There are certain IT products that only ever gain prominence when their absence is made abruptly and painfully obvious. A classic example here is the UPS (uninterruptible power supply) which can safeguard precious data held in memory from a sudden mains power loss. It can also keep business-critical applications running when a full-scale network shutdown would prove financially disastrous. Yet often IT managers give installing a UPS less thought than they do to selecting which pen to write with.
The irony is that in today's IT environment - with Web based services like e-commerce coming to the forefront - ensuring that a UPS is fit for the job and actually works in an emergency should be afforded a high priority.
The threat from a power outage is more real than most people imagine.
For example, an IBM study determined that the typical computer is subject to 120 power problems per month while Safeware (a supplier of computer insurance) has estimated that 24% of desktop and notebook PC losses were attributable to some form of power problem.
So it is not just a scare story dreamt up by a manufacturer's marketing department. From an IT user's perspective, the requirement for a UPS divides roughly into two separate camps: server and single - PC - orientated products.
Obviously there is a very definite need for protecting the file and/or print servers on an enterprise network. More recently a UPS is being viewed as crucial for comms servers too - what happens if the e-mail server suddenly disappears, for example? The same is true for a remote-access server that is supporting telecommuters or a fax server which is handling the enterprises fax traffic. They too are supplying services that need protecting.
Added to this, today businesses are starting to worry about the impact of losing a Web or intranet server. Now commercially available are NT-powered PABXs, so the office phone system could also potentially disappear.
Such UPSs therefore need to last for some considerable time - not just the 15 minutes or so which 10 years ago was regarded as ample time to shut down a Novell NetWare server in an orderly fashion.
Arguably there is very little call for every networked PC within the organisation to continue to function when all the power fails. Nonetheless, a very definite case can be made for a small UPS to protect at least one individual PC on the LAN; otherwise the system manager will be left high and dry without a machine to see what is happening to all the connected servers.
Not everybody has a server, of course. It is easy to overlook the requirements of telecommuters whose unsaved data is just as vital to preserve. Fortunately, a small UPS can be used to protect not just their PC but also the fax machine, telephone answering machine and possibly a printer as well.
How does the typical UPS actually work? A UPS is a battery that sits between the mains power supply and your PC or server. As soon as the mains power disappears or dips below a critical voltage level, the UPS will cut in. Basically this ensures that the computer does not power down and then reboot itself right in the middle of running some crucial application or before you've had time to save the worksheet that you had been working on for the last two hours.
Today's UPS has not only got slimmer and lighter (the early models really did closely resemble car batteries) but has also become more intelligent.
A UPS needs to instruct the user that it has actually done its job - for example, you could have been away when the power first failed and therefore not realised that the UPS's battery has become so depleted it may have to shut off quickly. Hence, a UPS will now communicate its current state of readiness back to the host machine.
This might result in a simple onscreen message, or it could trigger a message to all LAN users that a particular file server will go out of service within 10 minutes. There was an attempt to supply servers with a UPS already built in, but price competition is so fierce these days that such a facility is offered only as an optional extra. Hence the vast majority of UPSs are external.
Technically speaking, the typical UPS product rarely differs radically from its rivals. At the really low end of the scale it is possible to purchase what is known as an "off-line" UPS. This is one that supplies power when the mains fails but doesn't offer any real power conditioning facilities.
However, with such devices you still run the risk of losing data in certain circumstances. Skimping on the provision of power conditioning can help to drop the price of a very basic UPS below the £100 mark.
According to John Fitzsimons, managing director of UPS supplier IMV Victon, the cost savings made by removing the power conditioning capabilities from a UPS are so insignificant that his company does not even bother to offer such a beast.
Manufacturers try to blind users with science by quoting a UPS capacity in terms of kVA (thousand volt amps). Purchasing a UPS is, however, like buying a battery for your mobile phone - you ask how many minutes it should last for; gauge its kVA capacity against that offered by a rival product; and then check to see which one is either slimmest or cheapest.
Another factor is that with Windows 95, 98 or NT, Microsoft has built in rudimentary support for UPSs so you do not even have to worry about the quality of supplied software drivers at the very basic end of the market. In Windows 98, for instance, a UPS can be integrated with Microsoft's WDM32 power management drivers. The net result is that to the PC and the end user, the UPS appears as if it has the battery fitted inside a portable PC. So the user gets all the familiar alerts from the UPS that he/she might expect from a notebook PC - such as percentage of charge left and time remaining to system shutdown.
Early warning system
As the system manager in charge of a distributed LAN, if the power suddenly disappears in one building (not necessarily yours) you need to be notified immediately. Most vendors supply a utility that will inform the LAN community that a certain server is about to disappear because the power has failed, so users ought to save their files immediately.
