Uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) have come a long way since the earliest single system products were installed, mirroring the increasingly sophisticated nature of modern IT environments.
Where piecemeal deployment of UPS devices occurred before, users can now make use of far more flexible, scaleable and manageable power protection options.
In keeping with these developments, the software aspect of UPS has also been brought into line with the requirements of distributed computing.
And one major leap forward has been achieved by two vendors so far - the development of completely modular UPS systems which deliver built-in redundancy.
Power supply protection is as important today as it was in the days of the first mainframes. There is an argument which says that UPS is even more crucial, given the spread of IT far from the data centre. Computers and their networks only remain useful when constant power is provided.
So the modular redundancy now coming through from UPS suppliers closely fits the mission-critical market, where high availability is the corporate touchstone.
Uptake of modular and redundant UPS is now taking place among user organisations.
And although these devices are relatively recent additions to vendor portfolios in Europe, there are early adopters of the technology who can explain the need for such extra features.
While other vendors can be expected to make available these new modular UPS solutions over the next year, only market leader American Power Conversion (APC) and PK Electronics are currently shipping products. In various forms, modularity in UPS has been around for at least five years. Adding fully modular options with the redundancy factor, however, is the most revolutionary development in the UPS arena for 15 years, according to John Pyle, APC's global business development manager.
"Most UPS products are still not modular, let alone offer redundancy, but this is clearly the future direction in enterprise-level systems. We saw this wave hitting the data centre a few years ago and did extensive research among 2,000 customers before taking the step of adding more modularity and scaleability to our products," said Pyle.
There are parallels between the APC concept and other developments in IT which involve redundancy, where persistent system availability is a key factor, according to Pyle. Examples include the RAID storage systems, networking equipment from Cisco Systems and the NUMA standard industry server architecture. In all these cases, high levels of modularity, scaleablility and redundancy are present.
The APC product line which offers the new features is called Symmetra, although the vendor prefers to describe this range as power arrays as opposed to merely UPS systems. This notion follows the parallels drawn with RAID systems, among others. Back in 1993, APC launched its first modular systems which were sold as the Matrix range. Since then Pyle has seen PK Electronics, Exide and a data centre supplier called Silcon deliver modular systems of various kinds to the market. The Symmetra arrays started shipping in the US last September and reached Europe in March this year.
There are three main components to the Symmetra range: the power module, the battery module and the CPU, which can also be called the intelligence module. All these components have built in redundancy. Symmetra is sold in blocks, each being able to handle 4,000Va of electrical current. Deploying such modules means that extra UPS protection can be added without swapping out the existing installation and is more cost effective, claims Pyle.
If users wanted to gain a redundancy element to UPS in the past, two separate units in line were required. Symmetra also operates over LANs and the WAN, covering sites such as branch offices and retail outlets. Pyle added that Symmetra devices could cover the entire infrastructure of, say, a bank.
PK Electronics, a Malaysian UPS supplier founded in 1982, has opted for what it calls an "N+1" approach to redundant UPS. The company's products in this area include the US9001 online modular UPS and the US9003 line interactive range. At the higher end, PK Electronics has positioned the US9001, which comes in 1,000Va blocks serving installations up to the 100 kVa limit. The US9003 is focused on power protection where lesser currents are involved, based on a set of 400VA modules, ranging up to 4,800VA.
Graham Williams, European sales director at PK Electronics, also describes the advent of redundant modular UPS as a revolution in power protection, allowing users the opportunity to size this crucial aspect of systems and networks to fit actual need. Like the APC products, the PK Electronics lines have hot swappable features and scaleability built in. Williams also stresses the fact that redundant UPS also means decreasing the service overhead which can apply with older products. The products also support all operating systems out of the box. The US9001 is aimed at the online marketplace, while the US9003 is essentially oriented towards server environments.
