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Mon 24 Mar 2003 04:00 AM

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Power play

Electricity is the lifeblood of any IT system and, as such, it should be protected at all costs. With this in mind, the Middle East’s smartest companies are deploying UPSs to ensure that they can continue operating during black outs.

I|~||~||~|While electricity is vital for making computing equipment work, it is also one of the biggest threats to IT hardware, as various spikes, surges, black outs and brown outs threaten to damage circuit, corrupt data and cause downtime. All of these can be guarded against however, by deploying uninterruptible power supply (UPS) devices. These battery systems clean the power coming to the machine and ensure that expensive and critical equipment gets the consistent 220 volts needed, either 24x7 or for as long as is need to shut the system down properly and safely.As one of the most technologically advanced hotels in the world, the Burj Al Arab hotel in Dubai is reliant on a consistent electrical supply. For instance, all of the hotel’s 440 televisions are connected to a PC, which enables guests to uses a variety of seven star services, including accessing digitally compressed movies on a central server. If there were to be a power outage, then guests would be unable to watch the movies, which would impact on the hotel’s service levels and damage its reputation. “The Burj Al Arab is the best hotel in the world, it can’t afford to have all of its services shut down, they have be on 24 hours a day,” says Manuel Rozario, director of information & technology at the Burj Al Arab. “If I shut down my server it takes 15-20 minutes to bring it up again and there would be no televisions or interactive systems for guests in the hotel during that time. Such a scenario is unacceptable,” he adds.To guard against this possibility, the hotel protects its servers with an online 20KVA APC UPS, which sits between the power supply and the server. The UPS smoothes out any fluctuations in the power supply, as well as enabling the hotel to maintain its service levels during any power cuts. If there is a black out, the UPS will switch in and run the IT systems off backup batteries for 20 minutes, during which time the hotel can get its generators online and working.However, it is not just the Burj Al Arab that needs to be concerned about its power supply. All organisations have data sat on IT equipment that they can’t afford to lose, whether it is accounting information or customer details. Similarly, an increasing number of companies are running e-commerce or other IT-dependent services that need to be available 24x7. As such, organisations need to ensure they have access to clean power in order to protect equipment from data loss and unacceptable downtime.Companies in areas like the Gulf, where the power supply is generally very good, may think they don’t need to worry about their electricity, as they are not subject to black outs caused by bad weather and winter storms. However, the area is subject to more black outs caused by construction workers, which are potentially more problematic than seasonal blacks out that can be planned for.“In the Middle East, we don’t get that type of [storm induced] interruption,” says Philip Hughes, general manager, Middle East & Pakistan, APC “[However,] the problem here is that the power failures are more damaging because they are more unexpected... [and] we do receive lots of phone calls from people who have blown up their hard discs and had all the usual problems associated with power failures,” he continues.||**||II|~||~||~|Aside from power cuts, fluctuations in the power supply can also damage sensitive equipment, either through surges that overwhelm the equipment with power, or dips when not enough power is supplied. These fluctuations are less obvious than black outs, as most electrical equipment will carry on working. “When the lights go off, one’s first reaction is that there is obviously a problem with the power supply, but if there is a major problem with the quality of the power supply, that is much more difficult to see,” says Malcolm Henley, managing director, BPC.Surges can happen in a variety of ways, including lightening strikes, which instantly send 10,000 volts through power cables straight into a server. More commonly though, a spike in the power supply comes when another electrical appliance, such as a large laser printer or the air conditioning, is switched off. The supply to a server can then jump from 220 volts to 250 or 260, which can form a niche on the hardware or CPU processor. This can than affect data stored on the machines, which “in some respects is even worse than having lost data, as it could have been modified and users have got no control over the discrimination of the system,” notes Henley.Dips in supply can be equally as damaging as spikes because equipment will need to work on just 180 volts instead of 220 volts. These dips or brown outs often occur first thing in the morning when everyone in the building arrives and switches lots of things on. This briefly drains the power supply, restricting the amount delivered to the IT equipment.