Technology

Don’t Fool Yourself: Your Technology Has an Expiration Date

By / Nov 19, 2013 (iStock/Thinkstock)

While the costs of upgrading basic technology building blocks like hard drives certainly add up, delaying those upgrades comes with another price tag—one that could really hurt.

If you happened to go to the 2005 Society for News Design conference and took part in a mix-CD exchange that week, you’ll be happy to know that I still have the CDs.

That was one of the things I learned when I was doing an assessment of the physical discs I’ve been lugging from apartment to apartment across four states, one federal district, and through numerous roommate experiences, good and bad.

The most fascinating thing about this collection of CDs is that it fully covers most of my musical tastes between about 1995 (Oasis and Radiohead) and 2004 (Leonard Cohen)…but then stops, missing my Sun Kil Moon phase entirely. (And I’m a guy who has a bunch of CDs and once edited a music section for a newspaper, if that says anything.)

Something happened between 2004 and now, and it’s called digital music. We’ve become a society reliant on small devices to replace large collections. Which, of course, is super-useful, even if it creates a few problems with disruption along the way.

When digging through this time capsule, I was struck by a few things. First up, the discs, minus a few exceptions, still largely worked—even the ones that were 15 years old and I secretly wished were in worse shape. Second, my first instinct was to figure out the best way to save the music for later on a hard drive, so I don’t have to carry this giant box of old music around the next time I make a move.

In the age of the cloud, that’s natural. I want (most of) this music to last forever, and the cracks in the CD cases were suggesting that my time-stamped music wasn’t long for this world. A hard drive has to last longer than a CD, right?

You’d think so, but here’s the truth: The burn rate on hard drives is a lot shorter than you might think.

The way you invest in technology needs to keep up with this burn cycle, or you could find yourself in a bind.

The Life of a Hard Drive

A few years ago, the cloud-storage company BackBlaze decided to go with cheaper consumer-grade hard drives over more expensive options built specifically for server rooms—a fairly bold move for a company whose entire business is built upon reliability. Last week, it posted an in-depth analysis of how these drives have held up for them over time.

The findings were fascinating. While almost 80 percent of the company’s four-year-old drives are still in action, the ones that didn’t last have faded out at differing rates. In the first year and a half of the product’s lifespan, the company lost about 5 percent of its drives to various issues. But then the loss rate on the drives leveled off—until year three, a common warranty endpoint. After that point, the company lost 11.8 percent of its drives to failure in the span of a single year.

If the current drop rate holds, the company estimates that 50 percent of its drives will last until year six, which is pretty good for a firm that focuses on cloud computing (they’ll spend a lot less to replace those drives than they did when they first bought them, for one thing). However, it raises issues for companies whose main concern is the data on the drives.

Prepare for Expiration

BackBlaze’s experience is pretty telling, even if it’s not exactly how associations might handle things internally.

But it does make a pretty good argument for exactly how associations should spend on technology. The fact is, your data is important to keep, and the way you invest in technology needs to keep up with this burn cycle, or you could find yourself in a bind.

But too many organizations are moving in the opposite direction. A 2012 report by IDG on server upgrade cycles [PDF] showed that many companies take more time to upgrade their servers, not less.

“As companies now deal with their capital constraints, coupled with new demands, they keep their IT infrastructure in operation far beyond what was normally considered useful lifespan,” wrote IDC’s Randy Perry. “A number of IDC studies show a significant decline in the availability and reliability of most x86 servers once they have been in operation for about three to 3.5 years. A regular refresh at about 3.2 years would be appropriate. However, many companies are pushing their servers to four or five or more years.”

The report suggests that additional maintenance costs eat away at the cost benefits of holding off an upgrade, and the delay can increase failure rates by as much as 85 percent.

Outside of the server game, think about your end users. Apple, for example, has taken heat from some corners of the internet for building products that conveniently wheeze or break just around the time the warranty expires. Christopher Mims of Quartz says it’s not an evil campaign to get you to upgrade: Planned obsolescence merely comes with the territory.

“Regardless of whether you think that discord is driven by some devious scheme to boost profit or it’s the product of useful innovations,” he writes, “the consequence is that whatever smartphone or notebook or tablet seemed so new and shiny one or two years ago suddenly seems slow, sad, jittery, and, to the extent that we anthropomorphize our personal computing devices, sick.”

Products age—especially when, unlike the discs in my CD collection, they get used every day by your members and customers. Eventually, they do need to be replaced. So don’t skimp on the basics. Your association may not let its tech infrastructure fall into disrepair, but too often, we hear stories about copies of Windows XP that stay around for 12 years. If XP is still around, it probably means a few 12-year-old computers made the trip to the modern day, too.

Have a well-considered upgrade path for your infrastructure. Budget for it. Your data—even the outdated mix discs from eras gone by—deserve a home that won’t break down so easily.

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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