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The Costs of Computer Technology

Once people have access to a computer and related technologies, they'll probably expect to use it regularly. Computer technology has become not only an expected part of each employee's office furniture, but has become, at least partially, integrated into most areas of instruction. It is not unusual to hear in the office setting that "I have everything on the computer!" Nor can most instructors imagine their students without access to the technologies that benefit their disciplines, whether that be tools for research, for problem-solving, or for communication. In many and varied ways, we've become dependent on the benefits of computer technology.

Our dependence on technology implies a long-term commitment and a long-term cost. The commitment is to stay in the mainstream, to refurbish and replace the technology as it becomes obsolete. The costs appear both in training/learning time, in the software costs, and in the capital costs of hardware.

The following analysis projects the costs of computer hardware into the future. This projection is based on several assumptions relating to rate of obsolescence, costs per workstation, etc., detailed as follows:

Assumption 1: Computers become obsolete after six year of purchase and will be replaced at an average cost of $2500. Actually, as we look around, we notice that most computers purchased 5 years ago have fallen into disuse. They haven't run the newer software for years, so they're no longer compatible with the other computers available. In most cases computers that are over 5 years old won't even run the current version of their respective operating systems. (This is especially vexing to students who sit at a variety of computers, in a variety of locations, preparing for a variety of courses. The lack of compatibility in disk size, software version, operating system version, even on computers of the same general class, presents unnecessarily large hurdles to student learning and productivity.) Nonetheless we have managed to find imaginative, special-purpose uses for old computers; so figure an average of six years of use for each computer system.

Some technologies do not change as fast as computer technology. Ten to twenty year old automobiles, for example, will physically wear out rather than outlive their usefulness.

Yet even in automobiles we experience the idea of obsolescence. Though an automobile from the 1920s has a certain charm, and though it (anrespect, that car is simply not equipped for urban freeway driving. It still performs the way it was designed to perform, but in our transportation culture, it's obsolete. In contrast, computers often outlive their usefulness - they become obsolete before they physically wear out.olete before they physically wear out.

The typical cost of computer systems has been at the $2500 level throughout the '80s. For that $2500 we've purchased increasingly better hardware, moving to hard disks as they became affordable, to hi-resolution color as it became affordable, and to networking as that became normal and expected. Yet our typical system purchase price has not changed radically. For microcomputers put into service during the 1992-93 year, the average cost for a CPU, monitor, keyboard was of $1850, district-wide. We spent about $350 per unit for printers. In fact we bought a laser printer for each 6 micros during the year. And we spend about $150 per micro for networking, whether it's connected to a terminal server or its Local Area Network is connected by a bridge to the ethernet. So, for 1992-93, the $2500 purchases not only the stand-alone system with printing, but contributes to the overhead costs of being connected to a network.

Assumption 2: The usable life of a computer system can be extended by a mid-life upgrade of $300, on the average. The nature of the upgrade depends on the computer and industry developments. Typical upgrades have been increased memory, larger hard disk, replacement motherboard, added math co-processor, and added communications or network capabilities.

Most people want to know when you should upgrade an existing system and when it should be replaced. Probably no one knows the answer, but the answer to the following question may help: Does the upgrade put one back into the mainstream? If so, for how long? If by purchasing the upgrade one can then run current versions of software on current operating system versions, and is positioned for the next rounds of version changes, the upgrade is probably worth it. If however, the upgrade leads one further into a niche, or provides only short-term relief, then replacement is preferred.

Assumption 3: Student systems, faculty systems, and staff systems all need to be upgraded and replaced at the rate and cost described by assumptions 1 and 2.

Assumption 4: The costs of mainframe, mini, and server computers, wide-area-networking hardware, terminals, and multimedia peripherals are not included in the projection that follows.

These costs are omitted because the nature (and the costs) of our mainframe/mini computing may change radically in 3-5 years; and because the future growth of multimedia is frankly unpredictable at present. During the 1992-93 year about $600,000 was spent on computer technology that was not directly related to the purchase of individual microcomputers. Included are such items as minicomputers, LCD panel displays, hard disks, tape backups, and switch boxes.

