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Desktop refresh cycles: How long is yours?

Playing leapfrog on the desktop

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Workshop Depending on the organisation you work in, the notion of ‘desktop refresh’ will have taken one of several forms. At one end of the spectrum, major ‘one-off’ upgrades can be the norm. The other end may involve nothing formal in the way of a modernisation program, relying more on individual employees making the case for a new desktop or laptop.

Somewhere in the middle, rolling desktop modernisation programs have been employed as a way of diluting the pain of a major ‘all hands’ upgrade. New kit can be rolled out on a departmental, line of business or workgroup basis, depending on how the business in question is structured operationally, technically and of course depending on the way in which IT budgets are handled. Naturally, another set of factors come into play if the size and type of the business in question is also considered.

The common factor between all the options has traditionally been that the replacement stuff was usually all the same. There would be a corporate standard to which desktops and laptops would conform, and if an employee wanted something outside the norm, they would have to make a personal case to justify going off-piste. The requirements of the user groups in question – either technically, geographically or role based – were not generally part of the decision-making mix.

The desktop refresh cycle itself may be lengthening: in years gone by, 2-3 years was set as the time between upgrades, whereas it is now 3-4 years. But while all signs indicate that you are better off having refresh plans in place before the bad stuff starts to hit the service desk, a number of recent events have indicated just how difficult it can be to get this right.

The first major event was the lukewarm reception to Windows Vista from the market in general. Many organisations decided to postpone their desktop refreshes, preferring to extend the working life of Windows XP (or older releases of Windows) with a view to leapfrogging Vista and opting for Windows 7 instead, when it became available. The economic downturn then further supported the argument for waiting. The downturn also brought ‘the rest’ of the organisations which decided to hold off on their modernisation plans because they simply had no choice from a resource and budget perspective.

Today however, we are seeing signs of recovery, and a certain rubber-band effect illustrated by general positivity towards Windows 7. But meanwhile things aren’t getting any simpler. For a start, a series of technologies which have been skirting the periphery of IT for some time are entering the mainstream. Some of them, including the introduction of virtualisation technology into the desktop realm (either via centralised control and delivery from the data centre or by employing virtual machines on desktop or portable devices) introduce the possibility of doing things quite differently to the traditional idea of following desktop refresh cycles.

Meanwhile, there is the fly in the ointment commonly referred to as ‘consumerisation’. Whether this is about users’ expectations changing due to the kit and interactions they have at home, or whether users are indeed bringing their own kit to work regardless, or just working on the home PC and not even bothering with the commute (with all the support issues that could bring), there’s a potential impact on desktop refresh efforts.

So here’s the question: from where you are sitting, has the combination of events had an impact on your desktop modernisation efforts? The ‘new choices’ might now be all the more apparent because you’ve been exposed to more of them while you were ‘waiting’ for normal service to resume. Well are they? Or have you rolled out new kit to your users, only to be sneered at and told it’s less powerful than their kids’ machines?

Most importantly, where’s it all taking us? One of the things we’d be very interested to learn from you in real IT land is whether the events of the last few years and the maturation of ‘more choice’ in how we approach desktop modernisation will have a lasting impact on desktop refresh strategy.

Whether you see this is all just an aberration brought on by a coincidental culmination of events, or a real sign the times are changing, we’d love to hear your views. ®

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