Jul 03 2007

Necessary Over New

Business needs drive technology upgrades in one Michigan county.

When it comes to replacing equipment, making sound strategic and fiduciary choices while striking a balance between the gods of new and necessary creates a constant challenge at all levels of government. Diminishing revenues, such as the reduction and eventual elimination of state revenue-sharing programs, make the balancing act more strenuous for all local governments in Michigan.

The oxymoron: Continued judicious technology spending will help ameliorate the impacts in the long run. In Macomb County, we face another year of 3 percent budget reductions, which does not make spending an easy sell. In 2006, the county returned some of its appropriated funds for equipment replacement purchases.

How did we make the best out of a difficult situation? The answer lies in our replacement program. Begun six years ago, the capital replacement program’s objective is to upgrade PCs and printers every five years. The previous refresh cycle used a three-year baseline. The Information Technology Department manages the budget centrally for all county offices.

Ripe for Picking

If there is a need for a new application or to upgrade to a new version, then that might accelerate PCs being upgraded ahead of the five-year baseline. If systems aren’t that old, the county recycles them by replacing older PCs elsewhere. When replacing PCs that have hit the five-year mark, the IT team will swap out the particular organization’s entire inventory. If the PCs were installed within the five-year window, they are recycled and replace older PCs somewhere else.

Macomb County uses a two-step analysis to compile the inventory of PCs it will replace:

Is there an application driving the upgrade?

Which PCs in use are the oldest?

Through this approach, the balance tips in favor of the god of necessity. The god of new is nice and may engender envy, but one simple rule permeates the county’s fundamental planning principle: Do not deploy technology for the sake of the technology; there must be a business need.

This same principle holds true for PC software. The operating system and word processing and spreadsheet programs are standard. When the overall environment requires an upgrade, then the county as a whole migrates. For instance, the department recently completed an upgrade to Microsoft Windows XP, driven by network environment improvements, such as Active Directory and Systems Management Server Collection Synchronization tools.

The same philosophy has applied to our Microsoft Office environment. Moreover, PCs also run a variety of client apps — none of which is more than five years old — and the PCs generally exceed the vendors’ recommended minimum requirements.

The ability to stretch out the time between refreshes while not compromising overall performance has been a key to enabling support for ongoing funding from the Macomb County Board of Commissioners. Maintaining modest but continuing funding is extremely important: It guarantees that the IT Department can make essential upgrades. Ultimately, to keep the agency clients satisfied, service levels must be efficient. Refreshing technology has kept county staffing growth modest through efficiencies gained by technology.

Revisiting Strategy

The IT Department has begun its next capital replacement cycle and is modifying the strategy. The team is evaluating whether some organizations and applications can migrate to thin clients, which Citrix Systems remote services can support. The shift would let the county buy end-user devices at a lower price and reuse low-end PCs to ride out the financial belt-tightening. On the server side, the IT Department is weighing possible virtualization and consolidation efforts.

More important, vendors are willing partners in working with the county to meet its needs, including reassessing lease options. But with Macomb’s AAA bond rating, leasing is a high cost; the county’s long life cycles are comparable to leasing a car that accrues annual mileage of 40,000. Another current constraint to leasing is the requirement to reduce operating budgets. Although a first-year zero lease plan seems appealing, a risk assessment for subsequent years must balance the likelihood of continued budget reductions.

A continuous reassessment of strategies is necessary, because what worked this year won’t necessarily work next year. Similarly, what works for Macomb County may or may not work in another county. Balancing the scales is an art; having a sound strategy is a science. For Macomb, the balance tips in favor of what’s necessary, which is our best-practice methodology to refreshing equipment.

I.T. Upgrade Options

As you plan to replace old equipment and applications, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Consider dependencies. You may need to upgrade PC processors or RAM to support a new operating system like Microsoft Windows Vista, for example. On the other hand, upgrading to a new operating system may require you to roll out the latest versions of enterprise applications for best performance. Some legacy applications may not work on newer OSes.
  • Shop for scalability. Seek out switches that offer additional ports to accommodate future users or storage area networks that increase in capacity.
  • Deploy peripherals that do the job of many, such as multifunction devices that serve as laser printer, copier, scanner and fax machine in one. Likewise, a security device that combines a firewall, virtual private network and intrusion prevention simplifies management.

What I.T. Spends Annually for Upgrades

The systems budget in Macomb County, Mich., earmarks $300,000 per year to cover the devices the Information Technology Department supports. When the county began using a five-year refresh cycle six years ago, it had 1,800 devices. Although the number of devices has increased to 2,200, the refresh budget has stayed flat. File servers (not application specific) are now included in the program too, but the county buys network equipment through a separate account.


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