• United States
Contributing Writer

Clearing the clutter

News Analysis
Mar 01, 20046 mins

Don’t let your storage rooms get overrun by obsolete equipment.

Vintage printers. Old PCs. Back-up tapes without the systems to read them. Out-of-date telephone systems.

These were just a few of the items that Greg Johnson found stored in what he called the graveyard room at his former employer. The dumping ground was on the same floor as executive management, who passed by it every day. “It was the most equipment I had ever seen in the smallest physical space,” Johnson says. “It was using up premium office space.”

“I haven’t worked anywhere since where I’ve allowed a graveyard to exist,” he says. Johnson, who is now corporate director of operations centers at Baylor Healthcare System in Dallas, has helped to create an automated system within the IT department that monitors the life span of every piece of equipment.

The program is Web-based and displays a floor plan of Baylor’s four data centers  with representations of the 300 systems running in the network. Rolling a cursor over a portion of the floor plan provides all the information related to the equipment and software, including serial numbers, which is stored in databases.

Each piece of equipment brought into the network is given a birth date and an end-of-life date pertaining to leases or a typical life span.

As the end-of-life date approaches or a lease is about to expire, the system automatically sends out an e-mail alert to the person responsible for that gear, who decides whether to renew the lease or retire the equipment. When the system is finished in production, it is eliminated from the floor plan and database.

Johnson says this forces people to ask the question: “Are we going to still use this?” Old equipment piles up when people don’t do that. “They retire an old AIX box that’s marginal. You know when you’ve got something that’s so old and unusable without enough horsepower.”

While you won’t find a graveyard room at Baylor, Johnson still has a storage room with a few contents. “The things that are in there are [duplicate] pieces of equipment we use to scavenge parts for stuff that’s still in production.”

By staying on top of the life span of the equipment, Johnson says he avoids the hassles that come with trying to get rid of stuff later. At the end of the lease, his team trades in equipment for a new lease, returns it for a credit toward training from the vendor or buys it for his engineers to use to test-drive new applications .

When the equipment Baylor owns outright reaches the end of its life, Johnson sells some to resellers. He and his team carry other equipment to the dumpster.

This idea makes Bill Sadlick cringe. Caught in the crossfire of downsizing within the telecom industry, Sadlick, a network manager at Charles Industries in Chicago, has 200 extra PCs lying around from all the empty offices. “We cannibalize them to death,” he says, making use of memory, network cards and any other needed components.

“I report to the CFO so when I say there’s a cost element to it – if it’s useful, I can’t throw it out. I can’t go and say I need to buy 20 new PCs,” he says. Sadlick’s asset-tracking system helps him get at least five years out of each PC.

Sadlick tries to keep his graveyard rooms orderly. “One stores monitors, one stores systems, one stores software. I work for a manufacturing company, so we tend to store inventory,” he says.

Mike Sapien, a consultant for the datacom industry, says he has clients like this. What the companies are lacking is a clear exit strategy for their retired equipment. His theory on older equipment: “Kill it now before it gets too painful.”

“You always have to explain to the financial people why you’re throwing something out – if it works, why are you replacing it?” Sapien says. But he adds that keeping equipment around too long raises other costs, such as help desk and service calls.

Trash talk

Recent regulatory issues pertaining to privacy and the environment have put a damper on how companies get rid of their old equipment. Hard drives must be wiped clean so that data is not compromised. Computers containing hazardous materials cannot be dumped in landfills. As a result, companies are turning to professional recyclers to tear down computers.

“The biggest challenge IT has is recognizing that they’re going to have to pay to have equipment hauled away,” says Frances O’Brien, an analyst at Gartner. She says that companies should plan to spend upward of $30 to $120 to dispose of a single PC – depending on the level of sanitization they want.

“A lot of times what happened in the past, employers just said, ‘let’s just give this to employees,’ and since they’re trusted employees they didn’t clean off the drives,” she says. “What happens years later when the employee gives up the PC?”

Aside from liability, there are other reasons O’Brien doesn’t suggest handing out retired equipment. “It’s labor-intensive, taking off the old data, doing a software overwrite,” she says.” What the person’s left with is a PC with no operating system  and no applications.” What’s more, employees might expect IT to support these clunkers.

O’Brien says there has to be a shift in the IT industry to look at product retirement as an ongoing process. “Don’t wait till you fill up your closet,” she says. She cites three options: Charitable contributions, outsourcing and tear down.

Large vendors such as Dell, HP and IBM have all developed disposal offerings outside of their new PC sales and leasing groups. Also, manufacturers are starting to take back equipment, O’Brien says.

She cautions that this is not a free service. “You’re going to be paying for it one way or another – with an upfront fee or a visible recycling fee at the end,” she says.

Spring cleaning

Professionals recommend starting an end-of-life-span strategy for your computer equipment the minute you bring it in-house. Here are some tips:
Assign a birth date and end-of-life date — when a lease expires or the value of the equipment will deteriorate — to each piece of gear you purchase, and enter that information into a database.
Set the database to alert the manager when an end-of-life date is approaching. Leave enough time to consider installing new systems or renegotiating contracts.
Take action immediately. Send the box back to the vendor, renegotiate the lease, or allow your engineers to use it for training or testing. Don’t just let it sit around.
Take stock of your storage room. If you are moving equipment into storage, make sure you enter information about it into a manifest, noting what components are salvageable.
Make sure hard drives are clean, even in the storage room. That way if someone steals the computer, you aren’t liable for the information on the hard drive.