IT equipment recycling: What do you do with old servers?

When it's time to replace old servers, make IT equipment recycling and disposal an important factor in your technology refresh decisions.

It's easy to forget about IT equipment recycling and disposal, but every piece of IT equipment has a finite life

in a production environment.

Donating gear to a certified charity provides your business with a tax benefit based on the value of the gear, and it gets the equipment off your site.

When equipment reaches the end of its working life, it is typically removed from production and replaced with a newer -- often more capable -- piece of equipment. With the emphasis on new system acquisitions, however, the problem of old equipment retirement and disposal is largely ignored until a refresh actually takes place.

An enterprise has to include IT asset disposal in its technology refresh cycles and make important decisions about the removal or recycling of old data center hardware before it's time to actually swap systems. But that old equipment isn't necessarily destined for the local landfill; there are a growing number of options available for recycling IT discards.

  • Get more life from old servers. Virtualization has changed the game for server hardware. By abstracting workloads from the underlying hardware, virtualization actually makes it possible to wring more life from a server investment by leaving less important applications on older hardware (where they run just fine) and migrating more demanding applications to the new servers.

    And the secondary roles filled by older servers may also take on other forms. For example, a displaced server may work perfectly in a lab setting or for test and development tasks. In other cases, the older server may be reallocated to a branch office or secondary data center. Often, moving last cycle's servers into these secondary roles will displace even older equipment that can then be decommissioned and discarded safely.

    Maintenance is always a concern in a production environment, but many organizations are completely comfortable with running older servers in a secondary role without the benefit of a service/maintenance agreement. When an older server fails, its workloads will simply be migrated to other or newer servers and the failed hardware can be discarded in an environmentally responsible way (or even stripped for parts to maintain other older servers).

  • Get concessions from the system vendor. Vendors can be extraordinarily accommodating in order to make a sale, so it may be a simple matter to get the vendor to remove the new system packaging and take the older displaced hardware with them as part of the new purchase agreement. Vendors that deal with large quantities of used equipment may be well positioned to reuse, recycle or discard your old equipment. For example, it may cost your business money to dispose of used equipment through a third-party reclamation business, but a vendor with lots of equipment may already have access to a systems recycler on very attractive terms.

  • Sell off used gear to the secondary market. Although businesses try to avoid lock-in, some are tied to legacy applications that simply cannot be upgraded or replaced in an affordable manner. This forces the business owner to continue running the legacy workloads on older equipment when system compatibility is a critical requirement. This also creates an active secondary market for used name-brand IT equipment. After all, if you need a specific system to run your critical workload and that system fails, you're out of business. Having access to that same hardware (even used) may be the only way to keep a business running.

    If you can't reallocate used equipment internally or get the vendor to remove it for you, consider contracting with a regional specialist in used gear to come in and remove the displaced equipment for you. A used equipment vendor typically buys the used gear outright; it may only be a small fraction of what your business originally paid for the equipment, but it's money that can be put back into IT or other aspects of the business.

  • Donate the gear to a charitable cause. Lots of small businesses have big computing needs. This is particularly true for 501.c(3) charities on shoestring budgets that leave precious little for IT operations. Donating the gear to a certified charity provides your business with a tax benefit based on the value of the gear, and it gets the equipment off your site and into the hands of a business that needs it.

    If no particular charity stands out, however, consider donating the gear to a refurbishing business. Microsoft maintains an index of system refurbishing firms. Refurbishers are better able to test the systems and see that all of the software licenses (if any) are accounted for, and so on. You should still get the same tax break once the refurbisher provides a receipt valuing the donated gear.

    With any donation, be sure to contact the potential recipient first and discuss the donation to be sure the recipient can actually use the gear.

  • Use a recycler as a last resort. The popular catch-phrase for environmental concern is "reduce, reuse, recycle," so if the displaced gear is inoperative or is simply too old to run current software, the only remaining course is to dispose of the old gear through a firm that will scrap the systems for parts and responsibly dispose of the rest. You can look for recyclers through the e-Stewards website.

It's easy to focus on deploying the latest and greatest IT equipment, but technology refresh plans must include a consideration of the systems that will be displaced and decommissioned during the upgrade cycle. And when reselling or recycling IT equipment, remember to keep any documentation, accessories and software (especially license certificates) together with the server or system that you plan to sell off or donate. This not only helps future owners get the most from the equipment, it also helps to mitigate the clutter in your own data center.

This was first published in December 2012

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