What is a refresh? What is an upgrade? Did you know that while they’re often used interchangeably, there’s a very real difference between the two? This article answers these questions and also offers you 5 tips for best practices for hardware refreshes and upgrade plans.
Loads of organizations seem to think that as long as their hardware is still working, there’s no need to improve it. However, this simply isn’t the case. Whether it’s a computer, a server or the indispensable performance applications that keep the company moving, plenty of companies neglect updates and refreshes, but they do so at their peril.
So, how often should you be performing these upgrades and refreshes — and are you doing them right?
These are questions that keep an IT administrator up at night. Thankfully, we’ve got answers. You can achieve peace of mind that you’re creating and implementing a server refresh cycle that’s as cost-effective as it is operationally effective. So, let’s dive in.
The Difference Between a Refresh and an Upgrade
Many IT departments use the terms “upgrade” and “refresh” interchangeably when they’re actually two separate entities that mean different things for your business.
1. What Is a Hardware Upgrade?
Hardware upgrades add to or swap a device’s supplementary components to improve its overall performance capacity, such as storage space or internal device temperature controls. It does not replace the whole unit or device.
Server upgrades are a hot topic in the industry and very prevalent across businesses. It’s also more cost-effective than completely replacing your servers every few years. Common upgrades to servers include installing new or enhanced:
- RAM and other memory drives
- Hard disks
- Power supplies
- Data acquisition engines (DAEs)
- Disk shelves
2. What Is a Hardware Refresh?
A hardware refresh replaces an entire storage or computing system, typically by swapping your suite of storage hardware with the latest version of the equipment.
A hardware refresh project occurs when organizations execute a strategic IT infrastructure overhaul across its storage servers and related network devices. Many refresh project plans address on-premises servers, cloud-based ones and those in managed or co-located data centers — or a hybrid approach involving all.
Other popular reasons for enterprises to conduct server refreshes include:
- The hardware has reached its end-of-life (EOL) stage, with performance metrics like load tests indicating a need for a thorough overhaul.
- Original equipment manufacturer (OEM) warranties are expiring, with the OEM no longer supporting your server version.
- Companies need to meet their industry’s IT regulations regarding equipment and data storage.
- Significant business expansion requires an overhaul in data storage devices and related capabilities.
Largest Considerations in a Hardware Refresh Project Plan
Successful hardware refresh projects require a perfect understanding of timing. Re-do your organization’s IT infrastructure too early, and you’re throwing away money. Push servers too far past their lifecycles, though, and risk the computing and storage systems underpinning your core business operation. Consider your server’s official End-of-Life (EOL) date, if the manufacturer has issued one. Are you far past that and stretching your hardware out on life support? If so, it’s probably time for a change.
Work smarter — not harder — in planning a manageable hardware refresh cycle by prioritizing the following tasks when reviewing your IT infrastructure. Many of these tips will overlap with considerations for upgrading.
1. Reviewing Your Windows Servers
Both upgrades and refreshes can solve problems with Windows servers, and they can give your core IT suite a spring cleaning.
Many organizations conduct Windows server upgrades when experiencing the following:
- Configurations went awry, and the server isn’t starting or restarting.
- You’re restarting the entire server after a backup.
- A virus has irreparably infected the server.
While upgrades often solve issues, they can also point toward the need for a full refresh. Another aspect that typically calls for a refresh is a change to your system drive or server files. A Windows server upgrade, such as upgrading Windows Server 2008 to 2016 or Windows 10, will more likely occur during the following two situations and can be planned proactively as part of your wider server refresh cycle.
- Upgrading, restoring or swapping the Window’s system drive
- Upgrading, restoring or swapping server files and folders
2. Optimizing Your Data Center Environment
IT managers and CIOs can unwittingly waste time or money with inefficient data centers. To prevent this, periodically compare the costs, convenience and amenities of your current environment with an alternative. For example, if you’ve been using on-premises servers, compare it to the latest in off-premise servers.
