Remeber learning about the lifecycle of the butterfly in elementary school? Most people recall the various metamorphoses and are struck by the inevitable demise of these beautiful but vulnerable insects. On the surface, computers may not have the same delicate beauty as butterflies, but even these mechanical devices, made of metal, plastic, and glass, are destined, one day, to reach the end of their “natural” lives.
However, with expert care, a loving environment and a clear understanding of their lifecycle, computers-like butterflies-can live longer, remain productive and continue enhancing the well being of those around them.
So what are the factors affecting the lifecycle of PCs in the K-12 environment? What kind of care do they require? And, most importantly, how can their useful lifespan be extended?
Fargo Public Schools
John Steiner is local area networks (LAN) coordinator in Fargo Public Schools, North Dakota. There are roughly 4,000 computers in the district at various stages in the PC lifecycle.
“We used to estimate the average lifespan of the PC at five years,” Steiner says. “But now, it’s more like six to seven years. We’re being forced to use them for this length of time because of financial constraints. They’re still functional, but they may not be as fast as we would like them to be, and maybe don’t run all the applications that we would like them to run.”
The key factor affecting the lifespan of PCs is the tech sophistication of the group using the PCs. If schools upgrade their software on a regular basis, “there’s a pretty good likelihood that they’re going to have to upgrade computers along with it as well,” Steiner explains. “Departments that don’t require specialized software and use our standard software tools tend to require upgrading less often.”
When a machine is no longer capable of general-purpose use, which normally happens after about five years, Steiner repurposes it in a less demanding location, such as one that doesn’t require Internet access, and tries to maintain it there for two years.
“We might move PCs that are five years old out of a general-purpose lab into a keyboarding lab”, Steiner says. “We try to hang onto them until they are really obsolete, but it’s not normally cost effective to attempt to upgrade older computer equipment. So, we only upgrade equipment in rare cases where the expense is justified and success of the upgrade is assured when it’s measured against the educational objective we’re trying to achieve.”
This strategy creates extra costs. “Extended life comes at the cost of the extra manpower that is needed to handle the equipment,” he adds. “You have to be very careful when you put your PC lifecycle plan together that you don’t put too much emphasis on keeping older hardware because you will pay for that with higher staff and employee support costs.”
Newsweek named Indian Hill High School, in Cincinnati, Ohio as one of the country’s top 100 high schools in June of this year. With 2,200 students spread across four buildings, Indian Hill numbers its PCs in the thousands.
Arline Liegel, assistant technology coordinator for Indian Hill Schools, says the PC lifecycle has always been an important factor in her IT strategy.
“When we put our first Information Technology plan together in 1995, we decided to lease our machines, instead of purchasing them outright,” she explains. “Not just because of access to money and the amount of machines that needed to be purchased, but also so that we wouldn’t have to deal with recycling the machines at the end of their lives.”
Indian Hill leases machines for three years and has found that a fourth year can usually be squeezed out of the equipment without encountering major reliability issues. So, at the end of the initial lease period, Indian Hill purchases the machines outright at a discounted price and extends warranties to cover that extra year.
“Typically, our machines last four years,” Liegel says. “When we do not need a lot of power, however, we may keep a machine for five years. But we try to avoid five-year lifespans as machines tend to get very unreliable at that point.”
In some cases, Indian Hill will make small hardware changes, such as adding extra memory to their PCs, to get an extra year out of them.
Liegel identifies operating system requirements, network requirements, and personal software requirements as key factors affecting the PC lifespan.
“This year, Indian Hill is going to upgrade to Windows XP, and one of the school’s programming classes is going to start learning Java,” she notes. “These changes will necessitate upgrades to some machines and fresh leasing arrangements.”
Location is also an important factor. “In a classroom, the teacher controls the amount of time that a PC is used. So, the machine is not going to be used every minute of every day,” Liegel explains. “However, in a technology lab or the library, where those machines are open to use by students at the high school, you will see a big difference in the number of times those machines have to be touched for reliability purposes and a big difference in the number of times they break down because they are being used more.”
If a machine becomes too old and too expensive to maintain, it is either “cannibalized” for parts or reallocated. Typical reallocations include the move to a printer server for a copier or to a library search station.
