When is the right time to refresh your computer fleet?

Stanford University’s IT department has a minimum standard for what computers can do. For teaching staff, the standard is that the computer can handle having at least four applications open at the same time. And the university expects to replace computers every three to four years.

It’s just one example, but it’s a good one because Stanford’s policies are a reminder that the hardware refresh cycle is all about making sure you’ve asked the right questions.

There will always be disagreement about the answers, of course. For instance, Intel sponsored a paper in 2014 called Replacing Enterprise PCs: The Fallacy of the 3-4 Year Upgrade Cycle. It argues that the refresh cycle should actually be every two years. This wasn’t a surprising finding coming from Intel, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth asking smart questions and testing your assumptions.

Asking the right questions . . .

What’s a computer supposed to do?

Have you gone beyond the question of the raw cost of upgrading and asked, as Stanford has, exactly what your computers should be able to do? Many knowledge workers would expect to be running far more than four applications simultaneously. Are your workers among them?

Having an answer to the question gives you further support for the refresh cycle you’ve chosen.

What is the productivity cost of not refreshing?

A slower refresh cycle saves money, but have you compared that to the cost of employees waiting for applications to load or function?

Intel found that a faster refresh cycle brought an average productivity improvement of 9.7% over a range of tasks. You don’t have to rely on Intel’s numbers; you can do your own analysis.

Looking at productivity and refresh costs together will give you additional confidence in your decision, whatever it is.

When do support costs peak?

Just like the rest of us, computers cost more to support in their declining years. It’s not just the hardware starting to fail, but also the burden of maintaining multiple versions of operating systems and software.

It’s inevitable that you have to refresh your computers at some point. It isn’t inevitable that you have to spend a fortune keeping updated computers limping toward the end of a too-long life. Again, the trick is to look at the numbers and find the sweet spot between the two expenses.

Good enough is good enough

The costs of a faster refresh cycle can potentially be offset by not having to buy high-end machines every time. The further into the future you expect your hardware to last, the higher the specs you need today. Equipment that will be replaced sooner doesn’t necessarily need to be as future-proof, and future-proof is often expensive.