Once employed purely to protect hardware and data, the Internet explosion of recent years means uninterrupted power supply (UPS) solutions are now focusing on general availability.
Power problems can be caused by a range of uncontrollable factors like bad weather, lightning strikes and poor building wiring, and the potential problems include hardware damage, data loss or corruption and down time.
E-commerce sites and Internet service providers (ISPs) rely on power and any amount of time offline means a potentially huge loss of business.
Leanne Cunnold, general manager of UPS vendor American Power Conversion (APC), said ISPs were definitely a growing market for UPS vendors.
"For ISPs or e-commerce, power is crucial . . . There's no shopfront - it's all on the Web. If the site goes down, it's a loss of revenue, a loss of consumer confidence and a loss of corporate image. We are noticing that a lot more of our customers are ISPs protecting their equipment."
David Aselford, IT director of ISP Dingo Blue, said his company had invested $120,000 on UPS systems and another $65,000 on back-up generators.
"If we didn't protect it customers wouldn't have access for the period that it's down," Aselford said. "There's no dollar figure for that - it's an intangible effect. It would upset the customer, which we try to avoid. They expect the Internet to be there all the time, just as if you pick up the phone, you expect a dial tone. We've moved out of the dark ages. People use the Internet all the time for activities like share trading and if a site doesn't work it potentially costs them money."
Aselford said Dingo Blue had two types of UPS; one backing up the voice systems and the other backing up the non-voice systems. The non-voice UPS at the main site is 60KVA, but the company also has 37 point of presence (POP) sites scattered around the country, each with UPS protection of 5-10KVA.
"They run for four hours, and there's a generator to feed them if the power's not back on in four hours," Aselford said. "It's controlled so it can be shut down - and the customer impacting systems would be shut down last."
"With our POP sites, it's essential to have UPS protection. Initially ISPs generally had no UPS on POPs, so if you lost power you lost connectivity. We still have some sites that aren't UPSes, but we're gradually going out and upgrading. They are unstaffed, but there is an alarm and a call-out arrangement."
Jacques Tesson, national marketing manager at UPS distributor Chloride Hytek, said that UPS systems were increasingly important, as demand for Internet services grew.
"ISP's today are faced with a growing demand from Internet commercialisation," Tesson explained. "The research I have done in that domain shows that today the demand for online Internet services in Australia is at the infant stage with an exponential growth within the next 12 months. Picture a hockey stick - we are at the bottom of the curve."
Because so many ISPs have unstaffed POP sites in regional centres, remote UPS management is particularly important.
"ISPs specifically very often have a main site and POP sites around the country," said Russell Perry, channel manager for UPS vendor Liebert. "They are black sites with nobody there, just to provide access into area codes. Because of that you need to remotely access the sites to determine the power supply etc. Our hardware and software allows you to access and reboot a site wherever you are.
"With remote management, you can remotely reboot locked up servers," added APC's Cunnold. "If the power is out at 2 am, you don't have to physically be there - you can dial in from home, so you don't need a full-time employee present. It means that you can run a company 24 x 7 with minimal human resources."
Cunnold said APC last year released a master switch, which enhances remote access. "The master switch has eight outlets to allow remote management of power and individual outlets. The server, hub and router are attached to the master switch. You can say you want to redirect power to one particular device and reboot just once. It will also work with or without a UPS. We've always had the ability to have remote access but the master switch enhances that ability."
APC has also released a SMNP adapter card which enables remote management via the Web without the need for an enterprise platform.
Perry said Liebert typically offers its ISP clients a total package, not just the UPS, including a power solution, an environmental solution and the ability to integrate with a network.
"Part of the service is a degree of interpretation to work out what their needs are, as well as post-sale service," Perry said. "We sell all sizes of UPS and there are so many types and sizes of ISPs that the size depends on their needs. A startup might only need six-10KVA, many POP sites only one or two. Part of the package includes a micropad which allows you to bypass the UPS. It's all based around giving the customer maximum uptime. ISPs are extremely sensitive to providing close to 100 per cent up time."
Perry said a true online double conversion UPS provides the most complete form of power protection, as opposed to offline or online interactive.
"Online provides 100 per cent protection against surges and spikes," Perry said. "Offline simply protects against a blackout, line interactive provides some protection against surges and spikes, but it allows the activity to go into the load. In simple terms, line interactive allows all the garbage to go into the load, whereas online totally isolates the load from the main."
Most UPS vendors sell all three types, depending on the KVA size of the UPS, but the line-interactive option is more cost effective and popular.
Chloride Hytek's Tesson said his company particularly targets the telecommunications and ISP industry, catering to clients like OzEmail.
"What we have devoted our resources to is explaining the proper technologies available in Australia with a view to a complete Critical Engineering Solution for digital applications," Tesson said. "A UPS solution is not a complete solution when it comes to keep an "online centre" running 24 x 7 site audit and preventative maintenance with remote monitoring is the most crucial element of the solution."
Dingo Blue's Aselford said the primary reason for UPS protection is to keep the customer systems up and running, so they are not impacted by a local power failure. However, according to Aselford, not all UPS systems are created equal.
"We have currently got Chloride for the non-voice systems, and the UPS for the voice systems is provided by Nortel. We generally stick with Chloride because it does what we need it to do and it has an easy interface. The important thing when choosing a UPS is its ability to communicate with other computer systems, advise if there is a power failure and shut them down in an orderly fashion. Most UPS devices are only able to talk to about half the system; we chose Chloride because it talks to the whole system."
Aselford said good planning was also vital for effective UPS management.
"The most important thing is to plan the capacity for the UPS and allow space for additional batteries," he said. "Also you should always check how much weight the floor can take. In one of our sites we can't put all the batteries on the same floor, because it's a concrete floor and it would break. People don't think about it because they buy the batteries one at a time."
Dean Wilson, executive director for IT&E (the parent company for UPS distributor Chips & Bits) said UPS systems were becoming increasingly ubiquitous.
"Just about everyone is using Internet or e-mail servers now," he said. "UPS [systems] are part and parcel of today's society. The power issues in Melbourne over the last couple of weeks have highlighted the need for UPS [systems]. It's obvious. It's becoming more the norm and we're getting better UPS [systems] for less."