Lights Out

Last year's blackouts in Bahrain, Dubai and Sharjah highlighted the increasingly critical need for back-up power to support IT systems. Colin Edwards shines some light on the subject.

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By  Colin Edwards Published  August 31, 2006

When the power goes out in Bahrain, Dubai or Sharjah, it is an annoying inconvenience for the millions of people affected. For many, mainly small to medium-sized IT operations without an uninterruptible power supply (UPS), it is a disaster. A power outage, or voltage spike or dip can result in expensive data losses and hardware damage.

Expanding populations across the Middle East and ever-increasing industrial power demands are stretching utility companies' ability deliver the sustained clean and continuous power required by businesses and the sophisticated computing and network equipment that supports them.

Market analysts, Frost & Sullivan say the expansion in IT and telecoms will continue to put pressure on inadequate power supply networks and drive greater demand for more secure power for critical applications.

Other research finds that the typical utility power grid delivers only about 99.9% availability. In other words, power downtime averages some 48 hours a year.

According to a Contingency Planning & Management survey, 45% of all computing and network equipment or data loss failures reported are attributed directly to power problems. That means power back-up has become a must have for companies of all sizes.

"You can have all the most beautiful buildings in the world in this region, but if there is no IT because there is no power - if IT isn't there when companies need it - then they are totally worthless," says Vipin Sharma, Tripp Lite VP Sales for Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Historically, smaller companies in the Middle East have ignored the need for UPS systems to protect their data in the event of a blackout.

It wasn't considered to be the end of the world if a few staff lost whatever they were working on, or a bit of data went missing.

Today, however, it is a different story. It is not just a 'bit of data' that goes missing in the event of a power outage. What once was a minor nuisance, today spells lost business and wasted time that companies cannot afford.

"The Middle East market is still virgin in terms of education. A major portion of the market still needs to be educated about the need for UPS. But when you get a six-hour power outage in places like Dubai, it really wakes up major portions of the industry. They slowly realise that yes, UPS is a very important product and can't be avoided," says Kamlesh Kumar, country manager of OPTI International which is establishing

“You can have all the most beautiful buildings in the world in this region, but if there is no IT because there is no power - if IT isn't there when companies need it - then they are worthless.”

its Middle East and North Africa offices in Dubai later this year.

Just look what has happened to the Intel-based server form factors over the last few years. They have been shrinking rapidly and many businesses, having replaced slow 4U servers with dozens of faster and more power-consuming 1U and 2U systems, are now turning to blades.

The result is a sharp increase in power usage and an even greater dependence on an appropriate back-up power supply. "It is a very important product because data and IT equipment are very, very critical for any organisation. You cannot afford to lose any part of your data nor can you sustain any downtime these days," adds Kumar.

Other vendors believe that after battling for years to get their UPS message through, businesses in the Middle East are beginning to understand the business necessity of having a robust UPS in place: it can save a company money when the power goes out. Even so, the focus is still on creating UPS awareness in the market.

"We are carrying out a lot of education activities basically for the single phase solutions - a lot of advertising campaigns and a lot of market awareness programmes," says Vineet Kajaria, channel manager, MGE - UAE. "The awareness campaign is around the need for backup. The market is still unaware.

In the Middle East region the power-outs and power failures are comparatively few so people are not so bothered about protecting their critical equipment via a power backup. That awareness has to be created because, as the population rises, the instances of power-outs are bound to increase. Just this month (August) there was an entire power failure at Emirates Hills (Dubai)," he adds.

At the higher enterprise data centre level, where the growth of systems - servers, storage and clients - has been nothing short of exponential, the need is no longer for relatively simple UPS systems that allow for a graceful system shutdown in the event of power problems. Today, businesses want to carry on doing business come what may. This means they do not want something that will deliver power for 15 to 30 minutes while everything is closed down properly.

They want a solution that will keep key systems going for hours. And in the case of critical IT operations in data and contact centres, it is a 24x7 solution that they are looking for.

"People are looking for 24x7 backup today. They don't just want 10 minutes support anymore. They want to keep the business going," says Sharma. "The market for power backup has grown exponentially in the past few years. The power infrastructure has become so important to companies and organisations that they can't afford to have any downtime through power outages. Business continuity is critical," he adds.

OPTI International makes a similar point. "More and more companies are relying heavily on their databases. Downtime, even for a few minutes, can cause irreversible harm not only to the invaluable data and systems, but also to their business continuity, affecting production, efficiency, business reliability and financial losses to name just a few.

"Time and again well configured and accurately consulted UPS systems have been saviours to many such applications from all kinds of unexpected power related problems," says Kumar. OPTI , which, with 30% growth, saw its global business increase well above market norms last year, is also gearing up to meet the market's demand for longer back-up. Its future UPS development goes in two directions - enlarging the capacities and prolonging the backup time.

"There are some companies which can comfortably shut down their systems within a given period of time and there are others that require long back up time like 30 minutes, 45 minutes, two and even

“When you get a six-hour power outage in places like Dubai, it really wakes up major portions of the industry. They slowly realise that yes UPS is a very important product and can't be avoided.”

three hours.We keep getting requests for as high as three hours," says Kumar. "There are a lot of requirements for different industry categories. SMBs for example, they just want something to shut down quickly but others might want long backup times."

