Powerful protection

Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) products are key to an always-on computing environment as they protect computers from outages, surges or sags in the power supply. However, as information technology becomes ever more important to local enterprises, the humble UPS is becoming a core part of many enterprise infrastructures and delivering features far more advanced than its commodity status suggests.

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By  Maddy Reddy Published  May 9, 2004

|~|tripplite_INSIDE.jpg|~|The GCC market is growing at around 25% per year, says Tripp Lite’s Vipin Sharma.|~|With reports of power outages becoming more frequent and ever increasing demands being placed on state-run utility providers, regional enterprises are trying harder than ever to maintain business continuity and ensure their IT investments operate smoothly. Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) vendors address the most basic ingredient of business continuity — electricity. “The power supply quality, even in most developed markets, is not what customers perceive. When you consider the massive power outages or blackouts that happened in the UK, US and Italy last year, which interrupted operations, then [the need] for a UPS is not country-specific,” says Kevin Bickerstaffe, regional manager at Chloride UPS. All IT systems, due to their direct current (DC) power supply design, do not store sufficient energy to overcome power outages. Hence they are sensitive to the effects of short power interruptions, even for a few milliseconds. To tackle this, most IT environments have for decades used some form of minimal alternate power supply, such as a battery or generator. However, the transfer time from the main power to the backup takes a few minutes, which can arrest mission critical operations and corporate servers. The best alternative is a UPS system, which can switch the power supply to the battery in a fraction of second. However, it is not the city-wide power outages that cause problems, but the power supply itself. Ideally, power supplied from the utility company to the end user should be 110 volts to 220 volts at 250 Mhz cycle — any fluctuation could result in damage to power sensitive IT equipment. Mohammad Suri, general manager of MGE UPS, explains that there is more to power than meets the eye. “Even though the US market has some of the best electricity quality anywhere, half of the world’s UPS shipments are in the US. The problem of power is not visible to the naked eye. If there’s a power fluctuation for a fraction of a second, the computer sees it, which could mean load imbalance, malfunctioning and even data loss,” he says. A recent study by IBM suggests that, even in matured electricity supply markets such as the US, a typical computer or server is subject to approximately 120 power problems per month. The effects of power problems range from subtle keyboard lockups and hardware degradation to complete data loss or even burnt motherboards. ||**|||~|MGE_INSIDE.jpg|~|Users don’t buy UPS for the brownouts reported in the press, says MGE UPS’ Mohammad Suri.|~|According to a survey by the Yankee Group, half of corporations researched put their downtime costs at upwards of US$1000 per hour, with 9% estimating costs up to or more than US$50,000 per hour, when loss of productivity is combined with downtime in operations for an hour of network downtime. “People don’t buy UPS for the brownouts or the blackouts that are visible or covered in the press. They buy them for those short-term fluctuations or power losses — those that are faced by 90% of the IT equipment or critical devices,” says Suri. The need to maintain business continuity has created a global UPS market that was worth US$4.52 billion in 2002. This is expected to exceed US$6.29 billion by 2007, according to independent research by Frost & Sullivan, as UPS vendors are moving up the value chain. Seeing the prospective market, vendors have been repositioning UPS beyond a mere box and targeting the market with power solutions, offering an array of UPS related solutions from a home PC user with 300 volt ampere (VA) scaling up to 500 kilo VA (KVA) for data centres and enterprise customers. Tripp Lite, for instance, now offers more than 1000 different products, including UPS systems, surge suppressors, line conditioners, power inverters, cables, connectivity products and network management accessories. “We estimate the GCC market to be growing at a healthy rate of around 25% per year. The Levant market is growing even faster, making the Middle East UPS market worth US$180 to $200 million in 2004,” says Vipin Sharma, director of business development at Tripp Lite Europe, Middle East & Africa (EMEA). Although the need for a UPS is no longer debated, it is a tough job to change the perception of enterprises from treating the UPS as just a battery. “You have to draw a line, when you call UPS a commodity. For large financial institutions, it’s not a commodity. It involves lot of electrical engineering, power consultants, multiple vendors and months of work to design the best power solution,” argues Suri. “Of course, the building block is the UPS and related accessories, but factors [such as] levels of redundancy, load levels, power topologies, protection schemes, fault tolerance need to be considered. It’s not plug and play,” he adds. Many customers are yet to recognise this issue, concedes Chloride UPS’ Bickerstaffe. “Getting the argument that people need power protection is the biggest issue. A lot of enterprises still don’t understand that they need power protection for their IT systems, or they act as if they don’t understand,” he adds. Convincing local customers about