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Old PCs: When it's time to die

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Workshop Often, PCs are like old soldiers: they never seem to die. In many cases the old workhorses keep on going, so long as they are not touched and nothing major explodes or dies.

We know this from your comments and we see this in our research too. The upshot is that the lifespan of mainstream PCs, for users who are not too demanding, is five, six and even seven years.

By contrast, performance PCs are typically refreshed every three or four years. Even then they are often re-used as part of the pool of mainstream PCs.

It may seem good sense to keep PCs for as long as they are usable. But this strategy may be penny wise and pound foolish when taking into account the bigger picture of lost productivity, support costs, power consumption and security risks. How do we decide when enough is enough, and send old PCs to the Knackers' Yard?

One may assume that it is cheap to keep on running an old working PC. But time never stands still - the business evolves, demands change and newer technologies emerge. Meanwhile, the PC ages and slows down as it is loaded down with new or updated software.

Ageing security

Let's explore some of the issues in setting a PC refresh policy. We'll kick off with security - one of the most important, and often most overlooked, factors.

Many older PCs are running much the same software that they were initially configured with. Windows XP has been around since the turn of the century, but the age of some machines means they may run Windows 2000 or even variants of Windows 98 or NT. These lack many of the security improvements incorporated into modern operating systems and applications.

Old timers

Ageing PCs may also affect user satisfaction and productivity. This is often a tricky issue, as salaries are not paid by the IT department.

Employees often try to “work” around performance difficulties by doing other things while waiting, such as grabbing a cigarette during a lengthy boot-up or a coffee when an application goes into hour-glass mode.

Sometimes they may even do something useful: not all workers use their PC as the central element of their job, but for those who do, the performance of their PC can have a non-trivial impact on performance and efficiency. Always factor this into discussions with the business on budget and refresh plans.

Cost of support

New PCs are not particularly expensive to buy. Much of the cost of replacement is in the provisioning and roll-out, application licences and end-user training for new applications.

As PCs move out of maintenance, any issue that needs support or attention from IT will cost money, particularly if the support means downtime for the user or desk visits from support.

Issues can often mean more in cost terms than issuing a user with a new PC when a problem arises: it may be more effective to issue a user who encounters problems with a 'new' PC rather than attempting to fix what has gone wrong.

This is even more likely to be the case as desktop virtualisation solutions become more widely used across the business.

Estate management

Understanding the issues of PC lifecycle management is one thing. But few companies have a good handle on their PC, their specs, who is using them, what is running on them, and how much they cost in operations and support.

This information is complex to obtain and difficult to maintain, and we are told time and again that many businesses lack the tools needed to manage PC assets, software distribution and licensing.

Patchy insight can make it very difficult to justify a planned obsolescence and refresh strategy. The end result is that rules of thumb and gut instinct, rather than the real picture, determine the course of action.

Managing old PCs so that they fade away rather than soldier on is best accomplished by investing in modern and automated management tools, so that the real trouble spots are identified and dealt with before they have too great an effect on the users.

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