Nonetheless, careful attention and substantial amounts of money will need to be spent during the next decade to insure that our technology infrastructure (especially the network) is capable of supporting the traffic. This money will be above and beyond the projections below.

Assumption 5: Computer systems purchased prior to 1986 (about 600 are currently on the books) will be abandoned without replacement. These are used negligibly now so that the transition to other computer systems will not have much impact on total computer usage numbers. This is an assumption for projection purposes only. Of course, those who now use equipment from that era would certainly feel a jolt if the equipment were yanked away, without being offered a transition path.

During the 1992-93 year, 135 microcomputers were taken out of service, mostly from 1985. Of the 135, most were sold at auction or used for parts by the Repair Department.

Assumption 6: Assume that five years of computers (1986-1990) will be replaced during the four years 1993-1997. That is, assume that 1000 systems will be purchased each of the four years to replace the 4000 systems from 1986-1990.

Given the end of bond revenue funding for technology (and the subsequent failure of the 1992 Bond election), this assumption is optimistic. Hopefully, funding for technology will be resumed shortly, so that the indicated expenses are simply delayed, but not changed substantially. The longer, however, that we limp along with obsolete computer systems, the more computer systems will become obsolete, and the more substantial the early next investments in replacement systems will need to be.

Case 1

In addition to the six basic assumptions above, assume further that the total number of viable computer systems available in the district remains constant.

      Number of    Number of      Running       TOTAL      Running Total
      Additional   Replacement  Total Number   COSTS Per      of Costs
      New Units     New Units     of Units      Year

1986      700                      700
1987      700                     2000
1988      700                     2700
1989      700                     3400
1990      700                     4050
1991      700                     5450
1992      700                     6450
1993      700                     7100         $1,625,000     $1,625,000
1994        0        1000         7100         $2,920,000     $4,545,000
1995        0        1000         7100         $2,800,000     $7,345,000
1996        0        1000         7100         $2,695,000    $10,040,000
1997        0        1000         7100         $2,800,000    $12,840,000
1998        0        1400         7100         $3,800,000    $16,640,000
1999        0        1000         7100         $2,800,000    $19,440,000
2000        0         650         7100         $1,925,000    $21,365,000
2001        0        1000         7100         $2,920,000    $24,285,000
2002        0        1000         7100         $2,800,000    $27,085,000
2003        0        1000         7100         $2,695,000    $29,780,000
2004        0        1000         7100         $2,800,000    $32,580,000
                           Average per year    $2,715,000

Assumptions     1. $2500 for new microcomputer system
                2. $300 to upgarde a system every 3 years
                3. Every micro gets replaced after 6 years
                4. We add NO MORE units

Interpretation of Case 1: If all available money for desktop computer systems is spent replacing systems after six years of use, and upgrading them after three years, it will cost $2,700,000 per year, for the entire District. This annual cost extends into the future until one of the assumptions 1 or 2 changes.

This no-growth case means, in effect, that other colleges would actually lose systems as EMCCC grows over the next few years. It also means that the ratio FTSE/student-workstation will increase, as the number of enrolled students increases. In short, spending $2,700,000 per year, though it keeps the current fleet of computers at a reasonable level of currency, not only doesn't keep pace with an increasing student population, but it also fails to address any increase in the demand to use technology for the existing students and their courses.

Case 2:

In addition to the basic six assumptions, assume that we increase the number of computer systems available by 900 per year, districtwide. This case assumes that we continue through the 1990s the same average increase per year that we have had for the past seven years.

      Number of    Number of      Running       TOTAL      Running Total
      Additional   Replacement  Total Number   COSTS Per      of Costs
      New Units     New Units     of Units      Year

1986      700                      700
1987     1300                     2000
1988      700                     2700
1989      700                     3400
1990      650                     4050
1991     1400                     5450
1992     1000                     6450
1993      650                     7100         $1,625,000     $1,625,000
1994      900        1000         8000         $5,170,000     $6,975,000
1995      900        1000         8900         $5,050,000    $11,845,000
1996      900        1000         9800         $4,945,000    $16,790,000
1997      900        1000        10700         $5,320,000    $22,110,000
1998      900        1400        11600         $6,320,000    $28,430,000
1999      900        1000        12500         $5,320,000    $33,750,000
2000      900         650        13400         $4,445,000    $38,195,000
2001      900        1000        14300         $7,690,000    $45,885,000
2002      900        1000        15200         $7,570,000    $53,455,000
2003      900        1000        16100         $7,465,000    $60,920,000
2004      900        1000        17000         $7,840,000    $68,760,000
                           Average per year    $5,730000

