The IT channel has been accused of selling end users a lie over how quickly they need to upgrade or refresh their technology.
Recent research from Gartner suggests the "useful life" of some networking equipment can be up to 10 years, casting doubt over the three-to-four-year data network refresh ideal traditionally peddled by many in the industry.
According to Network Hardware Resale (NHR) - the world's largest secondary kit dealer - the Gartner report, entitled Know When It's Time to Replace Enterprise Network Equipment, is the first time an analyst has acknowledged that not all types of networking equipment have the same lifespan.
But it is also an indication that vendors and the VARs that sell their wares are exaggerating how swiftly networking, server and storage equipment must be replaced, according to NHR chief executive Mike Sheldon.
Sheldon (pictured) said that if adopted, the report's recommendations could see resellers' hardware sales cut in half but would be a boon to the third-party maintenance and refurbished kit industry of which NHR is a part.
"The message consumers have been given by VARs is simply inaccurate and serves the purpose of selling more equipment, but not necessarily the interests of the enterprise," he added.
According to Gartner, the useful life of equipment reflects how long it can be used before it becomes functionally obsolete.
Against a backdrop of rapid innovation, data networking equipment has traditionally been replaced every three to four years, the analyst said. It has been fairly common to lease equipment for three years and then "rip and replace" the equipment, it added.
However, Gartner said the recommended useful life of LAN, or edge, switching, has increased to between seven to 10 years, due to increased standardisation of the technology. Wireless LAN equipment, IP telephony and core switches and routers now have a useful life of between five and seven years.
The useful life of network security equipment remains shorter, Gartner cautioned, particularly if it is threat facing. Application delivery controllers and WAN optimisation controllers have a similarly short three-to-five-year lifespan as there "remains significant innovation in these markets".
Sheldon said this more nuanced view casts doubt over the industry's tradition of pushing datacentre refreshes every three to four years.
"When you get beyond security, voice and the cutting edge of tech paradigms into Ethernet switching and basic static routing - and a lot of server and storage devices - they will absolutely last for five, seven, nine or 10 years and it is only modestly more work for the consumer," he said.
"Large enterprises understand the need to plan six, 12 or 18 months in advance but even they could adopt three schedules, for instance three years for PCs, five for security and core networking and seven for the edge."
Moore's the pity
As Gartner notes, the big networking vendors including Cisco, Juniper and HP typically only support equipment for five years after the end-of-life announcement. So how should firms maintain a device in its extended life in the instance that the manufacturer has dropped support?
Gartner advised that "in some circumstances, it is perfectly fine to get support from a third-party vendor", a view endorsed by Sheldon.
"The vast majority of devices on the network are on the edge - that is what makes this report so important," he said. "It is exactly the place where you can double their life with no sacrifice in performance - just the capex savings alone are greater than 50 per cent. But the main impediment has been that people still need maintenance. If
you combine this strategy with the availability of high-quality, extended-life maintenance support, you are also cutting down not only on capex but opex.
"How many network administrators have a significant cost centre where they can go to a CIO and say ‘I can save you 60 per cent'? That guy is a hero."
Unsurprisingly, Sheldon's view was not endorsed by everyone, even including some in the secondary market.
Dave Parish, director of refurbished kit dealer Itelligensia, said the "truth was somewhere between the two", cautioning over the rapid pace of innovation in the industry.
"Away from the datacentre the story is a little more complicated. For example, with leased lines in the SME market, where people were recently more than happy with a 10MB to 30MB connection, we are now looking at 100MB, 200MB, 300MB lines becoming common because prices have plummeted and the technology has improved," he said. "You need the router and firewall processing power to cope with those line speeds. Add to that gigabit-to-the-desk, PoE+, the fast wireless demands of bring your own device and unified communications, and soon older networks are struggling."
Parish added that for the blue chips, regular tech refreshes were not always driven by just the vendors, but also by the perception that shareholders demand the latest cutting-edge technology.
But he did argue that vendors sometimes hide the fact that their kit can play different roles as time goes on.
"Cisco is not going to want to talk about possibilities for your old hardware within your network," he said. "There is little discussion about how you can roll it back through your organisation. Refreshing your network to keep pace with technology is important, but there is no rule that states that the refresh cannot use refurbished hardware."
Spending to save
Clive Longbottom, services director at analyst Quocirca, also poured water on NHR's logic.
"I think refreshes are more pulled by the users than pushed by the vendors," he said. "And the received wisdom is that equipment in the datacentre is old by the time it is five years old - so I think what NHR is saying is a little disingenuous
"There are certain workloads where speeds and feeds are incredibly important and they need to be replaced as rapidly as can be afforded. But things such as file and print can be run on pretty standard old stuff."
According to Gartner, the useful life of networking equipment hinges on four main factors: market innovation, vendor end-of-life policies, operating life and operating cost.
The price of some equipment, particularly Ethernet workgroup switches, has plummeted in recent years but in most cases the service contracts are related to the original equipment costs. This can dramatically reduce the useful life of LAN switches as replacing them with new ones can yield an ROI of less than two years, said the analyst.
Tom Kelly, UK managing director of Cisco Gold partner Logicalis, said vendors and VARs advise customers to upgrade because it can work out cheaper for the customer than sweating old kit.
"We are seeing that people want to maximise the value they are getting from the install base they have," he said. "But there comes a point with the way technology is going that you can get more bang for your buck with different and new technologies. People can actually make the investments to achieve a lower cost base."
Darren Briscoe, technical director at Cisco Gold partner Comms-care, agreed that refresh cycles are driven by end users, not suppliers.
"In our experience supporting the VAR community, it is the end user who is primarily driving change across the IT infrastructure," he said.
"It is only the end user who knows if their IT systems are addressing the needs of their business, not the reseller or vendors. Today, core hardware devices such as switches and servers are very resilient and have a much longer shelf life than legacy kit, whereas it is the application layer that needs more frequent upgrades."
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