“We try to put machines where they are needed,” Liegel says. “Typically, we don’t move them until the end of their lease cycles, unless there is a particular need that requires them to be moved and replaced with more powerful machines.”
“Some people believe that you can put your powerful machines in the high school and then move them down grade levels because the lower levels would need less powerful computers. I think that’s incorrect,” she adds.
“Any elementary school that is running software to support their curriculum will be using software that is very graphic and voice intensive,” Liegel explains. “Those kinds of machines need to be powerful enough to support that. And, at the high school, you may have a machine used by students primarily for word processing or Internet research, which would require less power. You really need to assess the situation on a case-by-case basis.”
Liegel derives at least one important benefit from her knowledge of the PC lifecycle.
“An understanding of the PC life cycle helps us set expectations,” she says. “We expect that we’re going to lease the machines for a set amount of years. And that number can then be set in our books. When the expectation is clear, and it’s on your books every year, it becomes understood that this is the cost of doing business.”
“Within the life cycle it’s important to understand that the upfront cost of purchasing a machine is the smallest cost you will have,” Liegel advises. “You have to spend money to maintain these machines and to train your people. And that’s as important as the initial cost. There’s a ‘Total Cost of Ownership’ (TCO) concept that has been bandied around for some time and it’s true.”
Total Cost of Ownership
Eric Stegman, research director at the research firm Gartner Inc., was one of a team of Gartner specialists who worked on a report and estimating tool designed to help K-12 school districts understand and calculate Total Cost of Ownership in technology.
“TCO is about understanding all of the lifecycle costs,” Stegman says. “Extending the lifespan shouldn’t be a goal unto itself. The more important goal is to reduce TCO. In many cases, you may be able to reduce the TCO by spending more on hardware and less on labor.”
Annual depreciation of hardware is a common concept in the private sector, but one that hasn’t really filtered through to the educational environment.
“The lifespan of PCs in education is certainly longer than the lifespan of a PC in the private sector,” Stegman notes. “Budgetary constraints, and to a lesser extent, a failure to understand TCO principles both contribute to this. Schools need to embrace the “evergreen concept” when they purchase hardware. This means planning, from the outset, how many years of use you expect to get from the equipment. Gartner has been seeing and recommending a move from a three to four year lifecycle.”
Stegman adds that some districts have been able to push the evergreen concept through a lease program. In this way, their hardware comes to be treated as an annual cost.
“Also, if you limit the age of hardware, that tends to increase standardization, which in turn limits the amount of older equipment you need to support,” Stegman explains. “You may need to spend more on computers, but you can have teachers spend more time teaching and less time being technicians.”
Schools that reallocate older hardware, Stegman advises, should factor in the costs associated with moving the equipment, and, if necessary, installing new software.
“The last phase in the PC lifecycle—retirement—is a tricky one that most people don’t think about very often,” Stegman says. “You need to determine which machines should go, find them, clear off software and data and dispose of them. You don’t want someone to get a computer with your child’s grades or IEP (individual educational profile) on it.”
“Throwing PCs in the garbage is not an option if you don’t want to get in trouble with the Environmental Protection Agency,” he explains. “Although it’s quite a job to determine what is acceptable as there are currently a patchwork of regulations at the Federal, state and local level. Europe is ahead of us in making regulations clearer.”
They may not be aware of their own mortality, but PCs do expire eventually. However, with careful technology and financial planning, a clear strategy for each stage of the lifecycle, and a strong commitment from the board, faculty, and staff, it is possible to maximize the lifespan of school PCs. The trick lies in understanding how the PC’s lifespan fits into your TCO model.
Stages in the PC Lifecycle
Does this equipment meet educational targets?
Purchase outright or lease?
How long should it be expected to last?
Are the environmental conditions correct?
What is the ideal configuration?
What software should it run?
What are the ongoing costs of supporting this hardware?
Which user group should the PC be assigned to?
How much downtime is this PC causing?
Is it worthwhile to upgrade?
Should the equipment be moved to a less demanding user group?
Could the same machine run less demanding software more efficiently?
Are there any parts left over that could be used to upgrade other machines?
Will sensitive data be left on discarded hard drives?
What environmental regulations apply in this school district?