Replacing and Upgrading Technology

When you’re lacking time and money, it’s tempting to wait until a computer breaks or a piece of software becomes obsolete and then think about how you’ll replace it. Even in smaller libraries, this approach leads to unscheduled downtime, inconsistent service and funding problems. In large libraries, it’s completely impractical. When you replace a batch of computers or upgrade a major piece of software, your budget takes a hit, you may want to do testing, your staff may need training and you’ll spend a significant amount of time installing and deploying. Some of the questions you should be asking yourself at this stage include:

  • What factors should you take into consideration when you’re contemplating a technology refresh?
  • How often should you replace your desktop computers?
  • How often should you replace laptops and mobile devices? Servers? Mission-critical software?

Key Actions

  • Make refreshes a part of your technology plan. If possible, make the technology refresh a part of your strategic planning and technology planning conversations. It can have a major impact on your budget and your services, so you want feedback from frontline staff, managers, trustees and patrons, if possible.

  • Use Spiceworks to plan a hardware refresh. Use Spiceworks or another asset management tool to help you determine which computers need to be replaced. If you’ve completed an inventory of your technology with Spiceworks, you can run a report that lists all the PCs you own with less than 1 GB of RAM. Or you can run a report on the PCs that are more than four years old. Or the ones that haven’t been upgraded from Windows XP. Whatever your criteria, that list is the starting point for your technology refresh project. It also helps you to make your budget requests. If you can see that 15 computers will enter their fifth year of service during 2013, you should budget for at least 15 replacement machines.
  • Use Spiceworks to plan a software refresh. You can also use Spiceworks when you’re considering a software refresh. For example, if you want to upgrade your computers to Microsoft Office 2013 Professional Plus, your PCs need at least 1 GB of RAM, 3 GB of free hard drive space and a 1 GHz processor. With Spiceworks or another asset management tool, you can easily whip up a list of computers that don't meet the requirements for the new software. These PCs will need upgrading or replacement, or you may have to delay your rollout of the new software until you have faster machines.
  • Communicate with staff. Let them know well in advance if you’ll be replacing their computers or installing new software. If your planned changes will have a major impact, invite them to give feedback or ask them if the upgrade will have any unforeseen consequences on the way they do their work.
  • Train your staff. Rollouts of new software and upgrades of existing software usually require some staff training.

Deciding When to Refresh

There are no hard and fast rules about when a refresh should occur. In general, desktop systems and servers are replaced every three to four years, while laptops, phones and other mobile devices are swapped every two to three years. Printers and networking equipment may last five years or more. Software and operating systems vary widely, depending on your organization’s needs and vendor support. However, these are all just guidelines, and factors unique to your organization will drive the final decision about when to refresh.

  • What’s in your budget? Can you afford to buy new computers or new software?
  • How much are your old computers really costing you? “Hang onto those PCs as long as possible! Squeeze every last dime out of those computers!” That sounds reasonable enough to a cost-conscious library director. However, old computers often have significant hidden costs. Your IT staff will spend much more time supporting a five-year-old computer. Frontline staff will answer more questions from frustrated patrons. Everyone will waste time waiting for software to load.
  • How long are the computers under warranty? Some libraries purchase a three- or four-year warranty for their computers and start to look into replacement machines once the warranty runs out.
  • Does the vendor still support the technology? Often, a vendor will no longer support a particular operating system or software. From that point on, it gets harder to keep the software secure and operational.
  • Are your old computers delaying other upgrades? For example, are you waiting to upgrade your ILS because your servers can’t handle the latest version?
  • Are old, slow computers driving away your patrons? Obviously, this is a major consideration. If your machines struggle to play YouTube videos or your patrons have to wait a long time for basic tasks such as checking email, you should consider upgrading or replacing your computers.

Selecting a Computer Refresh Strategy

    Big bang: In this approach, you switch out all of the computers in your library at the same time every third, fourth or fifth year. This is a risky strategy, since your funding sources could dry up just as you’re about to replace everything. Furthermore, this “all at once” approach puts a big strain on your IT department, who needs to deal with a sudden influx of new equipment. On the other hand, your IT department will always have a standard hardware configuration because all the PCs were purchased at the same time. Also, you might save some money by buying in bulk.

    Phased refresh: A lot of libraries swap out a fraction of their computers each year. For example, if they’re on a four-year replacement cycle, they’ll replace 25 percent of their PCs each year. This makes their budget requests more uniform and spreads out the impact of hardware rollouts.

    Modified big bang: If your funding agency allows it, you can set aside a chunk of money each year for new computers. However, rather than spending it as it’s allocated, you can wait and make one big purchase every third or fourth year.

    Developing a Training Plan

    Software upgrades and rollouts can cause a lot of frustration and lost productivity if staff haven’t been trained properly beforehand.

    • How much money and effort will you invest in your training program? “Training” might consist of a few handouts if your new software only implements minor changes. It could consist of a month-long class with multiple sessions if you’re upgrading mission-critical software, such as your ILS.
    • Who conducts the training? You can assign the training to internal staff or outside contractors. Developing an effective curriculum takes a big chunk of time, so libraries often bring someone in from the outside or send their employees to classes held at other locations.
    • When do you schedule it? If you train your staff too far in advance of the software installation, they’ll forget everything they’ve learned by the time they actually need it. If you wait until after the installation, staff will have to support software that they don’t understand.

