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When to upgrade?

When his partner’s computer died after six years of near constant use and a steady stream of Band-Aid repairs, Ric Allport was a bit concerned. When his own system gave out just two weeks later, his concern turned to anxiety as he faced the need to get new systems back online to keep his two-person business ticking over.

Allport, who also wears the moniker ‘super trivia guy’, works with long-time partner Suzi Borg-Olivier to manage Brain Food Factory, regularly producing puzzles and brain teasers for The Australian newspaper and online audiences in Australia and elsewhere. His business is totally dependent on computers, which he uses both to produce his puzzles and manage a database of over 150,000 questions, images, musical and other clues.

As so many small business operators do, Allport had for many years tried to squeeze as much life as he could out of his computers, opting to upgrade and repair rather than replace.

“We were hanging onto them because we were in one of those financial situations where we were making huge changes financially and lifestyle-wise,” Allport explains. “We had things to fix up around the house, and had expenses elsewhere. We just weren’t in the position to drop everything and investigate new technology.”

These constraints had led to some almost ridiculous troubleshooting efforts as the computers got older and less reliable. “Every once in a while Suzi’s computer would fail to start,” Allport laughs. “I would open it up, clean it out, jiggle things around and it would fire up. I ended up leaving the side of the computer off, and every morning I’d get under the desk to kick-start the cooling fans with a chopstick.”

It was only when both their computers had failed that Allport realised he had no choice but to invest in new technology. Conversations with their technical support person helped them decide to shift from conventional desktop computers to laptops. An extensive back-and-forth with Dell produced a quote and a specifications list that Allport was happy with.

He’s now up and running with a pair of laptops and three external hard drives to provide data storage and  backup – and loving it. “If you don’t keep up with technology, you really are doing yourself a disservice,” he offers. “These computers have really enabled us to do what we do, but so much more efficiently. We say to this day ‘why didn’t we do this earlier?’ It was really one of the best things we ever did.”

Pushing the envelope

Allport’s story is by no means unique. Deciding when to upgrade technology is hard enough at the best of times, but when it gets tough, technology purchases are shelved for a while and the ‘she’ll-be-right’ mentality prevails over prudent investment.

Given the rapid pace of change in technology, this is a dangerous game to play. For example, game-changing new technologies like smartphones and tablet computers promise real efficiency improvements that can improve the flow of information throughout the business, boost customer service, increase competitiveness, and more. Ignoring new technologies may seem fine if the business is travelling smoothly, but if you wait too long you’ll be up for an even bigger hit as you race to catch up.

The risk of putting off technology purchases, however, isn’t so much that you will miss out on the latest and greatest gadgets – but leaving your equipment to languish in disrepair means it’s only a matter of time before you suffer a serious interruption.

Hard drives, for instance, are mechanical devices and almost certain to fail, often after about three to four years. For this reason alone, it’s essential to store your data on a network attached storage (NAS) device. While it might seem counter-intuitive, regularly replacing hard drives – before they fail – can help stave off disaster.

If you’ve kept your gear for so long that it’s out of warranty, you may find it takes weeks or months to get it fixed. That’s assuming the parts are available at all. If the technology in question is fundamental to your business, those weeks or months could be enough that you never open your doors again.

Yet many companies put themselves at risk not only because they keep technology too long, but because they buy the wrong thing in the first place. For example, many small business owners walk into the local Harvey Norman or Dick Smith, buy a desktop computer, and proceed to use it to run their entire business.

This is a recipe for disaster, but John Cirocco sees it all the time. As director and lead consultant of IT advisory firm IT Advocate, he regularly deals with small businesses that have made poor technology choices and flat-out refuse to invest in new technology because it’s seen as working fine – or so they think.

“Small businesses generally undervalue the IT components they’re using,” he says. “Sometimes I get hired to cut costs and I come in to find   such disarray of infrastructure that my recommendation is to actually spend money. They’re cutting costs where they shouldn’t be.”

While he recognises small businesses certainly have to juggle expenditures on technology against expenditures on other capital assets, Cirocco has a simple anecdote that helps him win arguments about technology expenditure every time.

“I once had four of six directors of a $10 million company walk out of a meeting because I told them they needed to spend $10,000 on a server,” he recalls. “They were running the company on a staff member’s Windows XP desktop, and argued that the server is not important – that what they did on the factory floor was more important. I told them I’d go upstairs and turn off the server, then see how they were going on the floor. They saw the light and invested in the server.”

Old problems, new approaches

Ideally, your data should be stored on a single central server where it can be easily backed up. Purpose-built servers come with high-reliability features that desktops don’t have, all designed to boost performance and ensure your data remains safe. For this reason, and because they’re effectively the technological heart of your business, it’s almost dangerous to push out their life cycle too much.

Desktops, on the other hand, can often be left a bit longer, depending on what your business uses them for. Some companies need hardware-intensive applications like computer-aided design, multimedia production and the like, but most businesses have relatively simple needs that can be met by the same desktop computer for many years.

However, if you ever get to the point where your desktops are slowing down your employees, it’s time to upgrade them. “I prefer desktops be done every five years and that extra money be spent on the servers, where all the business data is stored and secured, every three years,” says Sean McColl, director of IT support firm WIT Technologies.

No matter how tight the budget, don’t dismiss any suggestions that you invest in technology upgrades. The constant pace of change means that many technological hangers-on may be unaware of new developments that can save them time, money and heartache in the long run. It is far better to take the financial hit when it’s needed than to invite disaster to the dinner table.

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Image credit: iStockphoto

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