Techniques for Doing Well With Less
The economic news continues to be grim for many sectors of the US economy, and the academic sector has not been spared the pain felt by others. Enrollment is off or capped, the value of endowments is shrinking, budgets are being cut, projects are being postponed, and employees are being furloughed.
Those more fortunate are seeing hiring freezes, and while there may be no employee layoffs, contracts with outside contractors and consultants are being curtailed. Some capital construction projects are on hold, while others are being scaled back. For many instructors there will be fewer teaching assistants, and staff who leave may not be replaced for awhile. Given the current economic environment, I'm grateful to be working. Some colleges and universities are attempting to shield their programs by reducing support staff rather than cutting academic programs, but for all of us the situation is still fluid. Meanwhile, we are still being asked to continue to innovate, but perhaps with fewer resources available for th foreseeable future. There will certainly be less new equipment and fewer upgrades of older equipment, and, in many cases, it will be necessary to make do with what we have, over a longer period of time.
How then can we best maximize the usefulness of our current equipment over a longer life cycle? The first step is to evaluate equipment based on its intended use, rather than on its actual age. One area to examine that can yield real savings is the process of replacing older computers with newer models.
For example, the computers in the music lab are loaded with applications that can require a great deal of raw CPU power and memory to run properly. Digidesign's Pro Tools, Adobe Dreamweaver and Photoshop, and Apple's Final Cut all need fast computers with ample RAM to handle the larger projects we assign today. On the other hand, a computer whose application suite includes little more than Firefox, Outlook, and Microsoft Office requires far less CPU and memory resources.
About a year ago our department instituted a pilot program, in conjunction with our small IT department, that recycles older computers out of the lab as newer and more powerful computers are acquired. After all, a twoyear- old iMac with 1.5 gigabytes of RAM that struggles to run Final Cut will usually handle a PowerPoint presentation just fine. So when faculty or staff request a replacement or additional computer for general office work, they are given one of these former lab machines.
Each goes through a rigorous refurbishment process beforehand, which includes reformatting the hard drive and loading the newest operating system, installing the maximum amount of RAM for that model, replacing worn keyboards and mice, and a general physical clean up. They are fully "burned in" and tested for a minimum of 48 hours before they are released for use. This process is handled by IT with a little help from a couple of workstudy students who happen to major in engineering, although much of the process is automated and requires little human intervention. Even the repair and physical clean up process is relatively quick.
We have applied the same program to laptops, although on a much smaller scale. Faculty who regularly teach classes that include a computer lab component often need a better-equipped and more powerful laptop than those who do not, since they are developing materials and exercises on the same software applications as exist on the lab computers. When such an instructor is assigned a new laptop, his or her old laptop goes through the same refurbishment process, with a few caveats. General wear and tear on laptops is far higher than on desktop computers, and a few are damaged to the point where they not worth refurbishing. Others may require replacement parts to bring them up to an acceptable condition, including replacing the top or bottom cases if necessary. The LCD screen is the most expensive component of a laptop computer, and the cost of a replacement screen can approach the cost of a new laptop. So in general, only those with screens in good condition are refurbished.
The program works well, in part because the number of computers involved is small; perhaps 20-odd computers per year are refurbished and recycled, and there is never more than two or three computers on the test bench at one time. It also works because the cost of refurbishment is well below the cost of outright replacement. To date, no faculty or staff have complained of not receiving a new computer, and many are unaware that their machine is not brand new.
As the economy continues to struggle, we will all have to look for ways to do more with less, and to stretch our existing resources wherever possible. While this program does not result in significant savings overall, it does allow us to provide faculty and staff with application-appropriate computing power at a reduced cost, while simultaneously increasing the life cycle of a resource on which we have come to depend.
Steve Cunningham is a senior lecturer in technology in the Thornton School, Music Industry Department at USC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.