From the May 2012 issue of Entrepreneur
Level up: Technology consultant James Gaskin
Level up: Technology consultant James Gaskin
Photo© by Sarah Wilson

Q: When do I absolutely need to upgrade my company's computer systems?

A: We feel your pain. Laying out thousands of dollars for equipment and software that can lose half its value by the time it's wired into an office is a tough pill for any business owner to swallow.

What's more, says James Gaskin, a Dallas-based technology consultant, the issue of upgrading "keeps coming up every few years, or each time a small business goes out to buy a computer and finds that its new laptop uses a fresh [operating system] that's incompatible with what they run back at the office."

Upgrades are essential to keeping your business productive and, perhaps more important, secure.

Fortunately, you don't need to do it all at once. Use our flowchart to explore your options.

Q: Is your hardware connected to the internet?

No: Intra-office file servers and printers may never need upgrades. With printers, the manufacturer should provide new drivers that allow the machines to work with updated operating systems.

Yes: At a minimum, keep your security software, browsers and operating systems updated. "If you don't do that much, it's a fool's savings," Gaskin says. "You'll spend much more later after a computer virus wipes out everything."

Turn to the cloud for new software instead of installing expensive programs all at once. This way software becomes a more manageable, fixed, long-term cost instead of one big upfront expense. Future upgrades are automatic.

And remember, there's no need to replace all your computers at the same time. Put the upcoming Windows 8 on one or two PCs and leave the rest running Windows 7. That should buy you another couple of years.

Q: Do you use laptops?

No: Good. PC towers are the pickup trucks of computing: They can do a lot of heavy lifting, and they'll last longer--usually five years.

Yes: Laptops have an average life span of three years, assuming you don't lose or damage them first. Budget accordingly.

Q: Do your employees need smartphones?

No: Nothing to worry about here.

Yes: Let your staff use their phones. For security reasons, write a company policy that spells out what, exactly, employees can't do with their
personal phones. For example: Downloading company files is grounds for termination.