Assumptions     1. $2500 for new microcomputer system
                2. $300 to upgarde a system every 3 years
                3. Every micro gets replaced after 6 years
                4. We add 900 micros per year

Interpretation of Case 2: By adding 900 systems per year, and continuing to replace obsolete systems, we would need to spend an average of $5,700,000 per year over the next 12 years, for the entire District. In this case the early years need about $5+ million and the later years need $7+ million, as there are more obsolete computers to replace each year.

Purchasing 900 additional systems per year is probably not a bizarre assumption. The student population will increase substantially, assuming we have more buildings for classes and more faculty to teach. Adding 900 workstations per year would surely improve the FTSE/student workstation ratio over 12 years, as it nearly triples the number of workstations in that period of time. However, the student population may easily double in that same period of time, so that the increase in workstations, even at the 900 per year level, may not actually keep up with increased demand for them by additional instructional applications.

During the 1989-90 academic year, colleges articulated both building and technology needs in preparing the 1992 Bond framework. For the time period 1992-1997, colleges anticipated that they would purchase 19,000 workstations, more than twice as many workstations in the same time period as would be purchased according to Case 2.

None of the assumptions above included costs for the infrastructure of technology and yet all assumed the viability of the infrastructure. These costs are nontrivial and must be included as a part of the total picture.

In preparation for the 1992 Bond Framework, Information Technology Services projected the following system-wide technology investments for the time period 1992-2000:

Data System       $6,380,000
Voice System       3,572,000
Network            1,405,000
Video System       1,400,000
      Total       $12,757,000         or about $1.6 million per year.

Consider one more case for replacing our fleet of computers. If we were to replace computers every 3 years, instead of after 6 years, we would realize several benefits: 1) instead of spending $300 to upgrade the computer, we could sell it while it still had some street value, perhaps about $700; 2) we could reduce the size and budget of the Repair Department, and 3) our students would always be able to use up-to-date technology.

Replacing computers every three years instead of every six years would cost $4.5 million a year instead of $2.7 million a year, assuming the benefits of 1) above. The difference in costs increases dramatically if we assume that we would add 300 or 900 units per year. Even at the zero-growth costs, it is clear that the Repair Department is a bargain, since its repair budget (staff and operational budget) is just about $300,000, and that this department repairs the microwave network as well as the phone system, in addition to the computer-related repairs.

"Ignore your teeth . . . and they'll go away" is a favorite dental aphorism. It's true of technology, too. The cost of not renewing technology, of not staying in the mainstream, is that students and faculty will simply stop using it. The quality of the student's learning experience suffers. The end result is that the students will probably go away, too. Our commitment to technology has substantial ongoing costs simply for upgrades and replacement of obsolete hardware; namely $2,700,000 per year to maintain our present state, and up to $7,000,000 per year to maintain our growth of the past seven years. These figures are based on the average cost of $2500 to replace a computer system, the average life span of 6 years for a computer system, assuming a small mid-life upgrade of $300 after the third year. We would increase our costs substantially by moving to a three-year replacement cycle, rather than the current upgrade and repair case.

Colleges have predicted a need for twice as many workstations than the more optimistic case (2) has allowed for. Not only are the colleges aware of emerging new technologies, particularly multimedia technology, but they are also aware that faculty are requesting more uses of technology for their students, in more courses and more often.

In addition the cost of keeping the computing and communication infrastructure current will add about $1.6 million per year.

Not reported in this analysis are the substantial costs of furniture, electricity, or for software.

The total annual costs for maintaining currency in technology are sobering. But these are simply the costs of maintaining quality. All MCCCD students will be using technology in their occupations and/or further studies, and they are counting on us to prepare them for that future.

It's a River, Not a Lake: The Costs of Computer Technology
© January 1994 Maricopa Center for Learning and Instruction (MCLI)
Maricopa Community Colleges

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