Once a UPS exceeds 3kVA in size, it needs qualified electrical installation, whereas smaller products are strictly plug-and-play. Larger UPSs are often handled through the likes of electrical contractors who will not only install a generator and air conditioning for a traditional computer room but also might handle the closed-circuit TV installation for security purposes as well.
The need for speed
A major difference in the types of UPS available is referred to as "autonomy".
While the average small installation is happy for a UPS system to cut in and allow an orderly shutdown of file servers and workstations after 10 minutes, there are businesses such as financial institutions and telecommunications operators that require "zero autonomy". Any loss of their systems will result in loss of revenue, so the UPS's job is to cut in immediately after power loss and before emergency power is instituted.
Bob Maruszewski, European marketing director at UPS supplier Liebert Europe, argues that this is where many current UPS sales fall down. The end user does not ensure that the supplied UPS matches an existing emergency power generator supply.
If the two products are not in unison, the UPS will be fooled into thinking - for example, by variations in the generator's variable voltage output - that true mains power has not been restored. The result will be that the UPS refuses to reset itself and go back to standby mode.
It is actually possible to produce a line-powered modem alternative to a traditional UPS which draws its power from the telephone network but they are still too slow to support remote dial-up access.
IMV which intends to launch a Java-based version of its UPS software at Networks 99. Not only is Java the natural language for e-commerce and Web servers, it also allows users to control a UPS using a standard browser.
Better still, by using Java it is easy to manage a UPS remotely.
APC: THE CLEAR MARKET LEADER
In a situation somewhat reminiscent of Novell NetWare's grip on the LAN operating system in its heyday, American Power Conversion (APC) is so obviously way ahead of its competitors that rivals all compare their products against the APC equivalent. Rough estimates for the UK give APC at least 50% of this market.
The company itself claims an installed user base of eight million users worldwide and reported revenue for 1998 of £0.7 billion. Significantly, the UPS sector shows no signs of slackening as APC's sales figures for Q1 1999 were up 27% - allowing APC to enjoy a compound annual growth rate of over 40%. Shipping its first product back in 1984, APC has achieved its leadership position in a number of ways.
APC formed an alliance with Novell in the early 1980s with the result that APC's UPS products were heavily integrated into NetWare. Today the company enjoys strategic partnerships with the likes of Microsoft, Cisco, IBM, Sun, Cableton, Hewlett-Packard and Nortel.
Last year the company received a Best Buy award from our sister publication Network Solutions for its Smart-UPS 2200 (£872).
The company's latest product is actually aimed at the Road Warrior: the PNote Pro is a surge protector aimed at protecting notebooks from line surges and spikes. It works in both Europe and the US and is priced at £29.
PROTECTING YOUR PC FROM POWER PROBLEMS
Today's entry-level UPS fits easily underneath a desk and normally sports two power leads: one for the CPU and one for the monitor.
If your monitor feeds straight from the PC's casing, you can use the second lead to protect a printer or modem, for example. As PCs can prove more sensitive to voltage fluctuations than most other electrical equipment, the majority of UPS products (except off-line models) also effectively double as a mains conditioner to protect against spikes.
In such circumstances, the UPS is already paying for itself since a PC can reset itself if the voltage level drops too low - even though there's been no actual power cut. Some UPS products will emit an audible beep each time they encounter significant power fluctuations, while others have flashing LED indicators.
Some users may well find themselves disabling the beep function: it happens so often during peak work hours it can become irritating. One reason why a UPS requires software support is that a power outage may happen while the user is out at lunch or away from his or her desk. As an outage can seriously deplete the battery's reserves, some onscreen warning of such events is required, otherwise the PC or server could potentially lose power before it has shut down properly. Hence, the user or system manager needs to be able to easily adjust the outage time allowed before shutdown.
At present most UPSs connect to the server or PC via a simple serial link, although USB connectors are now being offered. MGE, for example, argues that a USB connector is something of an overkill because very little data travels over the link between PC and UPS, so a serial connection is more than fast enough.
There is also little need for USB's plug-and-play facility since you install a UPS only once. However, with USB ports now becoming commonplace (standard on the Apple iMac) MGE now supplies a USB connector for its Pulsar EX range. Although a UPS - like a car battery - is now maintenance free, you still need to test them regularly to ensure they will provide correct operation in an emergency. The leading vendors therefore supply a software routine that regularly tests the UPS in the background and will report potential problems such as a faulty charger. Typically, a UPS will last for three years before it needs replacing so users should investigate what warranty is being offered with the product.
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