return on investment (ROI) and total cost of ownership (TCO) has always been a challenge for vendors. But Bickerstaffe believes that for the UPS industry, addressing the TCO and ROI issues is straightforward. “The best way to calculate ROI or TCO is to calculate the loss when you lose the power supply. If for example, you are a bank dealing in high volume transactions, and your power goes down for say one hour, then it will cost you millions of dollars. So it makes sense to spend the money on a UPS [instead] to avoid it. You can only calculate that by looking at the amount of power outages [during the investment period] and what they would have cost,” he explains. The concept of electricity and voltage have not changed much during the past century from the utility provider point of view, but for the end user, power management has become more complex and critical, which demands a change in mentality of consumer perception. “Power is no longer just a plain utility, which comes into your office and you plug into the power line. It needs to be insured and customers have to spend maybe just 5% of what they have invested in hardware and software for a UPS solution,” says Sharma. With increased competition from low priced UPS vendors from the Far East and local assemblers, the larger UPS vendors are also now increasing their focus on the UPS technology and service aspect by bundling advanced power management software and network management capabilities into their product lines. “If you are running a business process, you may not know you have a power failure and not be in a position to switch off the application and save the data, that’s why the UPS market is no longer the box under the desk which gives a beep. It’s about software that is web-enabled and network-aware — the UPS [is a part of] a network critical physical infrastructure,” explains Philip Hughes, general manager of APC Middle East. Vendors such as MGE are working on the NUT (Network UPS Tools) project, an open source UPS initiative, to bring in common standards in power management. Tripp Lite, which offers free Java-based Power Alert software, allows network administrators to control most brands of UPS systems and network nodes from a single interface. It also offers remote UPS monitoring from any PDA or browser using the SNMP and TCP/IP protocols. IT vendors, including Microsoft, integrate advanced power management software into their operating systems, while server vendors are shipping power-efficient blade servers, which pack in more server processors in a smaller footprint with a centralised power supply. “With today’s UPS tools customers can check temperatures of the hardware, server room, monitor power quality, receive alerts on e-mail, SMS, manage the entire network remotely. We are moving more into enterprise solutions selling. For example, three to four years ago, an expensive UPS, would have been worth US$1500. Today you are looking at an integrated power solution in the range of US$40-50,000 as we’re moving up the food chain,” says Hughes. A few enterprise customers with mission critical applications are now viewing the UPS as a part of the IT infrastructure, rather as an optional add-on. For instance, the Al Khobar-based Al Saad Hospital, part of the US$1.5 billion Saad Group, believes power can be the weakest link in the infrastructure if its not managed properly. “The power supply is very good in Saudi, but a disaster can happen in any place. Using a UPS solution, we prevent our equipment [IT and medical] from shutting down, and since this is a hospital, power is a very critical issue that we need to take care of,” says Jamal Emara, deputy operations manager, Al Saad Hospital. The 512-bed hospital, currently uses 40 UPS ranging from 2 KVA to 6KVA, all tightly integrated into its IT infrastructure to provide up to eight hours of backup during a contingency. The hospital’s network currently comprises of more than 2000 computers and 300 networking nodes, including switches, hubs, routers with 30 servers and hundreds of critical medical devices. While deploying a UPS to keep a network up and running is becoming a mainstay for most enterprises, leveraging advanced UPS technology is what makes the investment worthwhile, says Emara. “Using SNMP (simple network management protocol) enabled UPS across the network, we can now manage the power supply in the network, even remotely,” he adds. The enterprise focus of the UPS vendors is translating to higher shipments, but the numbers are yet to reach critical mass. “The entry-level UPS to server attachments are in the range of 10-15%. In other words, for every 100 servers shipped only 15 UPS are sold... That number is definitely low and we need to drive market awareness, as the target [should be] 100%,” says MGE UPS’ Suri. On the mid-range server line, MGE claims server-UPS attachments in the range of 80%, while enterprise servers and data centers now boast almost 100% attachments. While UPS vendors shy away from disclosing shipment numbers to substantiate their claims and research firms such as IDC still are yet to track the UPS industry, a recent report from the analyst firm estimates more than 29,000 servers will be shipped in the GCC in 2004. This, in turn, suggests that the number of enterprise UPS shipments is also set to increase substantially. APC’s Hughes says the UPS industry is not creating IT growth in the Middle East, but complementing it. “The UPS market here is showing solid, non-stop growth and is even out performing the European markets. Every IT segment in the Middle East, be it internet access, servers or PC shipments are going up and the UPS industry is also riding the IT wave,” he adds. ||**||

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