Asset Management

How to reuse, repurpose and recycle IT

computers ready to recycle

The Defense Department is finding some big savings in reusing old hardware. (Stock image)>

As the military faces steep budget cuts and a withdrawal from Afghanistan, the idea that old equipment could have enough life to save money is appealing to program managers.

"We do it all the time, particularly with IT," said Michael McCarthy, director of operations at the Army Brigade Modernization Command. "Within our simulation facilities we have requirements for pretty hefty hardware, in terms of capabilities. At the end of that lifecycle, when it's no longer viable for the primary purpose we bought it for, we look for other uses in here."

For example, when computers reach the end of their lifecycle, their hard drives get swapped out for standard-issue versions and the formerly high-powered computers are transitioned to regular desktop use, McCarthy said.

"It gets to where the technology we're trying to run is just not powerful enough for, say, Linux, but it's still very suitable for running Windows or for administrative work," he said. "My regular desktop is a repurposed simulation box that could no longer work as a server to run heavy-duty data."

At McCarthy's command, where there is about $24 million worth of automation equipment, repurposing is saving about $7 million per year, he said.

"If we were using the standard lifecycle model, replacing every three years, I would need to be spending about $8 million a year to continually refresh the equipment I have," McCarthy said. "I don't have $8 million a year to spend, so I get by with less than $1 million a year because we're able to repurpose things. I'm very reluctant to get rid of any piece of equipment because generally we can find something to do with it that precludes me having to go out and buy something new every time."

In some of the military's large-scale enterprise resource planning programs, it can take years to fully replace all of the associated IT. But in some cases the transition can be eased by updating technology scheduled for replacement in the out-years using refreshed older equipment.

It's not exactly the scrap metal drives of World War II, but the principle is much the same.

"As you start fielding and replacing old systems, they may be obsolete in terms of software, hardware or the operating system, but you can repurpose the hardware and some of the support to existing systems that are later in the fielding schedule," said Gary Winkler, former Army program executive officer for enterprise information systems, and founder of Cyber Solutions and Services. "It's a good way to support existing systems at a lower cost."

Repurposing hardware, however, is a little easier than repurposing software, which in DOD—as in many other agencies—is often bound by licensing agreements. Much of the time, those agreements do not allow for any type of transfer to components or users other than originally intended, but that is something Pentagon officials should be considering in the future, Winkler noted.

"I don't know if Army contracting for software has evolved to the point where companies allow for repurposing," Winkler said. "You have to look at it case-by-case – what did the contract actually allow for? [Officials] should probably be putting that kind of language into their contracts when procuring software licenses."

In some cases, it is just not cost-efficient to repurpose. In the case of mobile devices, for example, obsolescence takes hold quickly and there often is little application in the field for older devices.

"You can save money if repurposing is applied the right way – you don't want to create more problems and higher costs by implementing where it doesn't make sense," Winkler said. "It has to fit into the communications infrastructure you're aiming for, or you else end up spending money. There are savings there; you just have to be smart about it."

For old technology that doesn't fit into military applications anymore, other options are available, including DOD's Computers for Learning program. Administered by the Defense Logistics Agency, the program allows military components to donate educationally useful equipment to local schools and educational non-profit organizations, creating new uses for computers, printers, modems, routers and servers.

About the Author

Amber Corrin is a former staff writer for FCW and Defense Systems.

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Reader comments

Mon, Oct 21, 2013

Implementing an enterprise architecture program will help in forecasting hw/sw refresh. Having a enterprise architecture program could allow U.S. Army to plan its IT budget according to financial and external drivers.

Thu, Oct 17, 2013

re-purposing obsolete equipment, particularly software and operating systems, can introduce significant security risks. Using older hardware to support latest release open source can be a good time/cost saver, but pay close attention to licensed software and OS'es, or have good mechanisms for mitigating the risks of using old/obsolete versions.

Thu, Oct 17, 2013

Not powerful enough for Linux , but suitable for running Windows? What planet are you living on? When I recycle old PCs I remove Windows and install Linux as it takes LESS resources than Windows and provides much better performance. I expect the author is referring to high end Linux Servers, likely supporting virtual machines and re-using as desktop machines. However, comparing Linux Server to Windows Server or Linux Desktop to Windows Desktop, Linux will prevail in requiring less resources to operate at comparable levels.

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