Product feature: UPS enters the mainstream

Product feature: UPS enters the mainstream

When grandmothers are buying UPS, it's a sure sign the technology's visibility is increasing. Kevin Cosgriff thinks UPS just may have made it to the mainstream starting line.

Last week, I encountered my first unsolicited tale of an injured PC due to a power surge. It came from the most unlikely of sources - my 56-year-old mother. More bizarrely, the surge did not actually come through the power plug, it came via the telephone line and fried the modem to a crisp while she was surfing the Net. Strangely, I'd neglected to think of the phone line as a transmitter of electric current but have since discovered that the chances of sustaining a blown fuse over a phone line are possibly even more likely than that from a power point because there are less outlets for a surge to dissipate into.

The economics of this situation are encouraging for PC component dealers and vendors alike. Having had her PC cooked once already via the power point (power surges seem to be awfully popular in rural NSW), dear Mama invested in a $40 power protection unit and a new $170 modem. The former had a short but fulfilling life when, not long after a thunderstorm, it performed its heroic duty and died for the good of the PC. "Better $40 than $170," says Mama, toddling out to buy a new UPS, only to be thwarted by the counter-attack via the phone line.

Education and visibility

There are several encouraging aspects to this tale, the first of which is that UPS vendors are intensely aware that the phone line is a vile threat to the poor unsuspecting house modem and there are many reasonably priced devices that can protect power, fax, phone and ADSL lines. Why the vendors remained so tight-lipped about it I haven't yet discovered, but I'm sure they will say it is the fault of resellers. As Leanne Cunnold, general manager Australia/NZ of APC (American Power Conversion), says: "The channel has a great opportunity to guide customers with regards to UPS technology purchases by using their knowledge of the latest available developments and trends in the market."

The second point is that real need drives a market, which in the case of UPS will inadvertently mean a great many people having their modems fried before considering any protection. Thankfully, the continued trend towards privatisation and the unstable state of Australia's national power infrastructure should hasten this learning curve immensely.

The third, and infinitely more encouraging thought, is that a piece of computing technology must be well on its way to becoming a mainstream accessory before it makes the acquaintance of my 50-year-old mother - and this is a status UPS has been pursuing since its conception.

Support from manufacturers

According to Liebert (a division of Emerson Network Power): "The greatest concern among channel partners is the need for better support and communication regarding all issues to do with UPS." While integrators and dealers are quite aware that the process of customer education is their responsibility due to their access to end users, they require the tools and resources from the manufacturer to carry this out.

APC and Liebert are both strengthening their channel programs to this end, providing workshops, software and telemarketing resources as aids. However, Chris Bagnall, of Brisbane-based Liebert distributor Sonnal Electronics, says the communication aspect depends heavily on the resources and responsiveness of the manufacturer. "A vendor needs enough support staff so that dealers can get assistance and advice when necessary," he says. "Too often the vendor assumes that the distributor has all the relevant information."

What do customers want?

Despite the new technology aspects that vendors are pushing, such as support for three-phase power and compact rack-mountable units, Bagnall says the primary concerns for customers remain quality and reliability of the UPS and a monitoring battery at low cost. Greg Jan, of Opti-UPS, agrees, saying that as a power protection and backup to systems, a UPS should be robust enough to ensure there is no downtime. From a dealer's point of view, this quality assurance must include a warranty and technical support from the vendor. "If the UPS accidentally fails, the customer is looking for fast repair or replacement to minimise the system downtime," Jan says. According to Angus Jones, Compaq's marketing manager, industry standard server group, it's all about peace of mind. "Customers want manageability, small rack density, power efficiency and the flexibility to add capacity."

Sophisticated software

Historically, the function of UPS software was to achieve a graceful unattended shutdown of the equipment being supported. But with the growing complexity of systems, it has also become necessary, from a management point of view, to bring the disparate mechanism into the fold. "The interaction between a UPS and the equipment it supports has expanded so that the UPS can be managed and controlled just like any other piece of hardware on the network," says Cunnold. Still, the function of UPS software leans increasingly towards automation, such as shutting down servers and computers without human intervention.

At the low end of the market, much of this software is freely available as downloads from the Internet. High-end users, on the other hand, want proactive as well as reactive software. They want to monitor their power infrastructure as well as ensure the integrity of their data through controlled closing down of systems and applications if a fault is registered. Thus, the top three functions that integrators are on the look-out for in UPS software are: the ability to communicate to all operating systems available; to shut down the PC totally, not just command the comm; and to monitor and data log all problems.

Meanwhile, the biggest hole left unaddressed by UPS software, according to Bagnall, is compatibility, or the lack thereof, with the Apple Mac operating system. In Australia, the Mac has a relatively wide reach throughout the market, from small design houses to mammoth telcos such as Optus. Yet, to support the Mac OS is still a decision that each UPS manufacturer weighs and decides for itself. Factors in the process include where the manufacturer's headquarters are based, how pervasive the Mac is in that part of the world, and the fact that the Mac gurus required to support the technology once built are few and far between in comparison to Windows software specialists.

Who’s buying UPS?

According to Liebert, the size or type of business does not offer an insight into whether people buy UPS or not. "In our experience, all types of businesses purchase UPS, be they small, medium or large enterprises," says Liebert marketing coordinator Maricel Abraham. "We find that those who utilise UPS are those who know the cost to their business when they have a power interruption."

As a general rule, however, the larger the business, the more likely a UPS will be included in their build. "More than 100 users is where it is almost always specified," says Compaq's Jones.

APC estimates that the attach rate (a UPS attached to another piece of equipment) on PCs is lower than 5 per cent, while it is higher that 50 per cent on servers. Cunnold says the difference can probably be explained by the fact that IT managers are very well aware of the need for a reliable protection policy to achieve the required system uptime.

"Companies that rely more on servers and networks have a higher incentive to install UPS and normally those companies are medium-to-large corporations," Opti-UPS's Jan points out. "However, due to the popularity of the Internet, more and more small businesses are installing UPSes for their PC servers. Also, business located in areas that experience unstable power supply or more natural power outages, such as lightning and thunderstorms, are more likely to install UPS."

Meanwhile, vendors are continuing to educate and encourage, aiming to broaden awareness of power problems and the damage they cause. "We're working closely with our channel members to ensure that not only do they fully understand the issues regarding power protection and management, but that they can on-sell the value to their customers," says Cunnold.

"It's a great thing to sell a customer a $100,000 server or storage solution, but if the channel partner can save their customer from the pain caused by data loss or corruption caused by power surges and outages, it makes selling UPS technology a very viable proposition.

"Once the reseller understands the market and can make the case for the UPS, the sale follows naturally. If you bundle a UPS with every IT appliance you sell, you can significantly increase the value of the sale."

The key point, according to Jones, is that over time the proportion of customers installing UPSes is increasing. "Customers want greater availability of their infrastructures and a UPS helps meet part of the equation."

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