Don’t cheap out on essential hardware

While this isn’t the time to pay through the nose for the newest gear, it’s never good to rely on outdated equipment.

On the Reddit SysAdmin group, I recently read a horror story. A car dealership had been using a 14-year-old desktop for its one and only business server. On it, the company was running two business’ customer-relation management (CRM) programs and their inventory management systems. They also—brace yourself—didn’t have an automatic backup system.

The consultant told them that “they should automate backups to a separate system, or use a RAID1 at least. Something!”

Their response? “Nope, too expensive, we can’t afford a new desktop, and we can’t afford new drives.”

A year later, almost to the day, the call came. The drive had failed. Their $20-million business had lost the last six months of data, the client database, client forms, banking documents—everything. “The only reason they even have anything is because I convinced the owner to at least let me come in and do a manual backup six months ago.”

I wish this example were unique. It’s certainly terrible. Indeed, it might even be a business killer—the verdict’s still out on that—but there’s nothing unique about it.

I sometimes do high-level consulting work. I won’t fix your gear or sell you servers or services, but I will tell you what you need to do to make the most of your IT approach and how to avoid disaster. I’ve seen dozens of similar situations where owners and managers insist on running hardware into the ground.

This is always a mistake.

Yes, stories about businesses that are still running Amiga computers from the 80s are fun, and if George R.R. Martin is still happy writing with WordStar on an MS-DOS PC, more power to him. But, from a business continuity point of view, this is beyond stupid.

Think about it. If your decade-old PC breaks—and, eventually, it will—good luck fixing it. Parts may no longer be available, and your friendly neighborhood computer tech might not even know how to fix it.

In a similar vein, once a program or an operating system is out of support, continuing to use it is just asking for it to be hacked. I liked Windows 7, too, but there’s no way I’d keep running it in production today.

The moral of this story is simple: while there’s no need to keep up with technology’s leading edge, you cannot rely on out-of-date gear. It does not end well. Ever.

My rule of thumb is to replace desktop PCs every five years and laptops, which get more abuse, every three years. Could they last longer? Sure. I have computers that are well into their second decade and still do useful work. But do I use them for my line-of-business applications? No!

As for servers, I keep an eye on cloud backup and storage service Backblaze's drive statistics. It constantly monitors their drives and gives the best information available on storage lifetime. (For servers, it’s all about the drives.) In its latest study, Backblaze found drive life expectancy “decreases at a fairly stable rate of 2% to 2.5% per year for the first four years, and then the decrease begins to accelerate. After six years we end up with a life expectancy of 65%.” That’s why the industry standard of replacing servers every five years makes sense.

In the meantime, you should use an automated 3–2–1 backup strategy. Have three total copies of your data, two of which are local but on different devices—and another copy off-site. You can add more if you like. For example, if you must keep ancient data that you don’t expect to need very often, you can use services such as AWS Glacier to keep it in a safe data deep-freeze.

Now, I need to talk to you about the business problem behind these tech mistakes: Poor money management.

Way too many people assume they can cheap out IT. You can’t. Just because your old equipment hasn’t blown up yet doesn’t mean that it’s not going to do so later today or tomorrow. If any of your hardware is beyond its use-by date of, say, a maximum of five years, you’re living on borrowed time. Spend the money and refresh your equipment.

That goes double for your backup and restoration systems. I cannot believe how many people don’t automate their backup systems. Set it up once, buy the backup drives, subscribe to the cloud-backup service, pay the bill, and you need never worry about your company’s data going up in smoke. 

Simple, right? So why do people keep acting like fools? One big reason is one of the most dangerous business models out there: “The general fund end-of-year partner bonus” model. I usually see medical or law firms that do this, but I’ve seen it elsewhere.

With this scheme, when everything is a capital expense, the partners see everything left in the general fund as their bonus. As one person on Reddit put it, they see necessary IT maintenance expenses as “coming right out of their pocket.”

Huh. Given a choice between short-term cash in my pocket and long-term maintenance of my business, what do you think most people will choose? That’s right: they max out their bonus and ignore those annoying IT people.

Don’t do that. Listen to your tech people and protect your IT investment. In 2022, no matter what you do for a living, your business depends on its technology underpinning.

Don’t believe me? Ask yourself how well you’d do if, like that car dealership, you came in on Monday to find all your records for the last six months vanished in the haze. You’d be in a real pickle.

Do the right thing. Keep your equipment and backups up to date. You’ll be glad you did.

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