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Knowing when it’s time to let go of an old computer

Are your computers acting their age? When is it time to pull the plug? Stu McGregor investigates how old is too old for your PCs.

I think I’ve gone off the idea that more computers equals better for students because in my experience it’s rarely attainable. Often trying to reach that goal requires keeping old hardware going for as long as possible just to provide more workstations.

Of course, it’s hard to throw out good stuff that works but determining an appropriate lifespan for the computer hardware in any organisation requires big picture thinking. I’m beginning to think the old adage “less is more” applies, and that two great machines provides for a better experience for students than five unreliable, sluggish and old ones.

If you’re not sure what’s old and what’s not, here are three things you should think seriously about.

Consideration 1: Hardware is not immortal

Computers can go on and on and on … but the fact is that computers deteriorate. Just because it is working doesn’t mean it will keep working. Hard drives fail. Bearings wear out. Cases get bumped. Dust builds up. Corrosion sets in. Static builds up. Chips overheat. Power supplies stop. And just because one particular computer of a particular model is still going, doesn’t mean the next machine will do likewise. I reckon that component-wise, desktops and laptops are on borrowed time after five years and servers three.

On top of this, the issue is compounded by the sheer number of machines in a school environment. For example, in a suite of 15 machines the failure rate after three years will increase dramatically. We assume computers will be quite reliable over a three-year period, however, the unreliability of the suite increases exponentially over time simply because the failure rate is compounded by a factor of 15.

The point is that the older machines start to cost money to keep. Is it worth the time and effort keeping machines alive? Finding the magic retiring age for a computer is difficult, but still important to factor into the ICT big picture.

Consideration 2: Computer specs date

Let’s put the hardware aside for a moment and assume that we can still put a seven-year-old computer in a classroom. The problem here is that they’re simply technologically dated. There will be some software that still works well on the older machines and if they’re limited to that software then things are fine. But try to do anything else (like using the Web) and often the machines simply can’t cope. RAM, processor speed and system software limitations mean that they can’t do things that the newer machines can do.

YouTube stutters so much that it’s unwatchable on my seven-year-old Mac. It just doesn’t have the grunt that the later versions of Adobe Flash demand. Not only that, but using Google Apps is sluggish, or any other java intensive website chugs slowly. As technology shifts and changes, old machines get left behind.

Furthermore, older computers can hold the newer ones back. For example, to run new software on a machine that’s nearly a decade old is often an exercise in futility. So to standardise software in a school workflow, the new machines need to have software limited to the lowest common denominator for when students work on their files on various computers.

Consideration 3:If you think it sucks, then it sucks!

Myths grow around the computers that develop a reputation for being unreliable. In my experience there’s only so many times that a computer can be repaired before they are deemed not worth the hassle.

If a computer is not being used, it’s useless. If something is seen to be unreliable it won’t get used. It is better to have two good machines in a classroom rather than twice as many that are unreliable. In fact, it’s still better to have two good machines rather than two good machines plus an unreliable one. Unreliable machines take up time resources (that teachers don’t have) and also build a negative culture. Poor machines inhibit the value of the good machines.

In some sense it could be said that a bad apple (excuse the pun) spoils the bunch. As an IT consultant I have to look at certain machines and simply say that I can never make it reliable, which means a decision needs to be made – and I err on the side of getting rid of it.

Possible ways forward

This issue is bigger than just schools, it’s like this in many businesses, too. Ultimately, I think that working out the optimum number of machines to fit in with your overall vision for ICT in the school is essential.

Each school makes their own minds up on this stuff as it’s so complex but one school I work at uses laptops only. There are 15 classrooms, each with four. They have three COWS of four laptops in each syndicate. They get optimum use out of their computers because the classes can book each other’s laptops to create an ICT lab of one computer per student for a morning. It’s an ICT lab that scales to the need.

Another school is thinking of augmenting this by using a lease basis. This means that until they change the vision for ICT, each class will have a minimum of two class laptops (in this case), plus the COW to create a class set for intensive ICT learning. None of the computers will be more than three years old. The budgets are set. The software is up to date and scaling with new technology. I like the idea, but would need to see it in action.

Computers have become an integral part of the school environment. They’re as necessary as the photocopier and phone system, and budgets need to reflect that. We need to find ways of saying goodbye to the idea that computers are purchased through trusts and fundraising. Use that money for stuff that doesn’t depreciate so rapidly.

In light of this, is there a case to be made for leasing? Leasing photocopiers is basically assumed as part of the budget for most schools. It’s a piece of equipment that’s worth anywhere between $20,000 and $50,000.

This means a fixed budget every year with replenishment every three years. It’s more expensive dollar wise, but then the total cost of ownership needs to be factored into the equation. Old machines will cost more money and time to maintain.

It’s such a complicated issue with so many factors to consider but I have to admit that my days of hoarding are over. Give me two machines that work reliably well rather than five that kinda work okay and I reckon students will gain much more from their experience.

Comments
wundabear   Posted: 18/11/2010 7:47 AM
I totally agree with your articel. It would be nice that governemnt funding of schools recognised these costs within the ops grant of schools so that schools did not have to hold on to old stock and could lease or purchase at their discretion and afford network service fees e.t.c
xylus   Posted: 17/11/2010 9:36 PM
Agree totally. We were offered free computers from a local business that was ‘retiring’ them…… Some wanted them in their rooms, boss said you can if you take total responsibility for installing and maintaining them, funny enough none were got.
Paul   Posted: 17/11/2010 7:52 PM
I completely agree with the article but see one scenario that can add some life to the aged tech fleet. It would, of course, have to be part of the bigger ICT picture but grouping the aged machines together can be of some value. I have in the past and plan to again, create a mini suite with the old machines, pack them full of the old software and allow them to be used until death do us part. It creates a level of computing suitable for emergent levels of school and in the long run, if the machines get a work over, then so be it. But old technology is definitely a challenging issue.
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