    Stories from the Field

    What we do is we maintain a database of all our computers, and we also look at the warranty. Typically, we purchase our computers with a three-year warranty. And from that database, I extract a report every fiscal year that shows which computers are either already out of warranty or will become out of warranty by the end of the fiscal year. From there, we analyze which computers need to be replaced. And some of the computers that are giving us more problems, even though they’re not on the top of the list, we escalate them because we know that we’ve been fixing [them] X amount of times.

    Silvia Urena
    San Mateo County Library, CA

    We’re hoping to keep the Discover stations changed out. I am planning to put new computers in those stations every three years. I never want those to give us any trouble. I want to change out every three, no more than five years, the whole library network, which is all of our staff computers and our whole circulation system and our public access catalog. I don’t want equipment to stand in our way if there’s any way that I can find the money to do that. I have pretty well communicated that with all the powers that be as far as the budgeting goes.

    Phyllis Reed
    Ruidoso Public Library, NM

    We try to stick to at least a three-year schedule. We try, we do our very best. Because I would say the general rule of thumb is if it’s three years old, you need to throw it in the trash. You can throw it in the trash or revamp it, reimage it, do whatever you need to do, but after three years, don’t look for it to work pristinely. So we try to replace everything if it’s been here for three years. But, of course, we have the money, so we can do that. I know a lot of people don’t. So in that situation, my best advice is to upgrade those computers as far as you can, upgrade the RAM as much as you possibly can, and just put a fresh image on it. If you have major problems, just run a new operating system on it and start from scratch, because that’ll take care of anything that’s wrong with it, for the most part.

    Jarvis Sims
    Hall County Library System, GA

    We try to stick to about a four-year computer replacement cycle, depending on the uses of the computers. A standard staff machine or a public workstation, I try to replace them every four years. Catalog machines, machines that are just used for browsing the OPAC, single-purpose machines that don’t take a lot of abuse and they’re not very complicated machines to begin with, I can usually push them out to five years, if needed. I do purchase almost all of my PCs brand new. I’ve had people who insist on donating computers to us, and I’d rather they give them to a school or a nonprofit or some other kind of organization. But I’ve used those before.

    Matt Beckstrom
    Lewis & Clark Public Library, MT

    It’s absolutely difficult to get people to go along with change, even when it’s minor, or where we think that we’ve discussed it and we’ve said, ‘Well, they won’t need training on that, so let’s just go ahead.’ We found that they absolutely thought they needed training on it. And that was the case when we switched from our old email software to Zimbra. We thought, ’You know, it’s email. It’s not that different from Hotmail; it’s not that different from Yahoo! It’s just the buttons are in different places.’ But staff absolutely expected that it was a big enough change that they ought to have received training. So one of the things we try to do to mitigate that is to tell people as early and as often that something is changing, something is coming, and get whatever details out that we can. And as far as what we can actually do for training, we’re very limited, because we don’t have a very large training budget. So we try to just put out pieces that they can read, and we just try to do it through communicating.

    Jay Roos
    Great River Regional Library, St. Cloud, MN

    And in fact, we talked to the city manager, and he suggested we only change [the computers] out every four years, [since they are ] not changing that much and it’s taking too long to install. So our goal will be by four years, we’ll be totally changed out.

    K.G. Ouye
    San Mateo Public Library, CA

    Essentially, the two of us get together and decide what machines need to be replaced. And typically, staff machines get replaced first because they’re being used to make the library go. Although this last time around, we did replace public machines first because those were getting very old. And typically, it’s probably between three and five years when they’re replaced.

    Brian Heils
    Dubuque County Library, IA

    Most of the stuff is replaced on a regular cycle, and for us, it’s four years. We used to do five years, but then you run into issues where you have different operating systems because usually, in five years, you’ve got new operating systems to deal with. At any rate, when a computer has reached its end of life, it’s either four years old or it’s just so broken we can’t fix it anymore.

    Michelle Foster
    Boone County Library, KY

    We try to replace 10 to 12 computers a year, and that’s throughout the library. We keep an inventory of the oldest, or we had a PAC [public access computer] stolen out of the teen zone and that one had to be replaced. But we try to do 10 to 12 a year; we budget for that so that in a three-year period almost everything has been replaced.”

    Greta Lehnerz
    Natrona County Public Library, WV

    We like to keep all of our computers in warranty for four years if it’s at all possible. And we generally run one year past warranty. We figure at that point we can start cannibalizing and using the parts out of our older machines to replace things that are required and keep enough of them going to keep them available for the extra year. And we basically buy in the vicinity of 60 to 70 desktops every year. With the 400-plus we have out there, that puts us at a four-and-a-half to five-year schedule. And sometimes we get a few more; like this year we got lucky. Dell had great buys at the end of a quarter and we were able to get 80 with our budgeted amount instead of 60. So we basically replace everything within five years.

    Michael Fettes
    Alachua County Library District, FL

    We have a four-year replacement schedule. We are funding that partly through the Gates hardware upgrade. We were the beneficiaries of one of the original Gates computers and libraries grants — two of them, in fact; two of the different cycles. And, therefore, we’re eligible for the latest round of grants to replace computers in libraries. So that’s certainly helping us replace those PCs. We also are the huge beneficiaries of a sales tax measure in the county of Fresno that is specific to supporting libraries. So we have the money in our budget [to keep] the PCs operational and [to get] that level of staffing that allows us to have all those techs and the money for a four-year replacement plan for all of our computers.

    Deborah Janzen
    Fresno County Public Library, CA