Thursday, September 4, 2008

Hardware TCO – Predictable Planning with Refresh Cycles

Often, the most expensive investment any Information Technology (IT) organization will make is its base infrastructure; servers, storage and other various hardware. Yet, these hardware purchases are often given much less thought then software or services purchases and assumed to be routine, and just a cost of doing business. Hardware typically has several phases that should be evaluated as part of the purchase, these include the initial purchase price, the cost of maintaining it, and the ultimate cost of refreshing the hardware at the end of it's useful life. All should play an equal balance when evaluating new platforms, refresh cycles and testing new solutions for introduction to a company.

Often times when a company begins to assess the total cost of ownership (TCO) around its IT assets, it must involve teams not traditionally involved in IT planning. These teams can include facilities, engineering, building managers, application developers and data base administrators. Each of these groups can provide valuable input on how the servers and other infrastructure affect there environments and costs on a yearly basis.

There are three primary phases to all hardware purchases:

Initial Hardware Purchase
The initial hardware purchase is often thought to be the most expensive phase, but in reality after factoring in the support costs for a piece of hardware it turns out to be about one-third to one-fourth of the TCO. The initial price is often the easiest to evaluate, but should carefully be weighed against the long term costs of purchasing a specific brand or type of hardware.

Often vendors will allow for additional years of warranty coverage, or higher levels of support to be purchased when the system is first bought. These are often a wise investment if the hardware will be used longer then the initial warranty period. The increased level of support can often mean that your staff will spend less time supporting the system, and more time working on more beneficial tasks.

The support costs are often the most expensive phases of hardware ownership. The support costs include patching the operating system, supplying power to the system, cooling the system and managing the applications hosted on the system. These costs are amortized over the life of the system, and over time can add up to be the most expensive part of the TCO formula. Often, these support costs are also where the most efficiencies can be gained to lower the TCO of the system.

There are many things that can be done to lower the support costs around hardware, most involve improved processes to cut back the amount of time staff have to spend manually managing each specific server. The most notable of these is automation of patch management. By utilizing tools to automate patch deployments and status monitoring, staff can cut significant manual administration time from each specific server. Proactive monitoring of system and application health can also play an important role in cutting down TCO for hardware and associated services. There are many packages available today to assist system administrators in proactively correcting both hardware and software faults before they cause a failure for the end users. These apps can ensure that staff isolate and correct problems as soon as possible to minimize the necessary time to correct faults.

Utilization is another space where the TCO for your servers can be lowered. By ensuring that servers do not run at idle for long periods of time, you can ensure that any power being used by the servers is being used efficiently. Often times, a single server can handle the load that multiple servers used to handle. It is much more efficient to power and cool a single server then multiple servers in this case, and scales very well as you begin looking at utilization rates across dozens or hundreds of servers.

The final phase to evaluate for all hardware purchases is the refresh cycle. All hardware has a finite lifecycle in which at the end it will need to be replaced because it is either obsolete and not cost effective to maintain any longer. Obsolete in this context can be used in two ways, first to mean the hardware is so old is can no longer operate with the current operating systems, tools and patches available, or it no longer meets the business needs of your company.

There are often two methods that companies use to replace aging hardware, the first and most common is just purchasing new hardware when a system is no longer under warranty or has gotten too slow to use in the IT environment. More and more though, firms are implementing a rolling refresh cycle to add a level of predictability to all hardware purchases. A rolling refresh cycle allows a company to more clearly outlay capitol for IT investments, and better plan long term cycles for purchases, upgrades and replacements. Typically, a rolling refresh schedule is based on the standard warranty with newer server hardware, 3-5 years. A rolling refresh cycle also allows IT staff to better plan work loads by knowing ahead of time that new servers will need to be configured, tested and put into production.

Refresh cycle planning should also include an assessment of upcoming technologies and how that will affect purchases two and three years down the line. Every year hardware is faster and faster then before, and provides new possibilities for the amount of data that can be processed. In addition new technologies around virtualization are changing the dynamic of how system administrators provision new systems. No longer do system administrators add a single new server because of a single new application, today many different apps can be run on a single piece of hardware and kept separate from each other by using virtualization technologies.

As you assess your refresh cycle an important part of the TCO calculation is determining what applications can run within virtualized environments, and which will need separate hardware to run on. This will determine what level of consolidation can occur from year to year as the refresh occurs. As you look toward implementing a rolling refresh cycle, a first step is to understand how many existing servers are in place and how many existing applications. That data can then be used to develop a matrix of how things would look if virtualization were employed, and how a rolling refresh cycle could be utilized over time to ensure that all pieces of the infrastructure are upgraded in an expected period of time.

Minimizing the TCO of IT hardware is a key component of ensuring that the long term costs of owning the hardware are predictable and manageable. A rolling refresh cycle, paired with newer technologies like monitoring tools, automation tools and virtualization can allow IT staff to clearly plan how hardware will be used from purchase to end of life and how it will then be replaced. This cycle ensures staff can plan for future upgrades and migrations, as well as avoid last minute unexpected upgrades.

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