Surges, Outages, and Blackouts; Oh My!

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Ever been relaxing at home, in front of the television or working on your computer when suddenly the power went out? It's annoying to miss a favorite show or lose a project, but what is merely an annoyance in our personal lives can be costly and even fatal to the livelihood of small and midsize businesses (SMB).

Storms, human error and other disturbances can knock out your local power grid or create power fluctuations that shut down or fry IT equipment. When power fails, every device re-boots and all unsaved data vaporizes, leaving IT managers to figure out what and how much was lost. The result? Downtime, lost or corrupted data, costly repairs and, in extreme cases, the shuttering of some businesses.

The latter may sound like hyperbole, but a 2006 survey by the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration found that 25% of companies experiencing an IT outage of two to six days went bankrupt. Power outages are typically shorter than two days, but if an outage costs you important data and damages or destroys key components of your data systems, then you have enough of an IT outage to threaten the life of your business.

But on the bright side, power and data losses are easily avoidable. SMBs can safeguard IT equipment with uninterruptible power supply (UPS) equipment that provides surge protection and battery backup. A well-designed UPS system can be a savior in power outages -- it enables users to manually save data before it is lost. Even during fleeting outages, UPS devices allow employees to keep working until the problem is resolved.

There are several categories of UPS systems: offline, line-interactive and online.

The most affordable option is the offline UPS, also known as stand-by UPS. You get what you pay for, as offline is generally the least reliable and most inflexible type of system. It uses the AC line as the principal power source, and when a power disturbance or outage occurs, the offline UPS switches to battery power to protect the devices it supports -- at least long enough to rescue data and shut them down manually. If you have inexpensive or non-critical computers, are a one-person show or have a tiny business, an offline UPS might be best for you. If it's all you can afford, it's far better than no protection at all.

The line-interactive UPS is more suitable for midsize enterprises. When an over-voltage or under-voltage occurs, the line-interactive UPS corrects the force of the voltage without switching completely to battery power. It's a step up from an offline UPS because it reduces the number of failovers and associated reboots/recoveries, and a line-interactive UPS does have longer battery life as a result.

Online, or double-conversion, UPS is the top choice for companies that need reliable protection for sensitive equipment. It provides the most efficient power protection and battery backup available and is built for critical IT equipment. The device takes incoming power, converts it from AC to DC and then re-converts it to AC, filtering out spikes and noise to provide "clean," perfectly modulated power to IT equipment. If there's an outage, the online UPS battery takes over more seamlessly than other categories of UPS gear, because it is connected to the power inverter and therefore always online between the principal power source and the equipment.

Choosing the right UPS

SMBs need to consider a number of variables when deciding which type of UPS to purchase:

-- How big is your company and how fast is it growing? The bigger the company and faster its growth, the more advanced the UPS strategies should be -- partly because you have more at risk than a smaller organization, but also because you probably employ more critical IT equipment that is sensitive to power fluctuation and loss.

-- Have you implemented virtualization or blade servers? These technologies may reduce total power requirements for your company, but they use much more power per cubic foot of data center space, so your old power protection systems may be inadequate and potentially less stable because of the increased demand. Don't under-size your UPS just because you've virtualized or implemented blade servers.

-- What is your outage cost (the cost of your IT downtime)? Consider the type of UPS as part of your overall business continuity/disaster recovery (BC/DR) plan. One of the first steps of a BC/DR plan is determining your recovery time objective (RTO), or the amount of time applications can afford to be down -- the maximum tolerable outage. If your business can tolerate longer downtimes, you may be able to get away with an offline or line-interactive UPS. If not, online is the best way to go.

-- Do you use a standby power generator, and if so, how big is it? Some line-interactive UPS systems won't handle generator change-overs well because of the magnitude of power fluctuation they cause. Some will, but if not, you'll need to use an online UPS.

-- User-friendliness is also an important consideration. Can you swap the UPS hardware out yourself, or will you need an electrician? Determine if you have enough power distribution receptacles, and if they are the right type.

Managing tips

Once you've settled on the right type of UPS system, don't just plug it in and forget it. Here are some tidbits to remember:

-- Remote management: Many UPS systems can be managed conveniently through a dedicated IP address and a standard Web browser, while simultaneously providing graceful shutdown for multiple computer systems over the network. They work with the UPS software and the Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) card.

-- Out with the old, In with the new: When considering an upgrade, instead of adding to an old system, it's best to un-install the old and buy a completely new system because the components in UPS -- especially the batteries -- do have limited life.

-- Remember the Emergency Power Off (EPO): The National Electrical Code Section 645-10 mandates that power to HVAC and computer equipment must be terminated by switches at the exit doors of the data center to facilitate an immediate shutdown in the event of an emergency. Power is terminated by an EPO circuit switch, which should be visible, accessible  and illuminated so employees can kill power immediately in cataclysmic conditions. The EPO switch should also be protected, so it is not tripped by accident.

-- Don't fail the test: Implementing UPS isn't enough. To ensure that you're protected effectively, test your power backup systems and procedures semi-annually.

According to Forrester Research and the Disaster Recovery Journal, 42% of disaster-recovery decision makers indicated that a power failure was the cause of their most significant major business disruption. Avoid the risk: a properly configured and managed UPS system can mitigate the risk of data loss, ruined hardware and long bouts of downtime.

This story, "Surges, Outages, and Blackouts; Oh My!" was originally published by Network World.

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