As raging bushfires bore down on the outskirts of Canberra on January 18, few businesses, government departments and home owners were prepared for the disaster to come. Aside from the tragic loss of lives and more than 530 homes, the fire caught organisations unprepared for the sudden and long-lasting shut down of essential services such as communications and power.
Publicly-listed telecommunications systems network provider, Equant, was in the middle of a Genset install (a standby diesel generator) when the power grid went down — and it was no ordinary power cut. The lucky ones managed to get electricity supplies back in eight hours, but for many the blackout lasted days.
UPS suppliers were being run off their feet as companies and government departments called for back-up supplies as the power outage dragged on.
Emerson Network Power (ENP) has the contract to provide UPS and environmental control equipment for the Equant network in all major centres around Australia. Marketing co-ordinator, Maricel Abraham, said that its global services division was already stretched when Equant called for emergency assistance.
ENP called in one of its key men, Paul Prowse, who was not only on leave but in the process of being evacuated from the fire’s path himself. Like so many other volunteers, that weekend, Prowse went to work and was able to return Equant’s system to fully operational status.
Canberra-based UPS reseller, Allied Technologies Group, was also in the firing line. Chief sales and marketing officer, Rod Bardon, said it was lucky for the industry that the fires hit the south-west of Canberra where there were few businesses.
“Our own HQ was affected by power outages, but because it was a Sunday there was a fairly orderly shutdown and power was restored the following day,” Bardon said. “However some of our direct customers, including the ACT Government, had problems. Although they had a UPS solution that was capable of supporting them in a limited capacity for about eight hours, they were not prepared for the sort of power grid situation that came along that night.
“They have offices close to where a lot of the fires were, so we rolled in a 500kva Genset, so they could continue to work.”
While Canberra’s catastrophic fires are still fresh in everyone’s minds, they were not the only fires to cause problems in what has been one of the worst summers on record. Many of them have tested back-up systems to the limit.
During the Sydney bushfires on December 4, APC recorded 39 power failures in North Sydney between 3.35pm and 5.46pm. While none of them were total blackouts, voltage sagged below acceptable limits — a voltage sag below 180 volts can cause data loss and hardware damage. A computer can only last for 50 milliseconds without power and 30 of the failures lasted longer than that causing problems for anybody — corporate or consumer — who had an unprotected computer.
While the attention was on fires encroaching on urban areas, there were potentially even bigger problems for remote sites where fires were burning out of control. However, not everybody was caught napping and there was at least one good example of a power back-up system saving the day.
Distribution sales manager MGE UPS Systems Australia, James Fraser, said the company had several highly critical sites based in remote tech shelters throughout the NSW wilderness. These sites house sophisticated measurement and high-end IT equipment running 24 x 7.
“The client, a government department, was extremely concerned about the possibility of their equipment crashing and if they could be notified in time they could transfer the processes to other redundant sites,” Fraser said. “In discussions with the client we devised the idea that a telemetry system could be implemented to transfer automatically instead.
“ We advised them to install our paging and notification feature on our Web-based communications to notify them of the events occurring and initiate the telemetry system. In conjunction with this our Teleservice feature notifies our 24-hour service monitoring system that a power outage has occurred.
“Late last year during the NSW fires we saw for real how the system worked. Although one of the sites was totally destroyed the transfer was seamless and they lost no data at all.”
The summer of fire has spurred new interest from consumers to corporate and government customers in power protection.
Marketing and national sales manager for Sydney-based Alpha Technologies, Alex Chernovsky, said the fires had boosted sales of UPS’.
He said people either got hurt or became more aware of the need for power protection. This had prompted a lot of enquiries from resellers. “While corporate customers are aware of the need for power management, a lot of end users are just not educated enough,” Chernovsky said. “It is a bit like it was back in 1995/96 when we had to educate people that if they wanted to be on the Internet they had to have anti-virus software.
“We are trying to educate resellers and they are starting to become more aware and in turn educate end-users. But UPS’ are still the last thing a lot of people think of when they are buying IT.
“I would like to see resellers bundling a UPS with computers,” he said.
However, Chernovsky admits that was not always feasible.
“Out in places like the west of Sydney people take a while to save the money for a computer so they don’t have the extra for a UPS,” he said.
Bardon said there was a new awareness of power management in the ACT since the fires.
“A lot of organisations have had to look at their power protection since the fires because the power outages caused by the blaze were a lot longer than they had prepared for,” he said. “We are working with customers because awareness is high at the moment.
“Unfortunately when there is a catastrophe there obviously a good opportunity for companies to assist companies and government departments to review their power strategy.”
Bardon said Allied Technologies would not use the recent disasters as a selling point, but would push the fact that power was the forgotten link in communications today.
Despite heightened awareness some customers were still not getting the message.
“I had a state government customer come in recently who had implemented a mission critical network and been operating for 12 months but had no back up power solution,” he said.
APC’s managing director for Australia and New Zealand, Leanne Cunnold, said that following the Sydney fires in December there was an increase in calls from resellers wanting help to specify solutions for their customers.
“In a lot of cases it is not until it directly effects people that they start to think about their power protection strategies,” she said.
Cunnold said resellers should be talking to customers about power management at the same time that they were recommending their other IT equipment such as servers, switching gear or their SANs.
“There are four levels of availability — the processors, the people, the IT infrastructure, and the fourth layer is the foundation, which is power.”
You can have the most redundant server or multiple servers but you still must have power protection because that is the foundation of everything.
It should be one of their check boxes when they were talking to their customers about security, their hardware needs or what is required to support the customer’s business process.
Bardon agreed: “Where a customer says that all they are looking for is a server we make them aware that their weakest point is potentially their power and that they need to have some sort of redundancy around that.”
“It sounds really basic,” Cunnold said.
Resellers should be pushing the message to anyone who bought IT equipment, whether it was a home user, a small to medium business or a large corporate customer, she said. They were all using IT equipment so they should be considering power protection equipment.
“Compared to the business sector, awareness of power protection in the home consumer market is low,” Cunnold said. “While I think people are starting to become more aware there is a large opportunity for resellers to sell into that market.
“We estimate that, at best, only 5 per cent of the 1.6 million PCs sold in Australia would have either surge or UPS protection on them. So the potential in the consumer space is significant.
“There are only two ways to protect a computer, either you don’t plug them in or you have some form of power protection. A lot of home users think that having them plugged into a board with a power cutout switch is going to protect them but it is not.
“Home users probably spend about $2000 on a computer and they are looking at $80 to $110 for surge protection so as a percentage of the total it is a small amount to pay and what they are buying is insurance.”
Cunnold said there was also an opportunity to move into the corporate market because a lot of businesses that installed power protection three to five years ago had now outgrown it and it no longer met their needs.
“Initially people wanted to protect hardware because it was very expensive, then they wanted to protect data because in three to six months it was more expensive than the hardware, now what customers are requiring is availability because they need their systems to run 24 by seven,” she said.
Editor’s note: after finishing this UPS feature author David Hellaby suffered the ultimate indignity — he forget to switch on his UPS, a power surge hit and his computer self-destructed. Such is fate.