Saturday, March 10, 2012

Greening the IT landscape with an eight year desktop replacement plan

At some point soon after being hired in my current position I was told that we had a five year desktop replacement schedule but basically it was a verbal agreement that was made at some point in the past between parties that were no longer involved in the process. While attempting to maintain that replacement schedule I was asked to justify it in order to obtain funding.  In the ensuing conversations it became clear that what the business needed was computers that function reliably allowing employees to be productive, not computers less than five years old.  Once I realized that I was not really going to be able to maintain a five year replacement schedule I decided to determine what replacement schedule would meet the business requirements while maintaining the highest possible quality of service.  I was presented with something that a friend of mine would call an "enabling constraint".  The denial of funding actually served as a catalyst to reevaluate the existing assumptions about hardware refresh cycles in my own mind as well as within the organization and the larger IT community.  Ultimately I created a plan for implementing an eight year PC lifecycle that I can manage, that the business can fund and that also has the added benefit of being more environmentally sustainable than a shorter hardware refresh cycle. 

I used the concepts of systems administration philosophy as a basis for creating a plan for an eight year replacement schedule and I will also need to follow them to successfully execute it.  This is how they are presented on the Red Hat website:  "document everything", "know your resources", "know your users", "know your business", "plan ahead" and "expect the unexpected".

Document Everything:

One of the tenets of Systems Administration philosophy is "document everything".  This applies as much to building a business case for making a purchase as it does for configuration change management.  Creating a document or actually a handful of documents that outlines your long term hardware replacement plan is essential to being able to follow through and stick to that schedule.  In addition to being necessary for managing short term processes, documenting everything is essential to creating long-term IT strategy in an organization.  The process of documentation should not only record the current process, it should also serve as a catalyst for thinking critically about the process being documented. 

Know your resources:

I have an inventory of PC's that is kept current by a centralized monitoring and management tool, so I know what hardware I have and can keep track of when it needs to be replaced or upgraded.  The limiting constraint will be knowing what financial resources I have at my disposal during a give time period and allocating them appropriately to meet the goals that are documented in the eight year plan.  Determining what to upgrade or replace and when will be determined by knowing my users and knowing my business.

Know your users and know your business:

In our business, like many, we are using computers for a variety of functions by a variety of people.  Some functions require more computing resources than others and people use their computers in different ways.  People that are content producers, like people in the marketing department that use their computers to edit graphics and photos, will require a computer with more resources than somebody that is primarily a content consumer, reading documents and using web-mail.  Scientists that are analyzing large data sets will require more resources than somebody doing word processing.  In our business I know that we have users and applications that fall everywhere along the spectrum.  Over time I can rotate new equipment into the positions where they are used for applications that will require more resources while the older equipment can be used where fewer resources are required.

Plan ahead:

Once the applications and required resources are documented, a replacement schedule can be created.  With the replacement schedule in hand a budget can be made, resource acquisition can be planned, and management buy-in can be sought.  Planning ahead will also allow for communication with the departments or individuals whose machines will be replaced in a given time frame.  Planning and scheduling the upgrades well in advance will allow for the changes to be managed  efficiently and for requirements and expectations to be managed effectively.  Planning changes well in advance makes the transitions easier for everyone involved from management and finance to IT staff and end-users.

Expect the Unexpected:

There will be hardware failures, this is just a fact of life.  All systems tend toward entropy and computers, no matter how well designed and well built, are not exempt from the laws of physics.  Hardware failures will happen and when they do spare machines will need to be available so that the business impact of the failure will be minimized.  Spare parts will also need to be kept on hand for some of the minor failures where a full computer replacement would be wasteful.

Additional considerations:

Another thing to consider when planning to keep hardware longer is maintenance.  Rather than simply moving the PC to a new user as-is at the 4 year mark, the computer can be given a tune up before being given to the next person with no down-time to end users.  The computer can be re-imaged to a clean basic configuration and additional RAM can be added at a relatively low cost if necessary.  With the right free and open source tools in place this can be accomplished with little additional expenditure of both financial and time resources.

Greening the IT landscape:

In addition to providing the business with a desktop replacement plan that meets the financial goals of the organization by reducing annual desktop replacement cost by 27%, this plan also contributes to resource conservation in a more global way.  By increasing the working life of each piece of equipment, fewer natural resources will need to be consumed over time to perform computing functions for the business.  Many hardware vendors have "green computing" marketing campaigns that advertise the energy efficiency of their new hardware, but not a single one of them advocates buying fewer computers and keeping them for longer periods of time as a way to decrease the environmental impact of IT infrastructure.  The total number of computers consumed in a given period can be reduced by 36% by increasing the planned hardware refresh interval from 5 years to 8 years.  This change is not only good for the business' bottom line, but for the environment as well.

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