IT Tips & Tricks

Hardware Upgrade? Hardware Refresh? A Guide to 5 Best Practices & 1 Major Misconception You Need
to Know

Published 11 May 2020

Updated 21 February 2024

Refresh? Upgrade? Did you know that while they’re often used interchangeably, there’s a very real difference between a hardware upgrade and a hardware refresh? This article answers these questions and also offers you five 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 planning a hardware project or tech refresh? And when performing these upgrades and refreshes, are you doing them right?

Did you know that while they’re often used interchangeably, there’s a very real difference between a hardware upgrade and a
hardware refresh?

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. The first step when performing hardware maintenance is, therefore, understanding the distinction between a hardware upgrade and a hardware refresh. It’s crucial for making informed decisions about your IT infrastructure.

1. What Is a Hardware Upgrade?

A hardware upgrade involves enhancing a device’s performance capacity by adding or replacing its supplementary components, such as increasing storage space or improving internal device temperature controls. Unlike a hardware refresh, it doesn’t involve replacing the entire unit or device. Hardware upgrades are particularly important when it comes to server infrastructure, and they offer a cost-effective solution compared to completely replacing servers every few years. Some common server upgrades include installing new or enhanced:

  • Memory
  • Hard disks
  • Power supplies
  • Data acquisition engines (DAEs)
  • Disk shelves

2. What Is a Hardware Refresh?

A hardware refresh, on the other hand, entails replacing an entire storage or computing system with the latest version of the equipment. This type of project involves a strategic IT infrastructure overhaul across storage servers and related network devices. It can encompass various servern environments, including on-premises, cloud-based or managed data centers, or a hybrid approach involving all
of them.


The hardware gremlins will eventually catch up, no matter what.

There are several reasons why enterprises choose to conduct server refreshes:

  • The hardware has reached its end-of-life (EOL) stage, and performance metrics, such as load tests, indicate the need for a thorough overhaul.
  • Original equipment manufacturer (OEM) warranties are expiring, and the OEM no longer supports your server version.
  • Companies need to comply with their industry’s IT regulations regarding equipment and data storage.
  • Significant business expansion requires upgrading data storage devices and related capabilities.

By understanding the differences between a hardware refresh and a hardware upgrade, you can effectively plan your IT infrastructure to align with your business goals and maximize performance.

What is a Hardware Refresh Cycle?

A hardware refresh is essentially the same as a technology refresh. Both terms refer to the process of updating or replacing outdated or aging hardware with newer technology to ensure optimal performance and reliability, as outlined above. The terms “hardware refresh cycle” and “tech refresh cycle” are often used interchangeably to describe the practice of systematically upgrading hardware components or entire systems to keep up with technological advancements and meet the evolving needs of an organization.

What is a Desktop Refresh Project?

A desktop refresh project is a specific type of hardware refresh cycle that focuses on updating or replacing desktop computers within an organization. While a hardware refresh cycle or technology refresh cycle encompasses a broader scope, including server infrastructure, network devices, and other hardware components, a desktop refresh project narrows its focus specifically on the desktop computing environment.

Timing directly impacts your organization’s budget and operational efficiency. It’s crucial to strike a balance

In the context of a larger hardware or technology refresh initiative, a desktop refresh project plays a crucial role in ensuring that the desktop computers used by employees are up-to-date, efficient, and capable of meeting the demands of modern workflows. It involves assessing the current desktop hardware, evaluating performance and reliability, and identifying areas where improvements are needed.

The Key Considerations in a Hardware Refresh Project Plan

When planning a hardware refresh project, there are several significant factors to consider. Successful hardware refresh projects require a perfect understanding of timing, as it directly impacts your organization’s budget and operational efficiency. It’s crucial to strike a balance. Re-doing your IT infrastructure too early would result in wasteful spending while pushing servers too far past their lifecycles could jeopardize the computing and storage systems that underpin your core
business operations.

One of the key considerations is your server’s official End-of-Life (EOL) date, especially if the manufacturer has issued one. If you find yourself far beyond that date, stretching your hardware out on life support, it’s a clear indicator that it’s probably time for a change. Adhering to a well-defined technology refresh cycle ensures that you stay ahead of EOL deadlines, enabling you to proactively replace aging hardware with the latest technology to maintain optimal performance.

Another crucial aspect is developing an effective IT hardware strategy. This strategy should encompass long-term planning, budgeting, and aligning your hardware refresh cycles with your organization’s overall IT roadmap. A well-executed IT hardware strategy ensures that you have the right equipment in place at the right time, supporting your business objectives and providing a stable foundation for growth.

By considering both the technology refresh cycle and implementing a robust IT hardware strategy, you can navigate hardware refresh projects with confidence, maximizing the value of your IT investments while minimizing potential risks.

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.

We hope things are never this bad for you, but what’s your criteria for change?

While upgrades often solve issues, they can also point toward the need for a full refresh. For example, maybe you need to install bigger hard drives, but the available compatible drives still use an older technology. This may indicate that what you really need is to update (replace) your server to support the more modern, faster hard drives that you truly need. As another example, if you find yourself making frequent changes to your physical drives or server components such as new fans, additional RAM and the like, take this as a signal that a refresh is probably overdue.

A Windows server upgrade, such as upgrading Windows Server 2019 to 2022, 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 drives, for example, due to a decrease in hardware performance or an increase in requirements.
  • Changing security requirements or compatibility issues with your current system.

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 alternatives. 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.

If you find yourself making frequent changes to your physical drives or server components, take this as a signal that a refresh is probably overdue.

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 of 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 a 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:

  • Firewalls
  • Spam filters
  • Authentications
  • Traffic monitoring and controls
  • IDS appliances

How Often Should Servers Be Replaced?

Depending on who you ask, you’ll get a different answer regarding 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.

In short:

  • 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 Re-Evaluate 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.


When you get it right, there’s a domino effect of increased confidence throughout the organization.

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 pre-emptively 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.

Plenty of companies neglect updates and refreshes, but they do so at their peril.

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 serve
  • 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 of a server’s recommended lifespan nears, it doesn’t necessarily need to be removed from a critical environment — or taken off production layers altogether.

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 transition 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.

When scaling is on the horizon, experts recommend an estimated server storage expansion plan of at least four times your
current capacity.

In Case You Ditched Class

On the off-chance that you ditched class or are brand new to the IT game, we’re going to answer a basic — yet frequently asked — question. If you’re an experienced IT guy, this obviously doesn’t apply to you, so skip ahead to the next section.

Question: What, exactly, qualifies as hardware?

Answer: Any computer component that you can physically touch or handle qualifies as hardware, and all hardware requires software to make it run. With that point clarified, let’s move on.

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