When to Say When

on October 9, 2005

One of the harshest realities for small businesses in the increasingly modern world is managing technology costs effectively. The balance between cost and productivity when it comes to technology is an extremely delicate one, and small businesses are often left in the lurch, because they lack the knowledge and resources to plan around the problems.

In no area is this more acute than in the realm of simply managing and fixing workstation PCs. In a larger environment, this problem is often alleviated by employing smart strategies for imaged workstations that can be wiped and re-imaged at a moments’ notice. However, options like these simply aren’t viable for an environment that is too small to justify the cost (or in an environment that simply can’t pay the cost regardless — i.e. non-profits on shoestring budgets).

As consultants for many companies like these, it has often been left to us to make wise decisions in these situations — and it’s extremely difficult. The most common problem that organizations face on their workstations is the ever-present threat of infestation by spyware and viruses. So a decision we have constantly had to face is “how much work should I invest (on my clients’ behalf) towards trying to fix this PC before giving up?”

The answers are a bit startling and perhaps unintuitive (or at least unfortunate). We have come to a few conclusions and rules as a result of the experiences (good and bad) that we’ve had:

  1. Never spend more than 2 hours of work trying to fix a virus/spyware-ridden PC. This is a very tough rule to follow, mostly because of what I call the “light at the end of the tunnel” syndrome. Sometimes this applies to problems beyond just viruses/spyware, as well. No matter how much time you spend on a problem, you are always tempted to think that the solution is just around the corner — looking for the light at the end of the tunnel. “Maybe this one last thing will work,” you tell yourself, “and then I’ll call it quits.” Before you know it, you have spent 4 hours of your clients’ hard-earned money and gotten nowhere. The “2 hours” threshold is just a rough guideline, but the equation is solid and can be adapted to any circumstance. At the industry-standard rate of $125/hr, two hours of work is $250. If you’ve already spent 2 hours of work trying to fix a PC and gotten nowhere, you are already guaranteed to spend $500 at least either re-installing, or worse, giving up and ordering a replacement, which these days typically costs no more than $500-$600 for an average PC. This brings me to:
  2. Never wipe and reinstall a PC. Never. It’s a startling conclusion, and one that pains me greatly. I am the type of guy that has no less than 3 mid-towers and 1 full-tower sitting in his computer room. I am a big fan of recycled hardware being put to good use. but it’s not a practical option for most businesses. The decreasing cost of hardware and the efficiency of big-time operations like Dell have made it more practical to just replace PCs wholesale than to try to fix them. Re-installing Microsoft Windows takes a long time. Aside from the installation of the OS itself, which can take around an hour, there’s generally 1-2 hours of patches — not including SP2, which itself can take upwards of an hour to install on some machines. And let’s not forget that most organizations have absolutely no idea where their installation media is, if they have it at all. And all this is before you even start to tackle the applications that any given client might require. Re-installing a PC simply takes more money than the cost of simply replacing it wholesale with a better, faster machine.

These are rules i have had to train myself to abide by — and it is hard, believe me. The instinct in me as an engineer is to “fix at any cost”, however this doesn’t quite work in an age when the cost of replacement hardware is so cheap — especially when the “cost” is not borne by you but rather your client, whose best interest you should have at heart.