Pre-plan replacement of outdated computers

By Garry McGonigal
Corporate Environment Consultants
Tecumseh, Ontario, Canada

When Garry McGonigal wears his chief information officer "hat" for a large information systems operation, he often has to dispose of and replace outdated computer equipment. Here is what he recommends to information officers undergoing the same process.

Q: What issues should you consider when it comes time to replace your computer equipment?

A: Disposal and replacement of old with new computer equipment can be a complex, time-consuming process. If there is sufficient scale, then all of the process could be contracted out or included in an evergreen leasing and maintenance process, whereby your current inventory is bought out and replaced with brand new equipment, and then replenished with up-to-date equipment as predetermined by the lease/maintenance schedule. Whichever methods are selected, it has to be a planned and schedule endeavor. Network capacity could be put at serious risk just due to volume.

Also, replacing older legacy devices, such as dumb terminals, with new personal computers (PCs), may drop a substantial load on an older, UNIX-based system, for example. Such systems were accustomed to character-by-character activities and slow printer response. Bringing on new equipment, probably on a much higher-performance network but still using the older server applications, could actually overload the servers.

In addition, going from a setup where the end user had standalone word processing and spreadsheet applications to a server-based office automation setup could actually put the end user applications at risk. For example, if the server went down, many users would go down with it. Whereas before, if one user’s PC went down, chances are that only that user was affected. On a positive note, central backup of most of these users’ data can now take place.

Also, don’t forget that typically when you replace an individual’s "piece of junk" with the latest and greatest, the move will most certainly upset the status symbol balance in any office environment. It is equally important not to allow the senior executive to use this allocation of new equipment as his or her way to give personal favors. The process will then become very illogical and will set all sorts of precedents throughout the organization, many of which will keep compounding themselves over and over: Folks will somehow get to their executive who will then try to persuade the senior people in information services (IS) to bump someone else (from getting the new equipment), again and again.

All of the equipment replacement process has to be carefully planned out, scheduled, and the political elements addressed ahead of time. Eliminating surprises is the key. The most important axiom to remember is never to promise more than can be delivered — it is best not to disappoint.

Q: Should you look into getting replacement parts first?

A: Getting replacements parts for older PCs and peripherals is very difficult. The parts are also expensive, compared to what an up-to-date Pentium-based piece of equipment would cost. Generally, hard disks, mother boards, monitors, and graphic cards fail due to age and/or electrical power surges.

In addition to the parts cost is the cost of having someone on staff do the repairs, assuming that it is too expensive to farm it out, and/or there are very few people available to do the work. This also means that your precious IS staff have to keep the old software drivers around for this equipment and older versions of such software as Microsoft Office, and they have to remember even how to work with Windows 3.11, for example, and its family.

It is tough enough on this staff just trying to keep the Pentiums going, let alone some of that older equipment. More frightening is that there are databases that will only run on this older equipment, with no upward migration path. When that equipment fails, the application is also gone — sometimes a very daunting future.

Q: Should you toss the equipment or try to give it to someone else in your organization?

A: Depending on the age of the equipment, you might not find anyone interested in taking it off your hands for free. I have been down that path too often. I have tried school boards, teen action groups, technical college repair shops, etc. Many don’t even want 486’s.

You can give some of the older software, fully licensed, away to schools. Corel, Microsoft, or Lotus generally has an entire program, documentation, and forms to allow for such license transfers.

Another method of disposing of older equipment, and probably the first one to try, is to have an employee sale or giveaway. Pick a Saturday, advertise in advance, and establish the policy on how the equipment will be given away — as is, first-come, first-served. Provide a receipt to those taking the equipment that states the serial numbers and transfer of ownership. Since this equipment is a depreciable capital asset, accounting needs to be involved in this process.

Generally, before we tried either to give anything away or throw the equipment into a garbage bin, we had to remove the hard disks, low-level format them, and then run a substantial magnet over them to ensure that the data can never be recovered. This process generally destroys the hard disk.

Cascading not-so-bad computer PCs to elsewhere in the organization is a real nightmare for IS. To replace someone’s old system with a brand new one means all of the existing data has to be transferred to the new equipment. The old PC has to be taken back to IS, totally backed up, and held in stock for at least two weeks because more data may have to be retrieved from the original. Then the old PC has to be thoroughly checked, possibly refurbished, given to the next person, and the cycle keeps repeating itself. It never seems to fail that the second-hand computer, once moved, has a shortened life expectancy; it soon experiences a hardware failure. All of this is very time-consuming for IS, and each cascade could easily take five hours if there are no problems (in a large organization).

The bottom line is to keep the old junk for parts until the entire inventory of that equipment is out of the corporation. Contact a business equipment company (usually the larger ones with branches throughout the country and/or a region) and see if it will take the equipment off your hands at no charge. Or, if you go to a lease/maintenance plan, see if they will take it all.

Q: How do you handle the transfer of information from the old PC to the new one?

A: If data have to come over to the new PC, and usually the old one is not on a network, then the transfer is either via a portable zip disc with parallel port connection, or laplink to a laptop. If a writeable CD unit is on the system, then the transferred data will get burnt into a CD and verified. When the new machine is ready, the CD is loaded and the data is transferred. To start it all off, it is essential that a document and checklist form be provided to the end users to put the responsibility on them to formally identify what they want transferred. This list is then used by IS to check off everything that comes across. The CD is provided to the end users as their own record of the old data and as a backup of that data.

We have used a computerized inventory system to inventory all equipment and software. When preparing for a transfer, we have added to this inventory the location of end-user files, databases, etc.

Hopefully, the end users did not complicate their PCs too much, thus making it rather difficult for IS to find the data. Dedicating specific staff to this process goes miles in ensuring consistent and quality work.

Q: What about the transfer of confidential information?

A: Depending on the level of security clearance required, sometimes extracting and storing the data all has to remain in the physical presence of the end user. If a "go-between" device is used, such as a laptop, then not only does the data have to be "scrubbed" from the laptop, it also has to be certified as complete by a security officer who is familiar with these processes and/or audit control. If a zip drive is used, similar processes must be followed. If the data is to burnt into a CD, then the host PC has to be tightly controlled and again security measures involved, or the host PC and burning CD must be brought to the end-user location.