Few business continuity and disaster planners ever envisioned setting up most of their employees in home offices almost overnight, as the COVID-19 pandemic caught IT unprepared.
Procuring the laptops, headsets, monitors, printers, Wi-Fi routers, tablets, PCs, cabling, and other gear this newly distributed workforce required, set off a mad scramble as harried IT shops and procurement professionals frantically called, texted, and emailed every vendor on their lists only to be told time and again nothing was available.
Eventually, the situation was remedied through a combination of relaxed — or hurriedly introduced — bring your own device (BYOD) polices, acquiring hardware locally, or having IT literally box up on-site hardware for employees to take home.
"We didn't have a lot of pull directly with [our preferred vendor] Dell," said Brian Shea, CIO of MedOne Hospital Physicians, a mid-sized provider of clinical specialists to hospitals. "So, we'd go local, which, in my past life [as the CTO Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus], we would never do. Then we started using Amazon a little bit. We had more flexibility searching multiple vendors."
In the two years since the initial response to the pandemic, hardware purchasing trends at the enterprise level have shifted to ensure companies don't neglect their hardware needs. They are moving purchasing away from fixed assets like desktop PCs in favor of more mobile gadgets, adjusting their provider strategy to match their needs. For many businesses, analysts expect, changes are here to stay.
Many companies also provided employees with stipends so they can get what they need on their own, said Andrew Hewitt, a senior infrastructure and operations analyst at Forrester.
This approach took the onus off of severely overworked IT departments to find, buy, and ship everything to their newly minted work-from-home workforce.
"You basically saw enterprises go in about 10 different directions just trying to get something into the hands of people so that they could get their work done," said Hewitt.
What companies bought
Some IT shops went so far as to set up their customer service reps with thin clients so they could access virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), but most organizations opted for anything portable and that could run a web browser, Hewitt said.
"We had one client, for instance, that was sending home thin clients along with hardware based tokens for authentication," he said. "They had to order a ton of tokens right at the beginning of the pandemic to enable that. Where something that was more cloud friendly, like a Chromebook or a personal PC, is going to have that authentication mechanism built into it."
This move to portable devices represents a significant shift in hardware usage and buying patterns.
Two-thirds of respondents to a recent Spiceworks Ziff Davis (SWZD) report, Hardware Trends in 2022 and Beyond, said desktop PCs were the primary computing device in their organizations in 2018. Four years later, 40% of employees are using laptops and 40% are using desktops.
As a percentage of spend, companies today spend more on laptops than desktops. Mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets also are being used as work devices today, particularly in Asia-Pacific and Latin American countries.
"This reallocation of spending happened during the pandemic, with the shift to remote work serving as the catalyst," the study said.
The report also found that, despite growth of cloud computing in all its forms – SaaS, IaaS, and PaaS during the pandemic – only about half of all workloads today are running the cloud.
Despite reports of a stampede toward the cloud, half of workloads are still running in on-premises data centers and server rooms.
Hardware spending as a percentage of overall IT spending decreased since the start of the pandemic, dropping from 33% in 2020 to 30% in 2022. Servers accounted for just 14% of spending in 2020 and that number is expected to drop to 11% in 2022.
At the same time, cloud spending only increased moderately from 22% in 2020 to 26% of overall IT budgets in 2022, the report said.
"But make no mistake: On-premises servers remain extremely important to organizations worldwide … on-premises and cloud infrastructure will co-exist and grow increasingly interoperable, allowing for greater portability and flexibility that will benefit organizations in a hybrid world," the report said.
Change is here to stay
For many companies, the old ways of doing business will not work anymore.
Shea, for example, said he won't go back to relying on just one vendor. Being a mid-sized company with just a couple of hundred employees that buys hardware only as needed means they do not get the preferential treatment an enterprise-class customer would.
"We have not moved back to using Dell … we will continue to buy peripherals through local sources or channels like Amazon. We're able to see the flexibility in pricing by looking across multiple suppliers."
For most companies, hardware has become essential again. The pandemic showed reliance on non-mobile assets such as desktops or thin clients can create a lot of problems when global events spin out of control.
Citing recent Forrester data, Hewitt said only 10% of companies plan to reduce hardware spending on PCs in 2022. This includes laptops, tablets, Chromebooks, and Macs. Half of businesses said they planned to increase their PC spending this year and 25% said they would remain the same.
"A lot of organizations have seen the value from a business continuity perspective of physical hardware," he said.