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Direct Line: Answers by Marian Moore, vice chancellor for information technology


There appear to be computer manufacturers that offer University employees and departments better deals than can be found through IBM, even with prices negotiated through the Carolina Computing Initiative (CCI). Why should employees and departments still purchase IBM machines?

I'll answer this in two parts. First of all, I don't agree with the assumption that other vendors offer better deals. Periodically someone comes to us and says they have found a better deal. In every case that I know of, when we have compared the actual pricing including all hidden costs, the CCI price has been cheaper. On occasion, they have been close, but only on the mid-range desktop. Part of the reason for this is that prices change during the technology life cycle and right now the life cycle of, say, a CPU chip seems to be that of a fruit fly. The customer pays more for new technology and less at the end of the product life. So, you have to know at what point in the cycle you are making the comparison. The concept of our contract with IBM was to put as much technology into the box as possible at as low a fixed price as possible, so that budgeting for technology could be predictably planned.

Now, the second part of your question -- why should we still buy IBM machines? It's important to remember that, when we embarked on the CCI, we were trying to do two things -- get the best technology for our money and control the cost of computer support. In the last five years, the cost of supporting technology at the University has increased by more than $2 million annually. We need to find a way to control this growth and offer better services. I don't think we can do that if we have 15 different brands of PCs on campus. No business would ever operate this way. If our computer support folks can concentrate on four platforms from one manufacturer, I think we can offer superior service to our customers: faculty, students and staff. This isn't about IBM; it's about standardization. If another vendor had been the low bidder on the contract, I would push their products. The point is that if you are going to realize any of the benefits of standardization, you eventually have to decide on a manufacturer and move on. That's what we are trying to do.

What is being done to ensure that IBM will remain the best deal?

We've established a great low price for the life of the contract. Then, as new technology is announced, IBM drives as much of that technology into our models as the price allows. The CCI models have been upgraded three times now and the contract has been in place only a year. That means more and faster computers at the same low price. Actually, IBM has pushed us to upgrade the models. Because they gear their production lines to the latest and greatest technology, they would actually be losing money if they had to re-tool the line to make our machines with older parts. So, it's in their best interest to keep us up to date.

If an employee/department does find a computer vendor that appears to better suit their needs/resources, what should they do?

They should contact Linwood Futrelle at linwood_futrelle@unc.edu and see if it really is a better deal. We have always said that no one architecture/vendor would serve all campus needs. We are always going to have needs for, say, high-end UNIX workstations for visualization or Macs needed in areas of art and design. But the buying habits of the greater University community indicate that 80 percent of the technology purchases on this campus are for PCs. And, if we make that 80 percent as cost effective as possible, we will do a much better job of providing for those unique needs that are so important to a research campus.

And, of course, the other thing to keep in mind is the idea of hidden costs. Does the computer have a four-year warranty? Do you have on-site parts and service? And loaners? If you choose to purchase a non-standard PC, how much is it going to cost to support this computer over time, considering that the majority of the Information Technology support folks on campus will have vast experience with the standard manufacturer? In the industry, it's called total cost of ownership. The CCI is a program designed to keep the total cost of ownership as low as possible and, at the same time, offer even better services. Frankly, from the response we are getting from our customers, I think it's been incredibly successful.



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