OPTI International's regional operation is to be officially launched at Gitex in November, but the company has been doing business in the region for some time, especially in Saudi Arabia where, he says, there is a big demand particularly for professional line-interactive and online technology UPS. The booming growth of telecom industry is also creating high demand for allin- one power protection solutions that can be integrated into complex info-communication infrastructures, he adds.

"We intend to project ourselves as the top three or four brands in the market and that is the message we are sending out to the channel.We are highly confident of our product and of repeating the success we have had in the US, Europe and Australian markets, " says Kumar.

One of the companies it will be coming up against is MGE, which, in addition to also having a broad product range, is now establishing a direct presence in the region having taken over ownership of its Middle East operation following the termination of its sole distributorship contract earlier this year.

In addition to its Middle East office in Jebel Ali Free Zone, it has offices in Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the UAE. MSO and GBM Distribution have been appointed regional distributors with MSO focused on the retail sector and GBM the enterprise, though MGE will be selling its three-phase offerings direct.

"The demand for UPS power systems is growing day by day," says Kajaria. "Companies are adding networks. They are putting in critical networks throughout their organisations. Companies are growing, so they definitely require more power backup. The demand is getting bigger and bigger day by day. Year to year it is an overall increase of around 7-10% - that's what we are targeting.

"While at the enterprise level the larger chunk will be taken up by three-phase, single phase also fits into this growing enterprise market.

The line includes 11kVA single phase, which is enough power for a company with 50 to 75 employees.

It can protect five to six servers. Say an email server plus normal data storage servers," he says. The MGE range now spans 700 VA to 20kVA, single phase.

Chloride is also experiencing high growth rates and says enterprise demand pushed the growth in the use of UPS solutions ahead of market expectations last year. "This growth was fuelled by increasing demand for secure power in data and call centres, with customers investing in additional facilities as the existing capacity approached full utilisation," the company comments in its annual report.

According to Frost & Sullivan in its European UPS market report released this summer: "The (UPS) market will also benefit from rising demand in the aftermath of power grid failures, which resulted in blackouts across major European countries. At the same time, growing concerns over data storage and security will boost investments in UPS solutions.”

All this increased demand for UPS solutions is having an impact on prices, with reports in August from the US that UPS and power generators are becoming more expensive. Average prices for datacentre backup and cooling systems have increased 5.5%, though hikes of up to 15% have been reported in the international press.

However, Frost & Sullivan says competition remains high and price consciousness among customers is likely to curb excessive price rises.

Also curtailing prices is the fact that multinational UPS manufacturers are not only facing heightened competition on the home front, but are also having to deal with an influx of cheaper products. These

“Dealing with a systems integrator who understands the needs of new technologies, and who has been properly trained by the vendor to power requirements is critical.”

are said to be coming primarily from the Far East.

"Market share has become paramount in this largely consolidated market and being able to draw on skills in terms of their products, services and customer relations will give market participants the success they are looking for," says Frost & Sullivan.

"Being able to meet customers' total power protection needs will also enable manufacturers to gain a competitive edge".

The good news for CIOs is that vendors are going beyond pushing metal. They are backing up their strong product range with services and are skillling up their partners in the region to do the same.

"Dealing with a systems integrator who understands the needs of new technologies such as VoIP, and who has been properly trained by the vendor to power requirements is critical," says Sharma. "This will become increasingly important as VoIP adoption in the region gathers pace."

The increasing complexity of today's IT environments demand more sophisticated backup solutions.

Converged networks with VoIP and Power of Ethernet (PoE) mean that it is not just computers that go down when the lights go out, but also the company's total ability to carry on business effectively. Not only do they lose IT systems, but also the means to communicate with the outside world - apart that is for their mobile telephones.

Users are still coming to terms with VoIP and as much as they might have come to accept the network going down from time to time, they will not tolerate the phones going down.

"With the advent of converged networks, the voice model has to be a 24x7 one, so now you're looking at 24x7 backup. You need to be looking at redundant power supplies and UPS in a rack and the power requirements are sizeable, whereas before the telephone supply has its own separate backup," says Sharma.

According to Nemertes Research, as companies move forward with their VoIP rollouts, one issue often overlooked is making sure they have appropriate power. PoE ensures data and power delivery are also "converged." It suggests that switches and routers are able to deliver line power to phones because line-powered phones can be backed by uninterruptible power supply to deliver the required fiveto six-nines availability.

PoE is not limited to phones. There are also wireless access points, security cameras, biometric and other physical access controls, environmental controls, etc.

The plus point about PoE is that with distributed devices like phones or access points, managers no longer need to deploy a UPS on every one anymore. He can just put one UPS in the closet, but experts warn that this can create a new problem in that these closets now need additional cooling.

UPS technologies are also changing. For example, fly-wheel systems that do away with the use of lead batteries are now being introduced. They comprise a heavy rotating disk that, as its momentum increases, stores energy as electricity.

When power is disrupted, the inertia of the flywheel continues to generate electricity, which can be used to power the data centre until a backup generator kicks in. Some systems provide 85 kW for as long as 15 minutes and are intended for power-backup applications in the 10 to 100kVA range found in small data centres.

Others only generate power for the few seconds it takes for a secondary system to kick-in. While costing about the same as batterybased UPS, they have four times the lifespan - put at 20 years.

Solar powered UPS are also now being produced by OPTI International. These have been designed for remote locations such as oil exploration sites and underdeveloped areas without conventional power supplies. The first offering, the SP300, is a 300W UPS, but engineering is now developing a 1000W system.

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