Conventional wisdom suggests that during a recession, companies should preserve cash wherever possible. Of course, this “wisdom” ignores two very important facts. First, if everyone follows that advice, then recession will quickly turn to depression as demand for goods and services evaporates. Second, and most importantly, recessions tend to drive prices downward, resulting in opportunities to invest in infrastructure, cost-saving, or productivity assets at a significant discount.

Making these kinds of investments now will make your company even more profitable when the economy turns around. Here are the four most common investment ideas I’ve collected through discussions with CIOs and technical managers.

1. Dual displays
Although once considered a perk because of cost, many companies have found that outfitting key technical or operational employees with multiple displays dramatically increases productivity.

Ideally, you should equip your technical team with laptops whose monitor outputs will drive both the internal LCD display and a separate monitor. This is especially true for software developers. They can load their development environment or code/debug environment on one screen and then work with the program output on the other. They can also use help files or training materials on one screen and the programs on the other. (I prefer to have my e-mail loaded continuously on one of the screens while I’m working on software on the other.) Many customer areas—finance, customer service, help desk—may also benefit from the extra virtual workspace provided by a second monitor. They can dedicate the space on one monitor to their major work area and dedicate the other to their productivity applications; e.g., Word and Outlook.

Adding multiple-monitor capability is very inexpensive. You can purchase additional 17-inch monitors for around $150. Many corporations have excess monitors from situations in which their companion PCs were cycled out, but the monitors still had a useful life. If you have desktop or tower systems, you can get a second display card for about $75 or a dual-display graphics card for about $150. And modern operating systems have support for multiple displays built in. Windows 2000 and Windows XP support up to nine monitors out of the box. Many dual-display cards have drivers for Windows 98 as well.

2. Increase workstation memory
Over the last year, memory prices have dropped precipitously. But the decrease in supply of higher-speed memory to match new Intel processors has already prompted prices to rise. You should expect costs to rise over the next 12 months and for memory to cost twice what it is now, as new, high-speed memory formats (DDR and Rambus) become dominant and older excess inventories of SDRAM become exhausted.

Most engineering and development managers I have spoken with recommend that technical personnel and power users have a minimum of 512 MB of RAM and that others should have a minimum of 256 K. If you have the cash to do it, now’s the best time to buy.

3. Go mobile
Fueled by wide acceptance and rock-bottom prices, many companies have begun cashing in on the 802.11b wireless craze. Working with wireless and portable equipment makes your technical team much more efficient. They can take their work with them to a comrade’s desk, a meeting room, or home. Having a laptop lets them move around, yet it’s a wireless connection that lets them stay connected. And now that many homes are equipped with high-speed cable or DSL access and wireless connectivity, you can allow your employees to connect from home using a VPN.

Using the VPN also allows you to get around the number one problem with accessing wireless networks from home: the weakness of the Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP), an 802.11 security protocol for wireless networks. The WEP encryption method is designed to provide the “equivalent” security available in wired networks. The compressed, encrypted data passing through the VPN channel cannot be compromised by external sniffers.

4. Virtual machine technology
As single processors surpass the speed of last year’s multiprocessor machines, they have extra horsepower available for other tasks. In fact, they have the power to become multiple, simultaneous machines. Software from VMware and Connectix allows any speedy PC with a lot of memory to appear to the user as several machines sharing a single keyboard and monitor.

There are two key scenarios in which you may want to make an immediate investment in this technology. First, when used as a migration technology, these packages allow you to run legacy DOS, Win32, and Windows 95/98 programs in separate virtual machines (VMs) when they don’t run properly on Windows 2000 or Windows XP. You can even use server-based VM technology (like VMware’s GSX or ESX servers) to centralize all of the legacy programs and serve them to clients using remote control and management software.

Second, you may want to invest in VM technology for testing of engineering scenarios or development environments. The ability to simulate these environments using VM technology can save companies thousands of dollars on both equipment costs and the cost of the time to configure the equipment for testing. Although the cost of these products has remained fairly constant, the price of the hardware necessary to use them effectively (faster processors, lots of memory) is lower than it’s ever been.

Where are you spending money today?

What are the most important technology investments your company has made during the recession? Write and tell us or start a discussion below.