For many of these machines, companies are still paying monthly or annual license fees for the software installed on them unused machines, analysts said.
There are processes that can be implemented to effectively deal with those issues, analysts say, but such projects become much more difficult with the loss of experienced workers.
Unemployment in the UK topped 2 million last week and Forrester analyst Peter O’Neill says that as a rule of thumb, half those laid off are knowledge workers.
"A knowledge worker usually has a copy of Microsoft Office, so you can make a direct correlation" between the number of layoffs at a company and the number of software licenses outstanding, he said.
A software budget survey by Forrester conducted between December 2008 and February 2009 and due to be released soon, will show that more than one in five businesses that audited their software over the past year are paying for at least some unused software, or shelfware.
At the same time, the Forrester survey of 776 U.S., European and Asian companies found that only 35% of the respondents were using a third-party firm to audit software licenses, so the percentage of companies with unused software is likely to be even higher.
O'Neill said that the survey also found that, on average, 15% of corporate software maintenance payments are for licensed shelfware.
"At the end of the day, I'd say almost every company ... [has] shelfware," said O'Neill, who is based in Germany. The situation in Europe is worse than in the US, he said. “Many companies have no comprehensive, well-documented end-of-life programme for hardware and software."
He called the lack of such programmes "a business oversight now coming to light as the recession deepens."
O'Neill suggested that companies may have an easier time solving the software licensing problem, because vendors that would never have considered renegotiating a software contract two years ago have softened and are now likely to rework deals to keep customers.
"This year especially, [software vendors] are highly dependent on maintenance ... and that's dependent on the relationship with customers," he said. "Even Microsoft these days probably doesn't feel that safe."
Simson Garfinkel, an associate computer science professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., suggested that a long-term solution to the licensing issue would be to start migrating to open-source software. Open-source software would "render this issue moot," he said.
One option for orphaned hardware is to ship it to computer recycling companies, though experts caution that that path could lead to some unforeseen security risks.
For example, Angie Keating, vice president of compliance and security at Reclamere Inc., a US IT asset management company, noted that customers are increasingly sending Reclamere hard disk drives that hold sensitive corporate data.
In fact, she said that about eight of 10 computers sent to Reclamere still contain hard drives that were supposed to have been removed.
The poor economy has proved to be a boon to Reclamere's business, Keating noted. "Trucks are booked. Schedules are tight," she said.
A Sensitive Issue
The increase in the number of drives with sensitive data that Reclamere is receiving could be traced to workforce cuts at customer companies. Often, such cutbacks include the people who had been responsible for making sure that systems were ready for recycling.
Keating added that the economic climate is probably making sensitive data from struggling and failed companies readily available in a variety of ways. "In some cases, those companies have gone bankrupt; the data is literally just sitting out there, probably sitting on eBay," Keating said.
Kessler International, a New York-based computer forensics company, reported last month that 40% of the hard disk drives it recently bought in bulk orders on eBay Inc.'s online auction site contained sensitive information.
Keating recommended that companies have three things in place to ensure that data is properly destroyed: a thoroughly documented process, a strong quality-control program, and solid follow-up documentation about what was done to orphaned equipment and who did it.
"If you have, say, 500 machines -- and that's a small number -- coming out of service, and you've got them stacked up, how do you know which ones have been processed and which haven't if you don't have a quality control program?" she said.
Garfinkel agreed that an end-of-life program must include strong documentation policies. He asserted that dealing with orphaned hardware doesn't require expensive or complex technologies.
"A lot of people say that it's technically difficult or even impossible to overwrite the contents of a hard drive," Garfinkel said. "This is not true."
He said that open-source software, such as Darik's Boot and Nuke, or DBAN, "does a great job." Once the data is overwritten using such tools, Garfinkel said, companies should "track which drives you have erased and which you have not."
He added that an easier option is "to just punch a hole through each hard drive."
Laura DeBois, an analyst at IDC, said other options include encrypting a drive and throwing away the encryption key, or electronically "shredding" data by overwriting it using hard-drive-wiping software that's been approved by the US Department of Defense or the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
Another option is to simply keep the hardware in a secure warehouse until better economic times roll around, DeBois added.