Tips for Standardizing Your IT Infrastructure

Written on: 
July 7, 2008
Written by: 
Chris Peters

MaintainIT Project

This article was adapted from a chapter in Recipes for a 5-Star Library, a compilation of technology tips and techniques created by TechSoup's MaintainIT Project, an effort funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to gather and distribute stories around maintaining and supporting public computers.

IT Standardization is a strategy for minimizing IT costs within an organization by keeping hardware and software as consistent as possible and reducing the number of tools you have that address the same basic need. It may take the form of ensuring that every computer has the same operating system, or of purchasing hardware in bulk so that every PC in your office is the same make and model. Standardization often goes hand in hand with centralization, the process of giving your IT department more control over purchases of hardware and software, and more control over what staff members are allowed to do with their office computers.

While imposing equipment standards can help you streamline your IT infrastructure, simplify decision-making, and minimize purchasing and maintenance costs, the process of standardizing itself can be complicated. Below, we'll show you ways to gauge the level of standardization your organization requires, highlight some of the benefits of standardization, and offer tips for standardizing your equipment while balancing organizational and staff needs.

How Standardized Do You Need to Be?

Being open and adaptive to new technologies can be important to both your organization's mission and its ability to operate efficiently. Likewise, being flexible when it comes to individual preferences — whether it's working on a specific platform or using a particular spam filter — can help employees work better and encourage creativity.

Yet every technology you introduce to your nonprofit — whether you implement it organization-wide or just on one computer — comes with hidden and not-so-hidden costs. Every new piece of software equipment you add to your IT arsenal can require installation, maintenance, staff training, repair, patches, upgrades, and more.

How you address this tension between innovation on the one hand and the need for consistency on the other depends on your size, your organizational culture, how many IT staff you have, and how tech-savvy your staff is. While some organizations are very centralized — purging unsupported hardware or software as soon as it’s detected — other organizations eschew strict enforcement in favor of a more balanced, less time- and resource-intensive approach. These organizations may allow staff to download unsupported software, for example, but refuse to troubleshoot it and will uninstall it if it conflicts with other programs. (Note that this more flexible route carries with it an increased risk of spyware and virus infections, however.)

For these reasons, it's important to adopt a standardization policy that fit your situation and needs. Though there are many benefits to centralizing your purchases, decide what makes the best sense for your organization before making sweeping changes to your current setup.

The Benefits of Standardization

Hardware and software aren’t the only aspects of an IT system that you might consider streamlining. Below, we’ve highlighted some of the advantages of standardizing everything from your operating system to your vendor relationships.

  • Hardware.

    Computer manufacturers change their models almost daily in response to fluctuations in price and the availability of new components from their suppliers. This can cause problems for IT departments, who often want to support a minimum number of hardware configurations. By using three or four standard hardware combinations in your nonprofit, IT staff has a chance to get comfortable and knowledgeable with these systems, allowing them to diagnose and fix problems more quickly and easily. With 10 hardware configurations, on the other hand, it may take much longer to achieve that level of comfort and fluency. Another advantage to standardizing hardware is that some hardware components are incompatible with other pieces or hardware or software. The fewer different pieces of hardware you support, the less frequently you'll encounter this problem.

  • Operating Systems.

    It’s hard for techies to stay on top of new releases, updates, and information when they’re supporting more than one operating system. Moreover, because each operating system supports different software, you may end up supporting two versions of every piece of software, or different pieces of software that serve the same purpose, if you fail to impose a standard operating system at your organization.

  • Software.

    Some users feel comfortable with their ancient, serviceable software, while others will always clamor for the latest applications and features. However, you can save a lot of time and hassle when your entire organization uses the same version of the same software. Not only does this make it easier to install security patches and upgrades automatically, it also makes it much easier to test new programs and upgrades for conflicts. If your organization plans to upgrade from Windows XP to Windows Vista, for example, the IT department has to look at every major piece of software in the organization to make sure it works with the new operating system. More software equals more chances for software conflicts. Sometimes you can allow for some customization by allowing staff to choose software off an approved list. This reduces the number of supported applications without eliminating choice altogether. This will also discourage staff from clinging to old, outdated software.

  • Vendor Relationships.

    Dealing with too many vendors can be confusing from a billing, tech support, and interpersonal perspective. You may be able to reduce the number of vendors you work with by purchasing your printers and servers from the same company that sells you desktop PCs. Technology resellers — businesses that buy equipment on your behalf — can also often be a good place to purchase hardware and software from different manufacturers from one central point of contact, simplifying the purchasing process.

