Use these four questions to determine how often to replace Mac workstations

Erik Eckel has some rules of thumb about how often an organization should replace its Mac hardware. Use the answers to these four questions to help you focus in on your requirements.

It's a question with which enterprise administrators, managers, CIOs and even finance types struggle: how often should Mac workstations be replaced? Unfortunately, the answer depends upon several factors. There's no one magical formula that will work for everyone.

Typically it's fair to say that support costs for a system from years four through six will exceed the costs of a new machine. The older a system, the higher the likelihood components will begin failing. Even if components don't fail, subjected to four or more years of users installing unnecessary applications, programs and utilities, combined with the inevitable onslaught of patch and OS upgrade management, systems begin slowing.  Noticeably.

As a result, enterprise administrators, often pressured by the suits in Finance, sometimes choose to add RAM to systems to try extending their useful life. Maybe they go a step further and wipe systems clean in favor of a fresh OS install. As a consultant supporting hundreds of companies and thousands of clients, though, I've become less enamored with refreshing systems older than four years. The process just doesn't seem to pay off. Too often I've seen four-year-old systems with fresh installs and a new memory upgrade suffer failed motherboards, hard disks or power supplies within six or eight months. Then, all the upgrade parts and labor costs become simply money that was thrown away.

What's an enterprise admin to do? Easy. Ask several questions:

  1. How critical is a system's uptime? If an organization just can't afford for a specific system to be down, that workstation should never be more than three years old. Further, Apple's AppleCare Protection Plan, which extends hardware warranty coverage to three years, should be in place for that system.
  2. How important is performance? If an organization is dependent upon a Mac workstation to perform demanding and intensive tasks, such as video editing, scientific calculations or similar operations, the system should be replaced every three years. Only by regularly refreshing such workstations can the organization ensure that motherboard performance, memory amounts and speeds, CPU capacity and similar factors are kept relatively current.
  3. Do some users require state-of-the-art performance? If some staff, such as those performing graphic or video editing tasks, require the fastest performance possible (as is often seen with many Mac shops), those users should receive a new Mac workstation at least every 18 months or two years. The pace of innovation dictates this pace, as CPU, motherboard, RAM and disk performance regularly increase. These users' old systems can then be passed down to other workers within the organization until their reasonable lifecycles are reached.
  4. Does the organization require a predictable and consistent technology budget? If so, plan to replace a quarter of the organization's workstations every year. Give the new machines to the staff that perform the most intensive tasks, passing one-year old systems to the next tier of users and on down the line. If 25% of an organization's Mac systems are refreshed in this manner annually, the organization will never have a system in operation that is older than four years. Budgets benefit, too, because costs remain essentially fixed each year with no tremendous spikes occurring every four or five years when it becomes necessary to replace workstations en masse.

There are myriad complex formulas and opinions regarding hardware lifecycle management. But asking these four questions helps organizations cut to the chase and ensure its business needs are driving enterprise planning and not other factors.

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By Erik Eckel

Erik Eckel owns and operates two technology companies. As a managing partner with Louisville Geek, he works daily as an IT consultant to assist small businesses in overcoming technology challenges and maximizing IT investments. He is also president o...