19 percent.

For this reason Yap encourages end user companies to “think outside the box” and consider the manageability and security costs.

“Image management is also a big issue [during upgrades],” Yap said. “With Microsoft releasing a new operating system, and Intel releasing new chipsets, work is being done to reduce the number of images required.”

Yap said the market seems to be trying to extend the typical three-year upgrade cycle with the result that there is increasing interest in upgrades this year - some four years after the Y2K refresh.

“Tough notebooks also [help] TCO, as does tool-less entry into the PC which reduces support costs,” he said.

Upgrading your PCs to notebooks

Although once languishing well below the performance and feature set of desktops, notebooks today provide a compelling reason to ditch the desktop PC altogether during the next refresh, according to Toshiba Australia’s product marketing manager Judi Liddiard.

“For a few years there was a difference in performance but now it’s an even keel,” Liddiard said.

“Notebooks are much more productive as you can take work with you, either in meetings, while travelling, or at home.”

Liddiard said such is the paradigm shift towards mobile computing that by the beginning of next year close to 50 percent of client computers will be notebooks.

Toshiba is a pure notebook vendor and its employees have no desktop PCs.

“We are not missing out on anything [by not having desktops] but are gaining productivity,” Liddiard said. “A notebook can do everything a PC can do only better.”

Liddiard said that although notebooks won’t free IT departments from PC-style upgrade cycles, their portability and management make the process a lot easier.

“Toshiba’s ConfigFree allows IT managers to push updates to everything on the network so there is no difference in management,” she said. “Wireless networks also keep infrastructure costs down and allow massively increased productivity.”

CRT or LCD?

IT departments faced with desktop upgrades should consider more expensive LCD monitors over traditional CRT monitors for better manageability and a lower TCO, according to Philips Consumer Electronics’ multimedia displays product manager, Lisa Coggan.

Coggan said the higher upfront cost of LCDs will be negated by:

  • About two-thirds of CRT power consumption

  • Less heat generation therefore less strain on air conditioning

  • Less office desk real estate required

  • A screen that doesn’t flicker as much, reducing employee eye strain

  • A monitor that is lighter and easier to transport

  • Easy integration with asset management systems to prevent theft

Overall, an ROI of less than 12 months is not impossible when purchasing LCD monitors, Coggan said.

“Generally monitors go with PCs [purchases] but now more enterprises are asking for them to be separated because there is more clarity with split costing,” she said.

Replacing desktops with thin clients

Desktops may be ubiquitous but they are not the only answer for enterprise office workers, particularly where management and security are paramount, according to Sun Australia and New Zealand’s software business manager Laurie Wong.

Wong, who oversees Sun’s thin client and desktop software offerings, said thin clients offer “freedom of choice to move from legacy”.

“If your company is really stuck with desktops it is stuck with the [associated] cost and security issues,” Wong said. “The security of stateless thin clients is good because no sensitive information is kept on the device.”

Wong cited the Department of Defence’s recent stolen notebook saga as a good reason not to let sensitive information out of the corporate perimeter.

“Sun Ray thin clients also support multi-factor authentication as passwords are not sufficiently strong,” he said. “Also, with thin clients you patch in one central place.”

Wong said the key to reducing costs with thin clients is as much about applications as it is about policies.

“With thin clients you can better enforce policy frameworks behind availability of services, and the data and applications,” he said. “And although thin clients consume about one-tenth of the power of desktops, which is an important by-product, companies won’t switch to thin clients on power [considerations] alone.”

When asked what needs to be considered when migrating to thin clients, Wong said there are three key factors which need to be addressed.

“The technology pieces – which are well understood, the people side – as some employees believe the desktop is theirs, and the business process change,” he said.

Regarding the dreaded “three-year upgrade cycle” faced by enterprises, Wong said the two factors driving this are three year PC warranties and Microsoft’s operating system and office suite upgrades that require a more powerful PC.

“Thin clients are like a TV and you don’t change a TV every three years,” he said. “Sun Rays are warranted for five years and the acquisition cost is about the same as a PC.”

Wong also said that Sun’s Linux-based Java Desktop System (JDS) allows enterprises to prolong the life of their PCs so long as the hardware maintenance costs don’t get too high.

“Customers can use JDS without upgrading hardware and it is a different cost cycle compared with the treadmill,” he said.

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