Today, there are two dominant forms of server hosting to consider, and which form you choose affects the frequency and direct oversight involved in your server upgrades and refreshes:
- Co-location: In a co-located server environment, your organization’s servers operate in a shared data center alongside dozens, if not hundreds, of other companies’ servers. The owner of the co-location facility is tasked with properly maintaining the facility’s physical and digital safeguards and network connectivity, while you — the customer — direct all server-controlled applications and operating systems remotely from your place of business. Only in a fully outsourced managed service provider (MSP) relationship will your facility partner take care of the latter.
- Cloud: Cloud servers offer a modern, non-physically dependent server environment with many advantages, including up-front cost savings. However, it bears noting that both cloud and physically on-premises servers typically carry similar lifetime costs across a three-to-five-year refresh cycle. The up-front capital required for cloud-based servers will be cheaper, but additional maintenance, support expenditures and IT personnel capacities in the long-term will determine the more prudent structure for your organization.
You can also use both in a hybrid approach.
Reviewing the most fitting server storage or hosting type often means deeply considering your future storage needs. When scaling is on the horizon, experts recommend an estimated server storage expansion plan by at least four times your current capacity. From that figure, you can begin to determine the exact server architecture needed to deliver that boost in capabilities and performance. Then you can transition to planning if upgrades or full refresh is necessary.
3. Auditing Other Devices
Of course, the server isn’t the only thing you need to analyze. A hardware refresh project plan is incomplete without a broader, complementary device audit. You must review hardware devices for their speeds, reliabilities and security robustness, particularly their functionality with your Windows operating system.
Consider a hardware audit at the onset of your general hardware refresh cycle timeline, analyzing performance metrics across the following:
- Office computer devices
- Office mobile devices
- Peripheral devices, such as monitors, printers and copiers
- Network devices, including routers, switches and network printers
- Network infrastructure, like cabling and internet connection
For good measure, some IT teams include a formal review of the cybersecurity components integrated into the servers. This means prorating tests around each of the following during server upgrade plan stages:
- Spam filters
- Traffic monitoring and controls
- IDS appliances
How Often Should Servers Be Replaced?
Depending on who you ask, you’ll get a different answer surrounding how long your servers should last.
For example, major OEMs generally recommend a refresh cycle every five years. These projections work off the assumption that server hardware has a three to five-year lifespan before encountering performance issues. Once they reach this stage, lags increase while certain capabilities decrease, meaning your organization may see a substantial uptick in server hardware servicing costs.
- Servers nearing a five-year mark should be analyzed for retirement.
- Individual server components with slowing capabilities or failures signal it’s time for a refresh, not just an upgrade.
- Full failures lead to removing servers or going offline — the very issues you’re trying to avoid with an institutionalized refresh cycle.
How Often Should You Reevaluate Your Server Environment?
Manufacturers recommend server refreshes every three to five years. However, testing and evaluating the performance of your servers should happen far more frequently. Run load tests on a specific application environment during low traffic times to ensure everything works as it should.
The frequency of performing these server and server environment tests likely depends on where your servers are stored — in your own dedicated data center, in the cloud or fully outsourced to an MSP’s facility.
- If managing your own premises or cloud servers: You’ll want to run continual server tests. Test findings will funnel into your larger server upgrade and refresh calendar by objectively displaying which components and systems are working as designed and which ones need attention, along with what kinds of attention.
- If using a co-location or outsourced cloud service: Your provider will be responsible for orchestrating load tests and making component or full-infrastructure swaps, the details and schedules of which should be referenced in a service-level agreement. Generally speaking, working with an off-premise partner provides access to the latest servers and storage equipment, since these brands rely on cutting-edge offerings to stay ahead of their own competitors.
What About Server Warranties?
The typical server hardware warranty lasts three years from the date of equipment delivery.
The most common warranty offerings within that three-year window include next-day equipment or replacement delivery, though, depending on your company’s location, that can be even faster — sometimes five hours or less. With that replacement guarantee, your OEM promises to have specific, upgrade-compatible parts for your hardware, preventing substantial downtimes as well as the more expensive refresh route.
