Managing IT costs: Best of breed vs. "best value"

In reviewing your operations with an aim to control or lower costs related to running your IT department, there comes a time when you might have to have a religious war with some of your staff... do you keep your "best of breed" hardware or do you ultimately replace it with products that meet your needs but cost less?

Instead of simply answering this question, let me explain with a single specific example. In both my current position and in my previous job (both at colleges), I walked into identical situations with regard to the network infrastructure. Simply put, things were relatively bleak. In both cases, equipment was either very close to at beyond the manufacturer's end of life and the organizations were experiencing failures. Fans and power supplies were succumbing to age, rendering edge equipment useless. Even under these circumstances, the colleges were paying quite a lot in annual maintenance. Although maintenance was covering many of the problems and it also provided software updates for the network equipment, it wasn't perfect. After all, even with maintenance, a failure is still a failure and results in downtime.

It quickly became apparent that the situation was untenable. The hardware had to be replaced; remember, much of it was approaching end-of-life and the manufacturer's lifetime warranty support didn't include fans and power supplies beyond a five year period. As such, I started putting together budget numbers for the incumbent manufacturer to achieve the replacement goal. The result: No possibility of getting the necessary funds from existing budget dollars. At this point, there were two options: (1) Work with the rest of the executive team and the CFO to get additional money; (2) Look at alternatives.

I chose option two. To make a long story short, I ended up taking a very hard look at HP Procurve. After doing some analysis of our needs against what Procurve offered, performing reference checks and obtaining quotes from suppliers, the decision was a no brainer. In both instances, I chose Procurve and paid for the entire project through the use of a 5 year capital lease. If you recall, my budget had a line for network maintenance. This line paid for the lease.

The end result is that I chose to go with the "#2" vendor in the market and ended up meeting the needs of my employer within the already allocated budget. Sure, if it was critical enough, I could have secured additional funds to go with a different vendor, but I don't like working like that if it's not necessary.

To be clear, I'm not advocating that you go out and buy the cheapest thing you can. I'm advocating a "best value" approach. When the five-year lease is up on this equipment, I won't automatically move ahead with HP again. I will look at what's available in the marketplace at that time and do the same analysis again.

To be fair, there are definitely considerations beyond hard costs that must be judged. If you make changes like this, also consider the staff training (and angst, in some cases) that may be needed.

The moral: Whenever possible -- and definitely when you need to do upgrades -- do a market and needs analysis.

By Scott Lowe

Since 1994, Scott Lowe has been providing technology solutions to a variety of organizations. After spending 10 years in multiple CIO roles, Scott is now an independent consultant, blogger, author, owner of The 1610 Group, and a Senior IT Executive w...