ELECTRIFFIC: Is power protection too cute?

ELECTRIFFIC: Is power protection too cute?

For many years, power protection has been a core element in the safeguarding of mission-critical systems and applications for organisations.

Now, with the massive growth in the number of people with PCs and access to the Internet in Australia, market activity at the low end has reached fever pitch as some of the bigger vendors look for ways to spur big volume increases.

It's what many in the industry are now referring to as the "Microsofting" of power protection, an apparent reference to the proliferation of "easy to use" or "plug and play" UPS devices at very low cost and "stripped down" features.

While this has contributed to increased awareness of power protection amongst small businesses and consumers, some sectors of the industry are warning that the "commoditisation" of power protection products could compromise the UPS industry. A common criticism of certain UPS vendors at the moment is that as the low end of the market begins to hint at huge potential profits, companies are moving quickly to shore up volumes without taking the time to address users' specific needs.

Russell Perry, Australian channel manager with UPS giant Liebert, explains that power protection has for a long time been a serious business allowing no room for error, especially where mission-critical equipment is concerned. "Now, as the consumer market develops there is a real risk that some of the emphasis may be lost," he said.

Perry, among others, points the finger directly at the world's largest UPS vendor, American Power Conversion, which recently became the first UPS company to join the Fortune 1000 group of companies. The company's success echoes that of software giant Microsoft in that both companies have been extremely successful in not only cornering, but to a large degree defining the low-end market. And, like Microsoft, APC's success has drawn criticism from competitors worried that profits are overshadowing the whole technology story.

"While the integrator may be aware that it needs a UPS, they may not understand the consumers' needs and how they need to respond to them," Perry said, adding that APC has been very good at "banging square pegs into round holes", or convincing people to "buy products irrespective of the appropriate situation and need".

APC Australia's general manager Leanne Cunnold defends the APC strategy and denies that analogy by claiming that APC does more work with major vendors in the industry than any of its competitors. This includes Microsoft, which APC has worked with extensively to ensure the company's power protection software interfaces smoothly with Windows 2000.

She also claims that APC has one of the most comprehensive training programs for the channel in Australia.

"Yes, in the old days power protection was for the big users and there is no doubt that we are looking at a less-informed market," Cunnold said.

"However, we undertake extensive training throughout the channel to ensure that users are getting the right products for their requirements."It is inevitable that the UPS market develops at the commodity end, she adds, as more and more people look to shield themselves from power problems.

"If PCs are a commodity then why shouldn't UPSes be a commodity," she asks, adding that "within three to six months the data on your computer is worth more than the computer itself".

Liebert's Perry claims that the company offers a more stable platform. "We position ourselves as a company with 48 years experience in power quality," he said. Liebert was established in the US nearly 50 years ago by Ralph Liebert, an enterprising individual who started the business by offering to help IBM manage the heat generated by its mainframe computers.

"We are an engineering company that until recently was driven solely by engineers," he explains.

But while admitting that the company needs to bring a more dynamic management focus to compete in the newer, more dynamic UPS market he maintains that power protection users still yearn for a "white coats and glasses" approach to the issue.

"Power protection will not diminish in importance and most users are looking for someone to hold their hands with a solution that has some sort of longevity," Perry said.

"It's almost like we've come full circle," he continued, as new industries like e-commerce and communications services providers "call for a return to old values where 24 x 7 uptime is unnegotiable".

"It's a massive market", says Peter Hall, director of the International Research Bureau, a Sydney based organisation which tracks products and trends in the technology industry.

Hall estimates there are about 250 different products currently in the UPS space, ranging from an entry level price of about $100 right up to several thousand in the mid range area.

"Users are faced with difficult choices these days and need guidance from the vendors and channel partners," he said.

A number of UPS vendors now offer products designed in the style of actual powerboards, a feature which has become increasingly popular amongst smaller users.

However, highlighting the risks associated with being too "cute" about power are a number of recent incidents whereby several companies have had their UPSes switched off by oblivious workers. This has apparently become very common in small office environments when cleaners or other people simply unplug the UPS in order to use another appliance.

While power protection is far from being a new concept, it is still finding its way in a new world. Steven Meyer-Cohen, national manager of IPEX professional consulting services, makes the point that as technology becomes more sophisticated, especially software technology, it becomes increasingly vulnerable to even small power fluctuations.

"The operating systems of today are extremely sensitive," Meyer-Cohen said.

"They don't like to be powered off suddenly and must be shut down properly."However, Meyer-Cohen believes there is a gaping hole in the education of many systems engineers and integrators as to how to structure a network solution to included proper power protection.

The group most at risk of neglect are the new breed of smaller businesses and home users now looking at the UPS issue but without much of an idea about what's going on.

Many in the industry, like Paul Smith, sales manager with Upsonic, believe that the gap in education is at problem levels. "This is still a professional industry but it's being belittled by a commodity focus leading many companies towards a box-shipping mentality," he said.

While admitting that "some protection is better than none", Smith claims that "consumers are not being made aware of what it is they are actually buying.

Vendors need to educate their customers before taking the sale and ensure that they work within a budget."Hugh Evans, managing director of Australian UPS manufacturer Sola, agrees with APC's Cunnold that power protection is becoming more of a commodity but concurs with many of APC's critics that the education is not getting across.

"Power quality is generally good in the cities but in remote areas you now have people buying from a catalogue or a dealer without really knowing what they are getting," he said.

Phil Tarbox, NSW sales manager with Australian distributor Tecksel, said: "When a user buys a UPS they think they are getting protected against sags, surges and spikes when in actual fact they are not getting total protection from the typical low-end products."David Shelton, executive director of ASX-listed technology integrator Wilhart, sums it up like this: "If you have a fuel-injected car, you probably know that you need filters but it shouldn't be the driver's responsibility to know all the ins and outs."In an ideal world, a power company should be able to deliver what is supposed to be consistently reliable power.

The reality of the matter in Australia was recently summed up when Energy Australia announced it would spend $100 million to improve its power quality in NSW in what some sources viewed as a veiled attempt to avoid swelling criticism of power quality fuelled by Victorian deregulation.

Head of the Electricity Supply Association of Australia, Keith Orchison, says, however, that "reports of diminishing power quality have been exaggerated" and that there is no real evidence of a decrease in power quality.

But users must remain aware of power "problem spots". Areas in the north of Australia are notorious problem spots for power but, as integrator NetStar discovered recently, when it began preparations to relocate its premises from Sydney's Waterloo to Ryde, there can be significant differences in power quality within the same city.

Ryde is one of the so-called black spots on the Sydney power grid, which, according to NetStar's project services director, Colin Lang, necessitated a particularly strong power protection unit in order to "guarantee proper support to our customers". The solution involved a substantial investment in high-end UPS technology from APC. Nick Hadland, director of the program office with CSC, sums up the situation. "Today's standard is 24 x 7 demand, which is what we had in the mainframe days".

For those companies that are able to deliver guaranteed protection, there are strong opportunities, he believes.

One of the main developments in the services/solutions space at the moment is the integration of the technology environment with what is referred to as the real world environment. Restricted to the corporate space at the moment, some observers believe this trend may move into the domestic environment as people look to protect a wider collection of computerised appliances from power problems. "This will spur vendors to make a greater commitment to full uptime in their low-end space," Liebert's Perry said.

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