Bad prioritization


in Geek stuff, Oxford, Rants

Wadham just replaced most of the computers in our lab with brand new HP 2.13 GHz Core 2 Duo machines, complete with new keyboards and monitors. This strikes me as pretty wasteful, given that the previous machines were completely adequate for web browsing and word processing – the only tasks for which the computers in the lab are ever used.

The new machines probably cost about £500 each: money that could have been much better spent on scholarships or some other purpose that serves student needs. Having three or four fast computers with Photoshop or similarly resource-intensive software makes sense; buying a dozen high power machines for mundane tasks does not. When running Word and Firefox, the performance difference on the new machines cannot even be noticed.

At least they didn’t upgrade to Vista.

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Anonymous March 18, 2007 at 11:01 pm

Isn’t it odd how the level of computing power to run Word and a browser seems to have increased at precisely the same rate as processor speeds?

Milan March 19, 2007 at 1:45 am

That doesn’t entirely seem to be the case. I really did try one of the old and one of the new computers, side by side. The difference in editing a Word document and web browsing was non-existent.

The new one would have been faster if you were running twenty other programs, but the machines don’t even have anything particularly resource intensive installed.

Anon March 19, 2007 at 5:01 pm

Better than having old clunkers and a few slightly more sozzled students wandering about…

Aquinas March 23, 2007 at 11:10 am

This doesn’t have anything to do with performance – the support costs for old (out of warranty) computers outweigh the costs of replacement.

Milan March 23, 2007 at 1:55 pm


I think the college does tech support in-house, though I suppose the warranties also cover parts.

Aquinas March 26, 2007 at 10:04 am

Just because it’s inhouse doesn’t mean it’s free!

Anon @ Wadh March 26, 2007 at 5:28 pm

Just because it’s inhouse doesn’t mean it’s free!

Yes, but I bet it’s cheaper than fifteen new machines.

Aquinas March 27, 2007 at 10:09 am

Really, really not. Skilled labour is very expensive, commodity electronic goods are very cheap.

Milan March 27, 2007 at 12:09 pm

What do these support costs include? Hardware failure? Software doesn’t generally seem to be covered by warranties, and I suspect the computers in the lab just have a collection that gets installed as a disk image.

Aquinas March 27, 2007 at 6:08 pm

The traditional Oxford way of doing things *was* to try to keep each PC going indefinitely – the computer in my departmental office, for example, has an electrical testing sticker for every April from 4/2001 to 4/2006, and no doubt 4/2007 will shortly follow. It continues to run thanks to the endless ministrations of the IT support staff and occasional upgrades. (It takes nine minutes to boot and is computationally troubled by running firefox, thunderbird and word simultaneously). When it really, really dies, but only then, it’ll be replaced.

This causes the obvious problems of time taken to diagnose and fix a machine in which every component is designed to fail at the end of the warranty period. It causes the more subtle but much worse problem of trying to manage a very diverse set of computers each with their own driver issues, etc etc. The disk image solution saves you the most time in a monoculture (otherwise you need a slightly different image for each different system), and for every additional slightly different system you add you increase the installation and support time by a chunk, and you also create extra record-keeping needs, extra time to solve problems (since you don’t know if problem X is generic or only with a particular machine), etc etc.That’s also why the replacement gets done in tranches rather than piecemeal – there are X identical new computers there and X identical computers from the previous tranch and that’s it.

For twenty computers each £500 running on (say) a three rather than five year replacement scheme you’re talking about a saving of less than £1500 a year, which is less than 5% of one computer officer’s employment costs.

Aquinas March 27, 2007 at 6:09 pm


Milan March 27, 2007 at 6:27 pm


I removed the duplicate comment.

It should be stressed that the Wadham IT people have always been very kind to me: especially Richard Leach, to whom I have been indebted since the day I arrived in college.

Obviously, nobody wants computers that take an eternity to boot. The issue here – and I have tested it myself – is that when running a normal combination of applications on a new machine, it is no different from doing so on an old machine.

I frequently wish for more processing power on my 1.3GHz PPC iBook (though the extra gigabyte of RAM has made me a much happier person). I never wished for extra performance on the college computers, except perhaps in terms of the speed at which they access my various web servers.

Milan March 27, 2007 at 6:30 pm


A computer officer at Oxford earns more than $68,000 Canadian dollars a year? Wow. I suppose that helps me understand why British people seem content to pay $20 for a stapler and $18 a kilo for tofu.

Aquinas March 28, 2007 at 8:58 am

Employment costs are much more than salary – they include pensions, employers NI – for a college you would also want to ascribe things like meals, the cost of extra office space if needed, etc. For actual salaries you could look at the current Wadham IT manager advert…

Milan March 28, 2007 at 9:11 am


All good things to know. Thanks for the lengthy explanations.

Anon March 29, 2007 at 7:00 pm

Word 2007 is a nightmare – they changed the whole interface. I don’t know how to do anything with it.

Anon @ Wadh March 30, 2007 at 12:59 pm

One point in favour of the new machines: they run Google Maps like a dream.

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