Mar 10 2023

How to Keep Your University’s Technology Out of the Device Graveyard

Higher education institutions don’t need to be haunted by storerooms full of old desktops, laptops and more.

Device graveyards are everywhere. They’re stuffed in the bottom drawer of a desk or nightstand, pushed to the back of a forgotten closet, piled in the corner of a utility room or stacked floor-to-ceiling in a warehouse full of long-forgotten computers, servers, monitors, printers, cameras, copiers, desk phones, fax machines and more.

Sure, that drawer full of old cellphones in your house isn’t causing you to lose sleep at night, but for higher education institutions, stores of technological relics present logistical problems, represent potential security vulnerabilities and are, well, an eyesore.

As IT professionals have known for decades, old devices can’t just be tossed into the dumpster when their day is done, for both environmental and security reasons. And while most institutions know better than to toss old computers in a back room and let them sprout cobwebs, device graveyards can still populate quickly, especially in today’s era of remote work where devices are more plentiful on and off campus.

So, what should universities do when devices reach the end of their useful life, assuming the answer isn’t to shove them in the deepest, darkest corner they can find? Here are four steps for keeping your graveyard from increasing in size:



1. Make the Investment in Quality Devices for Higher Ed Staff

One obvious way to keep devices from meeting the end of their useful life is to extend their lifespan. Spending a few extra dollars up front for high-quality, well-equipped devices can be a smart, long-term investment that pays off down the road.

Joseph Moreau, a 30-year technology veteran and former vice chancellor of technology and CTO for the Foothill-De Anza Community College District in California, says during his time there the district purchased mainly Dell and Apple devices that he knew were “going to live a long, healthy life.”

“Don’t buy cheap stuff to begin with,” Moreau says. “Buy quality hardware from reputable manufacturers with specifications that may be a little more than most people need right now. We’ve known for years and years that people always run out of memory, they always run out of storage, and they often run out of processing capability.”

Devices that need to be replaced more often not only contribute to device graveyards but also take significantly more time and effort from IT teams who must retire the old devices and prepare the new ones — the less frequently that has to happen, the better.

In the same vein, Moreau also suggested using application virtualization as much as possible to limit the stress placed on devices. By using browser-based software, he says, a broader range of devices are able to tolerate those applications.

Moreau, who now works as an executive consultant for Higher Digital, also recommended spending a little extra money for device warranties — again, with the long view in mind. While warranties add to the initial cost of a device, Moreau says his institutions “almost always got that money back” as devices needed to be repaired.

“We tried to make investments strategically to get the greatest return on investment with the lowest total cost of ownership for end-user devices,” he says.

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2. Recycle or Repurpose Aging Higher Ed Devices

In some cases, recycling devices at the end of life is the law. Many states, notably California, have stringent requirements for what happens to e-waste, including desktops, laptops and other items that contain a range of materials that are harmful to the environment.

California’s program encourages device owners to remember the environmentalist mantra of “reduce, reuse, recycle.” Moreau, who worked in California for a large part of his career, says Foothill-De Anza took that to heart.

Devices used by the community college district went one of two places when they reached end of life. Those that were salvageable but didn’t have enough life for a faculty or staff member, Moreau says, were turned over to an organization on campus that recruited computer science students to repurpose the machines. They were then turned over to students in need and could typically provide another 12 to 18 months of computing power for those who would not have had that caliber of device otherwise.

Devices that were beyond refurbishing were sold for a nominal fee to a recycling company. These companies salvage the small amounts of gold and other precious metals that are inside computers, then dispose of the devices in compliance with local law.

EXPLORE: How ServiceNow can help with eProcurement in higher ed.

3. Be Mindful of the Data on Every Higher Ed Device

Before those devices are sent off to be recycled or refurbished, IT teams need to be certain no valuable data remains inside. Make no mistake, any device that has rewritable storage would be an asset for cybercriminals were they to get their hands on it. That includes copiers, fax machines, some surveillance video cameras and other IoT devices that have become popular in recent years.

Even if devices aren’t used to access sensitive information such as student medical records or proprietary research materials, other data, like performance evaluations and private correspondence, should still be safeguarded.

“We would run a process on everything that went out the door to make sure it was wiped clean, that there was no software on it that we had licensed, that there was no personally identifiable information on it and there were no other files that may not be national security issues but still are sensitive and confidential and that you don’t want to have shared,” Moreau says.

What is now a standard practice of returning devices to “original manufacturing status” was not always the case, Moreau says, noting that in probably the past 15 years, as Americans have become more aware of digital privacy issues, colleges and universities have formalized the practice of wiping machines clean.

4. Consider Device Management Programs That Do It for You

All of the preceding steps are useful and should be well within the abilities of university IT staffers, but they still take a fair bit of time. For many colleges and universities, that’s not time well spent, and for others with small IT departments, that’s not time they have to spare.

For those schools, device management programs can be a lifesaver.

Depending on the program, device management can help with everything from procurement and deployment to management and end-of-life services. When devices are ready to be retired, a device management service will securely wipe all sensitive data, monetize the devices on the school’s behalf if they can be resold or recycled, and make sure device disposal is done safely and legally.

Third-party device management also means those device graveyards will become a thing of the past. A full-service device management program can warehouse new devices before they’re deployed, then store them again when they’re no longer in use and waiting to be either recycled or thrown away.

Moreau chose not to use a third party to manage devices during his career, but says he sees value in those programs on a case-by-case basis.

“There are different opportunities for different kinds of institutions,” he says. “If you’re a small liberal arts college, or a small, rural, remote institution with very few IT staff, the opportunity for using a partner is going to be different than if you’re a two-college district in Silicon Valley with 30,000 students. It’s a different economic scenario, and the return on investment and total cost of ownership calculation is different, depending on the nature of the institution.”

vejaa (laptops & phones), prosot-photography (phones), Plus69 (laptops) Arijuhani (laptops); Ruth Black (open laptop)/Stocksy

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