“The equipment still works but it needs to work harder. Just like a marathon runner, if it works as hard and it is fed less and less, it won’t be able to carry on running the same way,” says Vipin Sharma, director of business development, Europe, Middle East & Africa, Tripp Lite.If the motherboards are continually forced to work harder in this way, the transistors will eventually blow off. The server will then need to be repaired or replaced, which is not only inconvenient, but also expensive as most vendors’ warranties don’t cover damage caused by power fluctuations.The best way to guard against both supply fluctuations and power cuts is to deploy a UPS device. These perform a dual role, as they clean the supply by smoothing out dips and surges, as well as replacing the mains power supply in the event of a black out. This battery backup time can then be used to close down applications and servers properly, or to maintain the service until either the mains power returns or generators kick in.Companies with critical systems need to have them supported by backup generators that can replace the mains power in the event of a power cut. However, they still need a UPS, as this will monitor the mains power supply and turn the generator on if needed. Furthermore, the generator will also take some time to come online, so the UPS’s batteries need to maintain supply while this happens.If there is a power cut at the Burj, for instance, the UPS automatically switches the server to a back up supply. “However, suppose it takes is a minute for the back up generator to come on,” says Rozario. “That minute is going to shut down my server, and it might crash and never come up, so the UPS takes over with the battery [in the interim] and allows us to keep our services running.” “A generator could never react fast enough to deal with a two minute outage or a flash of lightening, so you always need a UPS with some system like batteries to protect you,” agrees Carl Claunch, vice president & director of research, Gartner Group. ||**||III|~||~||~|When it comes to implementing a UPS, a company needs to decide what it wants the UPS to do. It can either be used to provide enough time for all the applications to be closed down properly, a graceful shutdown, or it can be used be to maintain supply until a backup generator kicks in, thereby ensuring 24x7 supply.A 24x7 supply strategy, which necessitates a back up generator, is needed for the most critical systems. As such, it has most commonly been used in large datacentres by companies who are heavily reliant on their IT systems. “If you talk about a large bank or a large airline, the people who are responsible for systems maintenance are at the senior vice-president level, and jobs are lost, if there is an interruption of power for even 10-15 minutes,” notes Mohammad Suri, general manager, MGE UPS Systems Gulf.Most companies though, opt for the graceful shutdown approach, primarily because of the expense. “The cost of moving to the point where you have diesel generators or the point where you have the ability to operate even with a one or two day power failure is a high step,” says Claunch.Also, for many organisations, especially SMBs, there is no real need for 24x7 supply, as the IT infrastructure is merely a support to the business. However, the company will need a UPS in order to properly close down applications in the event of a power cut without losing any data. “For them (SMBs) it’s not crucial to have the system running all the time, the accountant could go off and have lunch, for example, as it’s not earning him money at that time. What is critical is that he doesn’t lose the information that’s already on the computer,” says Hughes.When the Hilton Ras Al Khaimah recently suffered a power cut, it was forced to graceful shut down its systems, as the backup generator was also offline. As such, the UPS kicked in and provided the power needed while staff turned off their PCs, which were all networked to the UPS. This then provided enough power for the shutdown without any loss of data or damage to equipment.“[The power cut] lasted almost 45 minutes, so we had to ask everybody to shut down… The UPS supports a full load for 15 minutes, but we asked everybody to shut down within half an hour, so the UPS did not go down because we didn’t have any load on it,” explains Babu Varghese, IT manager, Hilton Ras Al Khaimah.Coping with shutdowns is made easier by the management tools integrated into UPS devices. At the Burj Al Arab, a message automatically pops up on the systems administrator’s PC to alert them to a power problem. However, not every organisation has 24x7 onsite support and, as such, more advanced management tools offer remote messaging, such as SMS.The UPSs are also able to close down servers in the event of a power cut, which means that a graceful shutdown can be carried out without any human intervention.“If there is a power failure, it [the UPS] will check how long the battery has to run. It will advise the network administrator what’s going to happen and prior to any catastrophic power outage it will shut down the applications,” explains Hughes.Aside from servers, UPSs can also be used to support other pieces of critical IT infrastructure, such as routers. At the Burj, for instance, the 48 edge routers are also supported by centrally managed UPSs. “That’s where the data comes from and as switches are pretty suspect to power fluctuations, we use UPS to make sure they are always on,” notes Rozario. “Whenever you design any system, you have to think about the power and deploy the necessary solutions,” he concludes.||**||

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