Leveraging that new-found funding

After years of cobbling together antiquated hardware, once you get some real money, how do you transition to lifecycling funding?

Chris Dawson's article Why ed tech is like Thanksgiving got me thinking about exactly how someone in his position (suddenly flush in cash for IT initiatives) goes about introducing life-cycle funding into his computing environment. 

As Chris has pointed out in his article, and as most of us in IT (especially in the public sector) already know, 'use it or lose it' is the phrase to remember when managing your budget.  I don't disagree with a word Chris has said in this most recent post but he doesn't address how to go about establishing on-going IT funding.  To be sure, this is no easy task -- unless you have a sympathetic administrators in your district who appreciate the benefits of forward-looking IT policy. 

As Chris has pointed out, Infrastructure must come first.  Robust high-speed Internet connections (and a 100-BaseT LAN) can add life to lame five and six-year-old hardware (most of which shipped with 56K modems) and a lack thereof can render even the most robust computer workstations virtually useless.  (When was the last time you saw a workstation that included a 56K modem in lieu of 10/100-baseT?) 

Once you've provided for ubiquitous high-performance network access -- with authentication, if you still have money left, think about how you might balance your workstation needs.  Do you opt for as many identical workstations (concurrent seats) as you can afford or do you establish a baseline workstation and develop tiers of workstations based upon need?

If you go for identical low-end workstations in order to maximize seats, then all your workstations become obsolete at about the same time and in a year or two and you are right back where you started -- with lame hardware and three to four years (or more) before there is any more 'one-time money' to be had.  Conversely, if you know anything about IT at all, you know that you never spend all of your money on the latest and greatest because you will end up paying a premium price for fewer high-end workstations that will be mainstream in a year or two at dramatically lower prices. 

The best approach is to start somewhere in the middle.  A robust mid-range system (suitable for any OS on the market today, including Vista) can be had for around $750 from almost any vendor offering educational discounts.  Let this be your baseline system.  For the bulk of your users personal productivity needs, this will fit the bill -- and perhaps even exceed the baseline needs of some of your users -- but in three years, this baseline will be long in the tooth and suitable only for those entry-level personal productivity tasks.  Even if you have to keep some of your 'best' old hardware around for another year, this allows you to establish a good starting point for introducing life-cycle funding into your environment. 

Ideally, this strategy also permits you to offer your users a few "upgrade" systems -- more RAM, larger displays, more HD space, special I/O (such as DVD/RW for instance).  These systems could be placed in computing labs and special-needs facilities.  Whether those "special needs" are ADA-related, research related, or for multimedia or publishing, these workstations need to be presented as your state-of-the-art computing site -- so your administrators can "show off" to their peers and their constituents.  Like it or not, high-visibility helps insure future funding.

(Keep these high-performance systems off of your administrators desks, your students actually NEED them -- give your administrators your hand-me-downs and they will soon be anxious for you to buy new systems for your students so they can have the systems your student's used last year.) 

"How about notebooks/laptops?", you might ask.  Well, mobile classrooms built on this model can be useful but these should be only a part of your strategy, not the bulk of it.  After all, these 'mid-range' systems will cost the same are your high-performance 'special-needs' workstations but will be no where near as powerful. 

As I have preached often enough in this forum, three-years is the ideal IT life-cycle but the accountants in your district's finance office were trained to think in terms of five-year ROI (and the politicians passing out the money think no further ahead than the next election)  So be it.  Start there.  Try to set the expectation with your budget folks that your one-time money will replace 80 percent of your seats now and that next year, life-cycle funding needs to be available to upgrade to the remaining 20%.  Replacing 20% of your workstations each year will be palatable to most accountants -- and forward thinking administrators, no matter how clueless they are about IT.   

In year two, replace your high-end systems in your 'special needs' labs and trickle them down into last year's mid-range labs.  Trickle down last year's 'mid-range' systems into those labs that got stuck with your legacy hardware in year one.  If you have notebooks/laptops dedicated to mobile classrooms, replace those in year two or three and trickle-down the previous year's notebooks/laptops to your teachers and administrators.  They may need new batteries and more memory by then but this is a good investment toward extending their lifetime. 

While K-6 does not necessarily need as broad a range of computing capabilities as 7-12, (or much-less, a university environment), the principles are the same and a simpler version of this model can be just as easily implemented in such a setting. 

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