Many salespeople persuade customers to buy IT systems on the grounds that they can be upgraded. It is a factor which many users find convincing, yet few really know what it means.
Rarely can systems be upgraded ad infinitum, which is what most novice purchasers understand by the term. Often, it means only that memory can be slightly expanded or software partially replaced by new code.
In reality, every system and solution can be upgraded to a point, though the process often involves major replacement and is rarely free. Upgrading keeps your investment up to date with technology, and should be a continual process. To get the best from it, your system should be regularly reviewed in the context of new developments and new business demands.
There are several pieces of hardware which can be commonly upgraded, such as the processor, motherboard, memory, hard disk and display. These options are usually available at the time of purchase, but customers often choose a lower specification. They only realise the inadequacy of the original setup when the system is in place or the demands made of it increase.
Software upgrades are more often associated with new versions. Occasionally, users decide at the time of purchase not to take a particular module or feature ? such as Internet access, for example ? and then later change their minds. But more often it is the case that users want to take advantage of new versions coming onto the market.
Sometimes, upgrades are free ? usually when a company is developing a new feature and wants to include it in its current marketing. The product is sold as ?futureware? with the promise of a free upgrade as soon as the new code is finalised.
Other times, upgrades are paid for as part of a maintenance contract. This is a way of paying for the future changes in advance, although you can never be sure that there will be an upgrade. The cost of upgrading can often be added to leasing contracts, which spreads the expense.
More often, upgrades come at a significant extra charge which has to be weighed against the cost of a new system. With hardware prices still falling and numerous special offers around, buyers have to work out whether they should buy new or upgrade the old system.
Purchasers need to consider whether it is technically feasible to upgrade their systems, the cost, and how much they will have to spend on retraining staff, if applicable, compared to buying new. There is no point, for example, in spending money on upgrading a system which is near the limits of its potential for expansion.
One of the problems with hardware is that, when you open the case and change the specification, it often affects the warranty. In some situations, you can send the unit back to the manufacturer for upgrading, in which case a new warranty is issued.
Upgrading hardware is usually more complex than many users expect, regardless of manufacturers? claims. Indeed, changing settings and dip switches can be more difficult than the experts claim.
For example, putting in a new motherboard requires checking or changing the jumper setting and probably altering the clock speed. Dip switches often need changing, and errors are easily made. What?s more, these mistakes are not usually detected until the system is in critical use.
Many organisations are considering upgrading their versions of Windows or moving to Windows NT. If there is widespread legacy investment in greenscreen or Unix applications, users will need a lot of support.
Often, in these cases, the term ?upgrade? simply means ?replace?. Bringing old systems up to date is big business for many third parties, and it?s worth remembering that they might have a different agenda to you. For example, they may prefer to sell you new machines and software rather than upgrade your old ones, because of the more favourable profit margin.
You should also take advice on exactly which part of your system needs upgrading. It is easy to over-upgrade. If you have a bottleneck, for example, the answer may not lie in replacing the processor. By adding memory and storage you can dramatically improve speed without replacing the chip or motherboard.
Many organisations use the upgrade path to breathe fresh life into systems which are looking dated but are too young to throw away, says Tim Baugh, managing director at accounting and finance supplier K2 Systems.
?There used to be a five or six-year life on products,? he says, ?but now, they often need to be upgraded after one year.? However, the process is often more expensive than users believe: ?Users expect upgrading to be a cheap option, but if you are implementing new software, for example, you usually need to increase the hardware specification, perhaps with more memory or storage,? he adds.
Many companies prefer to just refresh their old IT, explains Baugh. ?If they have made a decision they usually stick to it. They just want a fresher, updated version of what they had before.?
Baugh says that companies frequently cascade their IT, so that a system which was originally bought for the managing director can find itself on the desk of a receptionist a few years later.
?Companies should regard upgrading as a regular feature of IT, and have a budget for it,? he explains. ?It means that systems can ripple through an enterprise providing most benefit at each level, and ensuring the best return on investment.?
Electronic software upgrades are the way of the future, according to Dave Curl, marketing manager at Psion Dacom. The company sells PC-Cards, also known as PCMCIA cards. These are the small credit-card size devices which slot into portables and handheld PCs, offering memory, fax or other facilities.
The Psion Dacom Gold Card product can be upgraded by logging on to the company?s bulletin board. Curl says: ?Electronic upgrading has to be fast and secure. It takes six seconds to upgrade a modem from 22,000bits/sec or 28,800bits/sec to 33,600bits/sec.?
Psion Dacom provides a free upgrade service to anyone who bought one of its Gold Card PC-Cards after September 1995. Unfortunately, products bought before that date cannot download the upgrade because they do not have the necessary software.
Curl says: ?It is also important that upgrading is as easy as possible because some customers are not technically adept.? Curl explains that users are ?talked? through the upgrade process with display screen messages.
He continues: ?As the Internet becomes more widely used, more vendor companies will distribute their upgrades on it. It makes sense.? It is a matter of reassuring users that the process is easy, he says, so that electronic software distribution will eventually become an accepted way for people to upgrade their systems.
Response Computer Maintenance
Some users feel comfortable taking the back off their computer or installing new software, but many more are nervous about doing so. The answer, according to John Gladman, general manager at Response Computer Maintenance, is to use an expert.
He explains: ?We offer a service called PC Expert which is available to everyone, from individuals to international blue-chip companies. We provide the installation and upgrade skills which are often lacking, and take up the maintenance and support contracts which are invalidated when users tamper with a product.?
Gladman adds: ?We are often asked to rescue users who have bodged an upgrade. It is more difficult than people think, and we have technical staff who do this and nothing else.?
Many companies have an upgrade strategy, Gladman explains, in which new equipment is given to the most senior staff, and the hardware and software trickle down through the organisation. ?But each system has to be tweaked to suit the new user,? he says, ?and we can do that so the screen and setup are appropriate.?
Rather than spend thousands of pounds replacing old 486s with new Pentiums, he says, many companies just replace the motherboard. ?It sounds easy, but there are lots of settings which have to be adjusted,? explains Gladman. ?There are numerous compatibility factors.?
He adds: ?Upgrading is a way of extending the life of a product. A company which bought an expensive, top-of-the-range machine a few years ago doesn?t want to see its investment wasted. For a few hundred pounds an organisation can extend the life of its investment and boost performance to meet current demands.?
?The same goes for software,? continues Gladman. ?How many people want all the features that a new product offers? Usually, they just want one or two specifics, and their old version can be upgraded without needing to buy an entirely new package.?
Gladman says that Response is seeing a huge demand for the installation of Internet connectivity. ?We install the hardware and software, and train the users. We aim to make upgrading as easy as possible for users, but it?s a mistake to think it?s straightforward. Products are frequently sold as upgradable, but that usually depends on an expert being available to help.?
The Games Workshop
Steve Prowroznyck, IT manager at Games Workshop which produces fantasy games and toys, says he is depending on his supplier to help him upgrade his system. ?We are moving from an Altos platform to IBM and installing new software. We are relying on the skills and experience of Apex Systems. Like many companies, we have cut back on our in-house IT staff,? he says.
Apex is providing all the upgrade hardware and software, and is training users on the new system. It is also managing the physical installation and implementation, including cabling. ?Upgrading is an important step for us, which we expect will make the business run more smoothly and profitably. Apex Systems has helped us look ahead and anticipate any problems, as well as hold our hands throughout the transition period,? he adds.
Apex Systems: 01455 234011
Games Workshop: 01773 769731
K2 Systems: 01923 816266
Psion Dacom: 01908 261686
Response Computer Maintenance: 0181 965 3225
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