Smart Hardware Maintenance Strategies

In the interest of saving money, a client recently had me review their computer assets — or to put that in English, I poked around in their stockroom looking for idle equipment that could be recycled. The hazardous waste pile of Pentium 90s, HP LaserWriter IIs, Wyse terminals, and other antiques from the dawn of the computer era is growing daily. So far, I have been able to salvage one forgotten rack-mountable server, a couple of CRTs and put together one good desktop from three broken systems.

Was this exercise ultimately worth the time and effort?

Probably not.

Admit it, if your business is typical, you have a pile of dead and/or antique computer hardware lurking somewhere in your office. Somehow, you think the HP LaserWriter I with the broken paper tray will magically repair itself, or that old 386 with a 100MB hard drive will possibly be useful at some unspecified future time.

Is there a better way to manage your computer hardware so that you don’t spend money on needless upgrades, or waste money maintaining equipment long past it expiration date?

You can reduce your overall hardware maintenance costs while maintaining your computer systems at peak efficiency, by using a combination of outsourcing repairs and maintaining a select stock of specific parts to cover hardware with high failure rates.

Outsourcing Magic
Recently, outsourcing has become a dirty word analogous to sending American IT jobs overseas. But when you are running a small business, outsourcing your IT maintenance to a local third-party makes sense because computer downtime translates to lost productivity.

You know you cannot afford to hire an in-house computer repair expert. For hardware maintenance, the decision to outsource is simple. The smart thing to do is to balance your hardware management strategy — maintain your desktop resources in-house but outsource your hardware maintenance to a company that has specific expertise.

Do not wait until you are desperate to look for a vendor. Develop a relationship with a vendor in advance. A small boutique computer shop or consultant can be just the ticket if you are totally dependent on your computers, but are not large enough to have full-time IT staff in-house. Graphic artists, bookkeepers, accountants and other service providers who cater to the small business trade are perfect candidates for using assistance of this type.

Wouldn’t you rather be practicing your trade than figuring out why your computer screen has funny colored stripes on it? It’s likely a dying video card — could you make the diagnosis as fast as an IT expert?

Maintaining a Parts Depot
Unless you operate a large business, it is highly unlikely that you would ever find it cost effective to bring IT staff in-house. However, if you run a 10-person office or larger, you can work with an outsourcer to minimize your IT costs while maintaining a small supply of critical parts to guarantee your systems are almost always accessible.

Unless your office uses a large pool of laptops, disk drives and monitors are the two components with the highest failure rate. Laptop maintenance is a bit more problematic, due to higher malfunction rates and rough use. No matter what type of computers you use in your office, there are a few things to do to keep your systems running at peak efficiency:

  • Keep a supply of spare disk drives and monitors on hand — one or two is all you need. If a system breaks, simply swap it with another preconfigured system or part from the spare stock. Return the repaired item to the stock supply to minimize disruption times.
  • If you have a large pool of laptops to support, keep a few “loaner” machines around. You will appreciate the rapid replacement service when your laptop inevitably breaks down just before a major presentation.
  • Minimize the number of manufacturers and hardware configurations used in the office. Even if some of your users have systems that are overkill for their needs, the savings in having a standardized platform throughout the company will be significant. Most businesses rarely have a need for more than two or three pre-configured replacement laptops at most.
  • Minimize the number of operating systems and versions you are maintaining. I have been in small companies that have every Microsoft OS they ever shipped. The compatibility issues between hardware and software can create costly nightmares. It is time to retire the Windows 3.1, folks — nobody supports it anymore.
  • Minimize the amount of user data on the desktop systems and standardize the system image. This will reduce the amount of time an employee spends reconfiguring a new system. Standardization also helps when you implement a backup strategy. Backing up one server rather than ten desktops is much cheaper and a great deal simpler.
  • If the system is more than three or four years old, replace it. New desktops cost less than $1,000. You will spend more time and money in lost productivity just determining the problem, if you don’t replace aging hardware in a timely manner.
  • Consider a longer repair cycle agreement with your hardware maintenance vender. The difference between a four-hour and a 48-hour response agreement can be substantial.
  • Research the hardware manufacturer’s mean time to repair record. Even though desktop systems are increasingly commodities, there are still large differences in reliability between vendors when it comes to timely repairs.

Parting Thoughts
When building a hardware maintenance strategy, start by determining your requirements for up time and tolerance for risk. If you have designed your desktop environment well, by either providing on-line systems backup (for your mobile users) or maintaining user data on the servers, you can treat your desktop systems like nearly dumb terminals.

If you are willing and able to wait for your repairs by using on-site spare parts, hot backups, and standardized configurations, you can cut your hardware maintenance costs drastically.

Beth Cohen is president of Luth Computer Specialists, a consulting practice specializing in IT infrastructure for smaller companies. She has been in the trenches supporting company IT infrastructure for over 20 years in a number of different fields including architecture, construction, engineering, software, telecommunications, and research. She is currently consulting, teaching college IT courses, and writing a book about IT for the small enterprise.

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