After your initial three-year warranty, your OEM will likely offer you a renewal period option of another one, two or three more years. Seven to eight years after your initial contract, though, all warranty offers will expire, as the hardware will be too old for the OEM to continue supporting.
It’s important to note that out-of-warranty servers and related devices will — understandably — be harder to source upgraded components for. It’s another hardware refresh best practice to transition to alternative solutions from third-party partners before your warranty date lapses, or simply consider re-upping your contract, even if you never experienced a replacement incident.
The pros to server warranties include protection from expensive and overwhelming server hardware replacements that can take days to install and configure appropriately in a production environment. However, a warranty can’t recover lost data or files, an entirely different server expense altogether. For that, you’ll need to consider your data backup plan and whether that cost can be better managed with another service.
Best Practices for Hardware Refreshes and Upgrade Plans
By definition, upgrades are smaller, less expensive and more frequent than refreshes. The manner in which you handle upgrades can affect the execution and efficiency of the next refresh. You can improve the planning and execution of your refresh cycles by applying the following best practices to your upgrades:
1. Perform Regular Audits. Seriously.
Auditing remains one of the most vigilant ways to assess the health and functionality of your overall server environment. Many organizations perform them but still might overlook some core variables indicating it’s time to upgrade servers.
Common red flags in your audits include lagging:
- Processor power
- Input or output speeds
- Load testing
- Bus speeds
- And similar server performance and benchmark tests
Each of these variables dramatically affects the performance capabilities of your servers. From there, you can begin constructing a realistic picture of add-on server power, storage or capabilities needed for your organization, as well as preemptively spot maintenance and virtualization spots extending what you do currently use.
2. Check Your Link Dependencies
Every category has a string of applications likely interconnected to it. For example, configuring an application at the productivity level isn’t possible unless you first upgrade your operating system. If your organization currently maintains legacy equipment, then you may not even be able to get the latest versions of that operating system in the first place, either.
Consider adding a formal dependency log into your auditing procedures. These logs help track and manage reconfiguration histories and schedules and ensure every application layer runs cohesively. It also means fewer headaches for everyone down the road when a dependency is somehow overlooked, halting a specific business function.
3. Roll out Upgrades in Phases
After some initial non-production tests, have a team pilot upgrades in a production environment. This level quickly checks cross-system compatibility and functionality. Consider having support staff on-hand for this phase if issues arise, ensuring all-hands-on-deck to work through any bugs without disrupting too many other colleagues’ workloads.
After the production-environment test, you can move on to rolling out the new technology to the entire organization, providing training or assistance along the way.
4. Prioritize Upgrades and Refreshes Based on Downtime Tolerance
When planning for an upgrade or refresh, think about the importance that various components have on day-to-day operations and whether an upgrade is enough to keep it running smoothly. Build your server refresh cycle or upgrade plans around how catastrophic things would be in the office if one of these computer systems goes down.
For example, these pieces of a company’s IT ecosystem control some of the most important activities in proper server functions, and should, therefore, have downtimes kept to a minimum:
- Application servers or any similar extension of your web servers
- Domain controllers
- SQL server
- Any related layers permitting business-critical operations to function, such as file access and email
In these critical production environments, servers need to be upgraded and back in operation as swiftly as possible. It’s also this layer where most experts agree the three to five-year refresh schedule is the gold standard. Such critical infrastructure should, at the very least, receive drive or power supply enhancements in this time frame, keeping them running in peak condition as long as possible, but not leaving you exposed when their end-of-life signals trickle in.
5. Know There’s Still Hope
Even when performance drops or the end a server’s recommended lifespan nears, it doesn’t necessarily need to be removed from a critical environment — or taken off production layers all together.
In fact, there are multiple options when it comes to reworking server applications or next-best-use cases without a complete — and expensive — overhaul. Small failures or bugs in the production environment can alert you to transitioning over to a lab or developmental environment instead. Other applications can even be reconfigured to handle specific traffic, routing or firewall defense roles. Just remember these adaptions might require a new hard disk, drive or power source to get up-and-running in its new place — which still remains more cost-effective than a complete refresh.
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