Upgrading for Upgrade’s Sake

No one can say that the life of a techie is not interesting, and if they do, they obviously have not seen the digital countdown clock on Microsoft’s XP Web site. Quite why Microsoft consider the release of the next version of Windows worthy of a Y2K style countdown is not clear. What is clear is that once again we are faced with same question that has surfaced many times in the past. What, if anything, is to be gained by upgrading to a new version?

Software companies, not just Microsoft, release new versions and products with what seems like frightening regularity. Since there is no policy that governs what is termed as an upgrade, the amount of new functionality built into a product is at the discretion of the manufacturer, as is the branding of a ‘new version’. The release of a new version, whatever the changes, seems to bring with it a mentality that the new upgrade has to be considered as essential at some point. Are these upgrades always needed, or are we being lured into an upgrade for upgrades sake mentality?

One IT manager, who requested to remain anonymous, provides an interesting perspective on the subject ‘Each time a new version of a product comes out, our IT director is keen to get started on it as soon as we can. He feels that it presents the right image to customers and shareholders if the IT is cutting edge’. It’s certainly an interesting viewpoint, but I am sure that customers of this company would rather see lower prices, and the shareholders more profitability, than a yearly rollout that costs a couple of hundred thousand bucks.

Of that couple of hundred thousand bucks, only a small proportion relates to actual software purchase, which tends to be the first question in the ‘shall we, shan’t we’ upgrade process. However, the cost of purchasing software for upgrades pales in significance when compared with the costs associated with deploying the software. Expensive technical staff spend weeks or even months preparing for and carrying out the deployment of new products. Hardware often needs to be upgraded and in some cases end users need training. The costs can be staggering.

While we are on the subject of end users, it’s worth mentioning that the upgrade mentality is not limited to the server room. Just recently a colleague suggested I upgrade to Office XP. Why? because it’s new was the answer. Needless to say, I didn’t upgrade. I probably use about 10% of the features of my word processor, and I barely use the other tools in my office suite at all. You could give me a 486 with Wordstar on it and I’d still get by.

There are, of course, certain instances when upgrades are fully justified. Back in the early to mid 1990’s users of NetWare 3.x realized the absolutely phenomenal benefits of upgrading to NetWare 4.x. The same could be said to a lesser extent for those moving from Windows NT4.0 to Windows 2000. In these cases the argument for upgrading was strong. That said, both NetWare 3 and Windows NT4 are robust operating systems that, in some environments, offer everything that’s needed by an organization. If there were a good reason for not using these older systems it would be the lack of ongoing technical support and the availability of hardware drivers. Outside of this, there are few reasons why an organization that needs basic file and print services on a small number of servers would need anything more.

So frequent are new product releases, and so time consuming the rollout process, that many businesses find themselves spending more time upgrading products than actually using them. Again we return to our anonymous IT manager. The worst thing about the perpetual upgrade cycle mentality is that you don’t get a chance to stand back and really find out what the existing system will do. We use the same services of the system we have just installed as we did on the previous one, even though it can do so much more. That makes the fact that our bonuses were cut due to the rollout going over budget hard to swallow.

The actual determination for an upgrade should boil down to one simple thing: If an upgrade provides features and functions that can enhance the business process, and bring benefits that will outweigh the expense of buying and installing new software then they are valid. Anything less, and the question of why you would upgrade has to be asked. Perhaps it’s something you can ponder while watching the Windows XP countdown clock.

Drew Bird (MCT, MCNI) is a freelance instructor and technical writer. He has been working in the IT industry for 12 years and currently lives in Kelowna, BC., Canada..

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