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The desktop lifecycle: How long is it anyway?

You wanna roll, or you wanna forklift

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Desktop Strategy It's a recession so do you look to squeeze an extra year out of the desktop. How and is it wise to do this? How long is the lifecycle anyway?

Once the desktop PC had successfully colonised the office, it became clear that they would need replacing regularly to keep up software and hardware developments. Hardware has become more of a problem today as end users now have computers at home which both raises expectations and can create compatibility issues with, for example, their USB-connected devices.

Desktop refresh cycles of around three to four years became the standard, often driven by the release of new version of Windows, and by the three-year desktop warranty and maintenance contracts.

But is all that about to change? Desktop refresh cycles have lengthened due to the recession and the sustained adoption of Windows XP. The advent of desktop virtualisation, and Windows 7, and a resurgence in the popularity of thin clients has added to this trend. But economic factors meant that a refresh was put on hold in many organisations in 2008 and 2009, when IT budgets were frozen at best, if not reduced as organisations moved to curtail spending not seen as absolutely essential for the continuance of the business.

Nonetheless, research shows that refreshing desktops on a three year cycle saves money. Research company Wipro points out in its white paper 'Optimizing PC refresh cycles to maximize business value' that delays in refreshing desktop PC can increase costs of ownership.

Issues such as parts failures, increased helpdesk calls and extended warranties add to expenditure, and a lack of compatibility with more recent versions of software can increase the time taken to perform core tasks. Where the hardware refresh is delayed, in addition to the extra direct financial burden, companies may find that older software results in greater security vulnerabilities and lower productivity.

Similar patterns are displayed, according to Wipro's research, when looking at mobile computers, or 'road warriors'. Roaming laptops - as opposed to those which mainly live in the office - are more expensive to support anyway with research showing that 20 percent of helpdesk calls occur when the machine is out of the office, the main reason being minor software deployment costs.

As you might expect, wear and tear is greater for roaming laptops than it is for office-bound desktops too, so it's probably cheaper overall to replace laptops after every two years rather than the standard three-year refresh cycle for desktops. The alternative is to bear the cost of increasingly lengthy hardware-related helpdesk calls. In mitigation of that extra cost, productivity increases if desktops are replaced by laptops, liberating employees from their desks so they can work wherever they are.

Finally a study by Intel and management consultants AT Kearney showed that, rather than replace desktops on a rolling basis, it actually costs less to refresh all of them at once. This is because the acquisition of a large number of identical machines is much lower due to economies of scale, and a homogeneous estate lowers maintenance, management and helpdesk costs. Costs overall were lower despite the increased cashflow cost of upgrading all PCs at once.

However all this may be moot when the deepest recession since the 1930s has sucked cash out of a huge number of businesses, and a large outlay of capital is problematic for political as much as financial reasons. The fact remains however that, if you've a large desktop estate, research shows lower costs for regular forklift upgrades than for any other method of maintaining the fleet. ®

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