TCO leads away from PCs ... and PR

The concept of total cost of ownership has been known to us since the mid-90s but really hit the headlines in 1997. That was when Gartner delivered the stunning news that keeping a PC working on the typical corporate desktop cost about $US10,000 a year.

The concept of total cost of ownership has been known to us since the mid-90s but really hit the headlines in 1997. That was when Gartner delivered the stunning news that keeping a PC working on the typical corporate desktop cost about $US10,000 a year.

Gartner arrived at this astounding figure by factoring in all the hidden costs associated with running a Windows 95 PC, principally support and … well, support.

Whether Gartner did more than just coin a name for an accounting process which organisations were already going through, I don’t know, but it certainly had the effect of concentrating minds on the expense of running networks of PCs. Remember, this was in the days when PC LANs were really taking hold, in the belief that they were a cheaper, more flexible alternative to mainframes or minicomputers attached to dumb terminals.

The subject’s on my mind at present because Computerworld is preparing a TCO white paper for publication next week. As I’ve digested the white paper’s contents, the striking thing has been that TCO calculations don’t tend to support the Wintel PC LAN as being the most cost-efficient way of delivering applications into the hands of end users. There are exceptions, of course, but the case studies included in the white paper all focus on organisations that concluded a non-Wintel solution worked best for them. If that’s true of these examples, what about the rest of us? Why is the LAN almost universal in organisations of all sizes?

The answer is, of course, that LANs are a fine, if comparatively expensive, architecture and once you’ve gone out and bought one, you’re not going to rip it out before it’s provided a return on investment, however long that might take. The established place of LANs on the IT landscape is borne out by what analysts report on recent buying behaviour. Sales of the bits and pieces that make up a LAN – server and desktop network interface cards and switches and routers – were steady last year, according to IDC, which it puts down to the fact that LANs are a mature technology.

As they pass from maturity into the decrepitude of old age, however, it will be interesting to see whether they retain their place. Anecdotally – with support from the aforementioned white paper – it seems thin clients setups are becoming increasingly popular. And that’s not surprising when the TCO sums are done, particularly for new installations: thin client networks score well in initial purchase cost but, even more so, in ongoing support and software maintenance costs. I remember Citrix, the thin client (actually, it prefers the “server-based computing” description of itself) software company, describing a year or two ago how a German customer deployed new applications to thousands of users in a matter of hours.

The irony of a trend towards server-based computing is – and it’s been remarked on by plenty of others – that it’s a return to something like the way computing used to be: populations of terminals running off a central processor. The difference is today’s processor is a PC server and the terminals have a graphical interface. And it can all be kept running without having to pay exorbitant mainframe operating system licences and service fees.

That’s where TCO analysis leads. Computerworld’s been doing a little research of its own, in relation to what you, our readers, want from us. It’s not been exhaustive, and will be an ongoing process, but the starting point was to invite a representative sample of subscribers into our offices over lunch to hear first-hand what they want to see more – or less – of in our pages. More information against which they can benchmark themselves was one of those things sought; data – numbers of various kinds – on industry and product trends was also requested; case studies also proved in demand; and intelligence on IT job market trends was also sought. One thing they didn’t ask for more of was “stories” based on press releases; they showed a knack for being able to see through content which originated in marketing departments.

A group of Computerworld journalists had the opportunity to convey that message to the PR industry at a gathering in Auckland last week. There was dismay – not to mention disbelief (and possibly some hurt) – on the faces of some of those in the room that we might not consider their endeavours on the part of IT vendors that valuable for you, our readers. We’ll take news leads from whatever source, but press releases go to the bottom of the pile. The ray of hope we offered up to them was that we’d willingly pursue any leads they might provide about their customers’ competitors. But who’s going to pay them for that?

The news leads we pay most attention to are those from you. Contact details for all our reporters are on this site. If you’d rather tip us off anonymously, email Feel the excitement of seeing a story you initiated in print – send us your suggestions.

Aside from talking directly to a handful of subscribers, the other effort we make to know what you want is a comprehensive subscriber survey. We’re receiving responses to that at present, and will be poring over them in the next few weeks. Watch this space for changes to come.

Doesburg is Computerworld’s editor. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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