  • Miscellaneous.

    Servers, printers, scanners, copiers, and other pieces of hardware are cheaper and easier to support if you’re buying in bulk from the same vendor. However, only large organizations buy these items frequently enough to make bulk purchases. On the other hand, since successive models from the same manufacturer often have a lot in common, even small organizations can build on their existing skills by staying with the same company over time.

Tips for Standardizing Your Equipment

If you work in an office with multiple models and versions of software and equipment, the task of standardizing everything can be overwhelming. Starting from scratch by buying all new equipment is probably not an option for most (if any) organizations, but there are a few steps you can take to standardize your equipment over time.

  • Buy in quantity.

    Dell, HP, and other vendors change their models constantly, meaning that the computer you buy this week may be different from the one you bought last week, even if the model number is exactly the same. It may have a different network card, a different hard drive, or even a different motherboard. If you space your purchases out over the year, each batch of machines will be a little different from the others. You can mitigate this somewhat by working with your sales representative and buying business-class computers (see below), but it’s still worth it to consolidate your purchases.

  • Buy business-class computers.

    When you’re buying new computers, consider business over home models. Manufacturers change the components in their business machines much less frequently, and they often will guarantee configuration support for a certain period of time (usually six months).

  • Plan ahead.

    If you speak with a broad cross-section of your colleagues and supervisors when you’re planning your budget for the year, you’ll know roughly how many new computers you’ll need and what other types of technology you’ll be buying, making it easier to standardize your equipment.

  • Make technology inventories and track your assets.

    If you know how many computers you have and how old they are, you’ll know roughly how many you need to replace in the upcoming year. Also, you can identify the one-off, non-standard pieces of hardware and software in your nonprofit and then get rid of them as soon as possible.

  • Make purchases centrally.

    Although all staff should have some input into your purchasing plans, don’t let every department do its own buying unless they’re buying off of a predefined list of approved items. Individual purchasing can not only lead to hardware and software incompatibility, but it can also cause confusion on the accounting side as you try to sort through and reconcile bills from multiple vendors.

  • Accept donations selectively.

    If you accept every hardware donation that shows up on your doorstep, you’ll eventually have an unmanageable patchwork of computing equipment. One way to prevent this is to create a written policy specifying which donations you will and won’t accept. This policy can help you politely decline gifts that don’t fit with the mission and technology plan of your organization, and direct unwanted donations to qualified computer refurbishers and recyclers, where they will be updated or disposed of responsible. Unsure about when to accept or decline the offer of new equipment? See TechSoup’s article Six Tips for Accepting (and Refusing!) Donated Equipment.

  • Policies.

    As we mentioned above, your policies should reflect your decisions with regard to centralization and standardization. A simple policy entitled “Supported Hardware and Software” is a good start, but your IT Purchasing Policy, and your Computer Acceptable Use Policy should also reflect your approach to these questions.

  • Systems Management Software Suites.

    Microsoft’s System Center Configuration Manager, Novell Zenworks, and several dozen other software packages can help your IT department automate routine tasks and control the configuration of end user machines. Be aware though, that these programs are often complex and difficult to implement. Wikipedia has a List of Systems Management Software, and a short definition of this type of software. Also if your organization has a Windows domain controller (using Windows Server 2003 or Windows Server 2008), you can use Active Directory and Group Policy to control the configuration of your desktop PCs. However, you won’t have all the options and features that you would get with most systems management systems.

Balancing IT Needs and Staff Needs

If your organization has traditionally allowed departments to choose and customize their own equipment, it can be difficult to convince employees to switch to a more centralized, standardization-friendly IT purchasing system. Yet there are ways to streamline your purchasing procedures without ignoring staff needs.

  • Involve front-line staff in the technology planning process and purchasing decisions.

    Representatives from each department can be a part of the team that writes your organization's tech plan; if staff members don't have time to participate directly, you can interview them about their technology priorities and concerns. If you’re making a major purchasing decision, be sure to ask staff from various departments to weigh in on the packages offered by various vendors.

  • Consider offering staff a choice between two computer models.

    Organizations with sufficient IT resources may be able to support more than one computer. For example, staff who need to use graphics programs and other resource-hungry software could receive a more sophisticated model, while others could receive a less expensive option.

  • Many organizations have a list of “preference” software that employees can request from the IT department. These applications are supported, but not installed by default on every machine. This model gives employees access to specialized software, but IT isn’t supporting three different types of photo editing software, for example.