Williams explains that standard UPS devices can be deployed alongside the modular products for desktop protection
Modern UPS systems are not merely pieces of hardware, however, with the industry now offering power management software features as well. For instance, APC includes its PowerXtend software with the Symmetra package.
Developed jointly with IBM, PowerXtend can link with mainstream management software such as Big Blue's own Netfinity product, Hewlett-Packard's OpenView and Compaq's Insight Manager. PowerXtend can also connect with higher level management software, such as Tivoli's SME. Web access to UPS management data is also available from the ParaChute Plus software sold by APC.
For its part, PK Electronics offers power management tools from SEC Software as part of its UPS package. Recommended pricing for the PK Electronics modular UPS ranges starts at #489 for a 1,600VA module under the US9003 banner, up to #7,812 for a 12,000Va module - or 11 blocks plus one - for the US9001. The vendor is now looking to expand its sales partnerships to shift these new UPS devices.
Other vendors involved in UPS have developed innovative aspects to power management software. For instance, UPS supplier IMV has a software product called PowerFlag which initiates an orderly shutdown of any system hit by a power failure or other electrical calamity.
When a power interruption lasts more than 10 seconds users get messages generated by PowerFlag to the effect that a power outage has occurred and that downtime looms. A second message is then sent once the problem has passed. The PowerFlag software can also keep track of battery power levels.
Another example of power management software is the LanSafe product developed by Exide, sold in the UK by its MPL Powerware subsidiary. Providing network shutdown facilities for network operating systems, LanSafe covers NT, NetWare, Unix and OS/2 and can be connected to SNMP enabled consoles.
However, the vendors all observe that user interest in the potential of power management software has yet to take off. There are several reasons for this lack of adoption, although the main issue seems to be connected to the generally piecemeal installation of UPS over time. That said, some user organisations are starting to show some interest. One example of this is the Halifax financial services company which has bought UPS devices from APC for each of its branches - with power management software also present in each installation.
The kinds of developments in UPS discussed so far all hinge around the shift from centralised to distributed computing models in recent years.
This theme has become the subject for a report produced by Datapro Information Services, a subsidiary of the Gartner Group of industry analysts. Called Uninterruptible Power Supply Systems in a Distributed Computing Environment, the report was published in February this year and raised some crucial issues.
One core decision faced by user companies is to either opt for centralised or distributed UPS at an early stage of the shift of mission-critical functions out of the data centre. Datapro asserts that when an organisation is moving to distributed systems, it can choose between centralised or distributed UPS. Both ways can bring advantages and drawbacks, according to the research firm.
A central UPS structure for distributed computing delivers power to systems on a campus from a central point. This clearly simplifies the power management task. The major task faced by IT management here is to ensure that the power supply remains clean as it reaches protected servers and other machines.
Corrective measures might be required to ensure this clean provision of energy, including the addition of extra UPS equipment at the point of use. Keeping the distribution system for power fully functional across the site is essential in this scenario. Strict procedural conditions must also apply to staff when it comes to who can touch power boards and interrupt supplies.
Conversely, distributed UPS can be installed at the point of usage, where power loads reside. Many of the issues pertaining to central UPS control are eliminated with this option. Unlike the centralised approach, however, multiple UPS devices are required as opposed to a much lower number devices located in the data centre. This raises the need for routine and well organised maintenance of the UPS installations, including accurate tracking of the location of such power protection equipment.
Key features of up-to-date UPS systems have also been listed by Datapro.
Redundancy comes top of the list, with the research firm specifying the N+1 approach discussed earlier. One recommendation recorded by Datapro in its study is to take the redundancy factor as far as possible, even back to the point where the power feeds enter the building. Datapro records that some user companies have doubled up on items like switching gear and have even duplicated the main cables coming into the site. This provides full redundancy across the whole electrical supply infrastructure.
Next up on the hit list of features is the ability to hot swap UPS components. This focuses on the capability for changes in battery and other device elements to be made without shutting down the UPS and affecting the equipment's performance.
