Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Plugged In: Upgrading computers doesn’t have to be costly

You don’t need to spend yourself into bankruptcy to acquire effective computer hardware. The key to smart business automation is careful research and long-term planning.

In tough times, you need solutions that increase your efficiency and your effectiveness, at a smart price. One of the best ways to improve your profitability and viability is to make smart decisions about investing in new technology and to then crisply implement your decisions.

This week, as a wrap-up of our recent computing hardware discussions, I’ll address some more general business and planning considerations that business users should take into account when purchasing new PC computer automation.

Compared to other steps that you can take in your business, prudent investment in technology can produce comparatively large benefits. Small- to medium-sized businesses are a particularly good fit for Michael Porter’s business strategy, developed at Harvard Business School, that focuses upon optimum profitability and survivability in tough times through developing low-volume, high-margin work. Smart technology implementation often is key to developing that sort of resilient business because it allows you to both improve your responsiveness and effectiveness while simultaneously reducing your base overhead costs.

Even though simple approaches and programs often provide the best return for your automation investment and are usually the easiest to implement and use, businesses commonly throw a lot of immature “bleeding-edge” technology, expensive hardware and even more expensive consultant fees and staff time at what is really a business management problem.

Gradually implementing a well-thought-out strategic business automation plan is usually the most effective and efficient way to transform your business, buying only the hardware and software that you will be able to install and begin using within the next two months or so and then implementing your next phase.

Purchasing binges are inefficient. By the time that you get around to installing some of your purchases, you likely can buy a newer, better version of the same product for less money.

Choose your technology for long-term, low-cost usefulness. Buy mature mainstream technology wherever possible and avoid both dead-end and bleeding-edge hardware and software. You’ll not only save money by purchasing mature, proven software and hardware, but likely also spare yourself an expensive, frustrating experience installing and using immature technology.

The hidden costs in terms of your time, staff time and general disruption when you install new computer technology usually costs a business much more than the actual purchase price of the hardware and software. Keep these less-obvious costs in mind when deciding what technology to purchase. It may be less costly in the end for a business to buy something that’s initially more expensive but ultimately more easily installed, maintained and used.

Use the least complex technology that efficiently does the job for you, provided that it’s supported by a financially stable vendor and has reasonable long-term growth potential. Choose your business software with great care after careful investigation. Application software is the heart of any business automation. Without good business software, a computer network is just a collection of electrical and mechanical parts. Choosing the right application software is more difficult and of great consequence than buying your computer hardware. If the computer becomes unreliable or too slow, then it’s easy enough to upgrade your hardware and migrate your application programs and data to the new computer, but changing over to an entirely new software program is much more expensive and disruptive.

Further, your accumulated business data is the heart of your business — it is the sole reason that you bought and implemented all of that expensive hardware and software. It’s more valuable than all your hardware and business application software combined. Be sure that your data will be usable for many years in the future and can be converted as needed should you decide upon different application software or if your current vendor goes bust. Try to avoid becoming locked into a vendor’s proprietary data format that cannot be later converted or upgraded to other application programs in the future.

Basic engineering and overall system reliability and performance don’t vary a great deal from brand to brand anymore, even though brand-name manufacturers often use system boards that are proprietary in how they mechanically attach to the computer case, an approach that unfortunately precludes less-costly, third-party upgrades later.

Even though brand-name systems from first-tier vendors can often be excellent buys, you should favor locally purchasing more readily upgradable generic systems that use high-quality components mounted inside an industry-standard, ATX-style system case.

Most brand-name vendors assemble components made by the same vendors used by better “white box” generic computer systems. Again, the system case ideally would be a vertical, floor-mounted system that’s capacious and well-cooled.

Consider making periodic upgrades to your systems, which is easier to do with generic “white box” hardware. Periodic upgrades are often a highly economical, less disruptive way to regularly improve computing performance.

At a minimum, you should buy medium-high performance computer hardware rather than the fastest bleeding-edge system or the slowest, cheapest system, which is destined to be soon obsolete and unrepairable. Try to avoid systems that use wholly proprietary components.

Don’t buy more hardware than you need and avoid advertising-driven computer consumerism. As a business user, you are buying a cost-effective business tool, not a hobby whose main purpose is emotional satisfaction, even though most of us also enjoy the latter. Typically, online and retail dealers push their most expensive, highest-margin units. The extra cost of the highest-priced computers derives primarily from highly touted consumer features, such as superfast video cards, features that have little real benefit in most offices.

Historically, system performance increases while prices simultaneously plummet. There’s no immediate end in sight to either trend, although the rate of useful improvement has been diminishing lately as the technology matures. Make purchasing decisions based on current needs, rather than perceptions of what you might need in a year or two. Cutting-edge technology is typically overpriced, immature and unreliable while it’s still “hot.” Many manufacturers try to sell you their higher-margin, top-of-the-line systems and fastest components by promising that purchasing marginally more computing power ostensibly avoids the need to upgrade hardware as often. That’s false economy at best, and it’s probably not even true.

I believe it’s most sensible to buy quality, mature technology that’s about a half generation behind the current top of the line. Buying about a half a generation behind the leading edge saves you a lot of money while providing more reliable technology with enough performance to work satisfactorily for at least two to three years. These cost savings alone should allow you to regularly and economically upgrade the critical computer system components, the CPU, DRAM and hard disk, or to replace the system more often — a policy that saves money and keeps your hardware more generally current for the overall life of the system.

I usually recommend a three-year cycle for complete replacement of a computer, printer or scanner, although you might want to make partial computer system upgrades more frequently, given today’s very low component prices. It’s false economy to retain or not upgrade a too-slow system until it’s been fully depreciated based upon an artificially long depreciation schedule. Remember, modern computer and communications technology are now the basic tools and lifeblood of any business.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his Web site, www.kashilaw.com, along with links to legal and community resources.

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