Today's IT infrastructure issues, far from being easily solved, have become increasingly subtle, elusive and difficult to pinpoint.
A case in point - lightning strikes. As far as power fluctuations go, it doesn't get any more dramatic than rolling thunder, an arc of lightning, the loss of power and a hell of a lot of damage to electrical equipment.
But it is the unnoticed power fluctuations and harmonics that regularly turn up in an electricity supply which provide the more serious threat to computer hardware and software. Power spikes, surges and noise may only last a few seconds, but the damage these fluctuations cause can be at best annoying and at worst render computer hardware and its all-important data useless. Although not quite so sensational, these disturbances can have the same adverse effect as a lightning strike - and they occur far more often.
"Most power problems relate to dirty power, whereas only 10 to 15 per cent relate to loss of power," explained Alan Hughes, product manager for the Nikko division of UPS vendor M+H Power Systems. "People wonder why a computer hangs or the data is corrupted, and very often it is because of power surges that they aren't even aware of."
A combination of varying power loads and weak supply means regional Australia is probably more extensively affected by these disturbances. In the industrial areas of big cities, some equipment generates harmonics that can interfere with the electricity supply. When machinery is turned off the change in load can lead to power spikes.
Switch-mode power supplies, such as those found in PABX systems, softstarts in air conditioners or variable frequency drives are the bane of electrical networks, creating a great deal of harmonic distortion and noise.
The best way to eliminate this, according to Bob Baldassa, technical sales and service manager at hardware manufacturer Upsonic, is through true online double conversion, which takes alternating current and inverts it to DC electricity, thereby eliminating high frequencies. The electricity is then converted to AC.
"It is, in effect, an electromagnetic, interference and harmonic filter that provides very clean electricity," Baldassa said.
Educating the market
According to figures from the Computer Business Equipment Manufacturer's Association, an increase in voltage to 276V for around a second is enough to damage computer equipment.
"By letting your machines see higher voltages, you are decreasing their lifespan proportionately," he said.
Resellers also need to be aware of the differences in standards between countries such as Australia and the US. It varies more than just the voltage.
"Many US companies say they have true online systems, but they do not meet the Australian double conversion standard," he said.
As Australia hurtles towards a deregulated electricity market, there are fears the power supply may be heading down the same track as that of the US, where rolling electricity disruptions are fast becoming the norm, especially in technology-laden areas such as Northern California and Silicon Valley.
UPS vendor American Power Conversion (APC) questions whether the restructure of Australia's energy markets will lead to the increased likelihood of blackouts, brownouts, spikes and surges. Its Web page warns, "the deregulation and restructuring of energy markets can have enormous repercussions on the reliability of power provision".
This may make selling a UPS a lot easier for the reseller, but it is also important for the channel to understand why such problems occur.
"The first question that must be answered is what are the definitions'," advises Don Seaton, Asia Pacific manager for UPS vendor Tripp Lite. "Most resellers of UPS products could not tell you the correct answer to this simple question. This is no fault of the resellers - it is a problem that the manufacturers of these products must address. Education of the reseller market needs to be more comprehensive than it has been over the last five years."
According to Upsonic's Baldassa, power fluctuations occur in both rural and metropolitan areas for varying reasons.
"Most farmers don't have a transformer close by, so when they start up their electrical equipment, the voltage sags. For example, Victoria generates most of its electricity at Yallourn, but the area has some of the worst power quality because of the aging network and the population spread."
And while most companies perceive a blackout to be the most detrimental to an organisation in terms of productivity and equipment failure, a surge - an increase in the supply voltage that can last for several hours - has the potential to cause far more damage to computer systems. According to an AT&T Bell Laboratories' study in the US, 87 per cent of all power problems are caused by brownouts.
"You can't see it, but your power is going up and down all the time - every time the guy next door starts up his air conditioner. You see it even more in rural areas because there is less tolerance in the system," Baldassa said.
"Most people aren't aware of the fact that silicon is very susceptible to heat, which is electricity in another form, and an increase in electricity affects the surrounding silicon chip. It causes all sorts of havoc."
The trouble is the majority of the population, even within the IT sector, are not cognisant of the frequency of power fluctuations or the wear and tear such fluxes have on computer systems.
"Most IT people don't understand power," Baldassa said. "Just plugging a computer into the wall is the first major mistake because the power is not clean."
He adds there is growing awareness in the industry of the necessity of clean power, but the system requirements for that power remain largely misunderstood.