The choice of battery technology is also considered an important UPS issue. This is one area where progress has typically been slower than other aspects of UPS. The standard type of battery for UPS systems remains the sealed lead design, while nickel cadmium, or NiCad, batteries are a more effective but also more expensive option.
There are other types of battery around, such as the lithium ion design, but these are considered too expensive for application in the UPS context, according to Datapro. Choosing the right battery technology for UPS equipment should also be matched against the power supply performance of the local utility, which can vary considerably. If a company site is located in an area where electricity outages are much reduced, then a lower performing battery type may suffice.
Finally, Datapro stresses the value of power management software for UPS. This caters for users who want to manage UPS devices on the LAN using an operating system's facilities, via the WAN using SNMP or based on an phone line connection which is independent from the network itself.
Datapro also gathered views from several parties in its research which indicated that power failures related to IT equipment are often due to accidents in the office. One firm polled, the Syska & Hennessy firm of engineering consultants, claims that 50% of all computer downtime is caused by human error. Several vendors assert, however, that downtime is caused as much by incidents outside a building. Included here is the typical example of workmen going through cables during the course of road repairs or other excavations.
Overall, the Datapro report concludes that accommodating the requirements UPS for distributed computing environments involves careful planning.
There should be an established dialogue between IT and facilities management to reach agreement about the power protection needs of any high availability system.
UPS may not be the most exciting of technology areas in IT, but it remains one of the most important aspects of a mission-critical or high-availability system. The arrival of modular UPS with built in redundancy should stir this slow-moving IT segment, however, providing even greater resilience to the many potential causes of power failure and fluctuation.
UPS supplier PK Electronics has been shipping modular power protection products with built in redundancy in Europe since last September. Two PK Electronics customers to reveal their strategies are the Royal Free NHS Trust and Buchanan International.
The Royal Free runs a cancer treatment service based on radiotherapy.
Buchanan is a software house based in Scotland which is active in the field of encryption, providing development, consultancy, training and other services.
Two reasons were cited by the Royal Free for adopting a UPS strategy in the first place. During times which are considered non-essential, the hospital switches to generated mains power, according to Richard Knott, principal physicist with the organisation. After experiencing unreliable power supplies from its local utility, the Royal Free opted for UPS protection.
Knott said the hospital was not aware of the modular UPS product set before getting in touch with PK Electronics. While the Royal Free does not need the scaleability features, other features of the US9001 proved interesting.
"Room for growth is not so much of an issue for our department, as our equipment is not likely to increase in size in the near future," said Knott. "However, our need to maintain a steady flow of power to our equipment was important. The hot swappability aspect of the UPS means that we can replace modules should they fail, without worrying about downtime." The sensitive equipment used in the radiotherapy department includes an oven which heats dosimeter crystals, controlled by a programmable device.
These crystals help measure levels of radiation in patients undergoing total body irradiation in preparation for bone marrow implants.
Voltage fluctuations can have a big impact on this high-tech oven, causing system resets and affecting the heating cycle of the crystals. This situation has been stabilised with the introduction of UPS, according to Knott.
Buchanan International includes password recovery as one if services, a process which requires long-time cycles to execute complex, interrogative programs. Colin Rose, password recovery team manager at Buchanan, explained that these mission-critical programs can take days, and even weeks, to run. Any interruption means the software must be started again from scratch, so Buchanan clearly has a need for UPS to protect the integrity of these processes, but other factors applied which made the company choose a both a modular and redundant UPS.
"Buchanan is a fast growing company and economic growth naturally leads to growth in our resource requirements, particularly in IT investment.
A scaleable UPS, such as the US9001, is a great idea as the original investment is protected. You simply add to it rather than having to replace it," said Rose.
Benefits have already accrued to Buchanan from its UPS investment. Rose cites one instance where an office cleaner unplugged a computer running a password recovery program, thinking it was not in use. Due to the UPS features no interruption to the work occurred, saving the company nine extra days of processing time.
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