"Unfortunately, by the time you have got a problem, the damage is done. We get out there and talk to everyone as much as we can, and publish a power protection handbook. We also work with distributors on educating resellers and with resellers on educating end users. We try to talk to end users as much as possible, training and speaking to end users on our customer's behalf."
This philosophy also underlies Liebert Corporation's Trainups program - a course designed to train resellers through to VARs, distributors and end users about the issues surrounding power and IT.
Tripp Lite's Seaton believes that with the education of resellers comes a greater understanding of their target markets and thus a more comprehensive knowledge of what solution to provide for their client.
"In this day and age the reseller must provide the client with a complete turn-key solution to their computing needs and protection," he said.
Thanks to a combination of advances in battery technology and an increasing take-up of computer technology by small businesses, UPS products are increasingly finding a market in the mass-merchant channel.
M+H Power Systems has just signed on with the Leading Edge computer group to distribute UPS to retailers around the country. According to M+H's Hughes, the SME and particularly the SOHO market is providing resellers with huge business opportunities.
"The take-up rate for UPS in the corporate environment is around 60 per cent. That's very high because those organisations typically have experienced people who are aware of the necessity of a UPS. In the SME market the take-up is 25 to 30 per cent, and that will grow about 10 to 15 per cent over the next 18 months.
"At the bottom end - the small, home office - there is only a 10 per cent take-up rate, so there is enormous potential within that market."
The problem with the SOHO market has typically been price point. But resellers need to emphasise the value of an organisation's data to this sector to justify the purchase of a UPS.
"If someone spends $10,000 setting up their office with proprietary hardware, within six months the value of their data far outweighs the value of the system," Hughes said. "If the system goes down you can reload the software, but the data within an application can be easily corrupted."
Based on this, M+H is providing retailers with a low-end flat UPS which retails for under $200.
"This product is really a door opener for retailers," Hughes explained. "It is rare that a customer will walk nto a store, buy, and then walk out the door. This gets the conversation going, and once the customer understands the requirements perhaps they will opt for a more extensive system."
The idea is to overcome the price barrier in the buying decision.
"The perception has always been to go into a store, see the price, and reject it out of hand. This product will perhaps give the customer the impulse to buy and allow retailers to explain the importance of a UPS system."
Belkin Components is a newcomer to the Australian UPS market - its product will arrive in Australia in July - but the US-based company is also offering a low-end product for small businesses.
"The IT world has been using UPS systems for quite a while now, but small businesses often question whether they need a failsafe system for a network with four workstations and a server," said Kannyn MacRae, business unit manager, of power products at Belkin Components. "It is like car insurance - it isn't important until you need it."
MacRae believes the small business owner will make a UPS purchase themselves in the retail environment because the price range is now getting to the stage where it will allow each workstation power protection. Belkin's entry-level system will retail for around $180 in stores.
"This is the first time the price points have allowed small businesses to take advantage of UPS systems. Before the choice was limited to large, expensive systems but now resellers can offer protection to their SME clients for their servers, at least," he said.
"More small businesses are computerising their systems now and more are online. So an hour of downtime can mean a lot of money as far as the business is concerned."
More than just a battery
According to MacRae, vendors need to offer more in the SOHO products than simply a battery waiting for the power to drop. New offerings in this sector now incorporate Auto Voltage Recognition, which can help boost power without switching to the battery so when an outage does occur the battery doesn't burn out.
"Increasingly, UPS systems are also featuring systems such as data recovery," he adds. "To a small business that has all its information on their hard drive, it is dire if for any reason the hard drive is damaged. It can cost between $2000 to $4000 to send the drive to a professional data recovery service. With the Data Recovery Labs system, 99 per cent of data can be recovered and sent back to the user in 48 hours."
He also stresses the need to make users aware of damage done through the data line in systems.
"The data line is one of the most common ways a computer is damaged. People think it is just the power supply and if the power supply is robust, they will be safe. They don't think the data line is carrying power."
Resellers should also be looking at the features of a UPS as a system filter, rather than simply viewing the system as a battery backup.
The poor old operating system tends to suffer the most user ire when things go awry, but power fluctuation is often the real culprit.
Blue screens are typically a low-level problem within the system - typically when the driver has problems communicating with a piece of hardware, according to Microsoft's product and marketing manager for Windows, Paul Roworth.
"It is very hard to quantify power fluctuations, but considering the operating is the closest interface with the computer for most users, it can tend to bear the brunt of a lot of frustration," he said. "Power fluctuations can cause hardware issues which then affects the software and I have seen some very strange things over the years."
So the next time your customers complain of blue creens of death, the answer to their problems may be as simple as surge protection.