The power and the fashion

Australia rates amongst one of the world's fastest technology adopters in virtually all sectors of business as well as consumers. Most large organisations are several years into the development of technology infrastructures supporting an ever-widening number of core business functions. Small businesses, if they haven't already, are being forced to embrace technology to remain competitive, while the arrival of the GST is expected to ensure that basic technology such as PCs and point-of-sale (POS) terminals move deeper into the shrinking world of manual processes.

Few people would dispute the broad role technology already plays in running businesses and even homes. What most people don't realise is that regardless of how reliable technology becomes, one thing it will never cease to rely on is the quality of power.

According to research in the US, power failures are now ranked third behind dropping and theft as the main problem for PC users. A study by Safeway found that more than 1.5 million laptops and PCs were damaged due to various power problems in 1997. Power problems now account for roughly 24 percent of all personal computer failures.

Furthermore, IBM estimates that an average computer experiences 120 power-related failures each month. It's no surpise then, that the market for power protection or uninterruptible power supply (UPS) has been on a steady upward trajectory for the past three to four years.

Analysts estimate that the global UPS market is growing at about 15 per cent each year. This year, US-based UPS giant American Power Conversion became the first UPS company to enter the Fortune 1000 list of companies.

"This shows the level to which sales of power protection technology have increased over the last few years," said Leanne Cunnold, general manager of APC Australia/New Zealand. "The need for scalability, redundancy and manageability are driving demand and innovation in the power protection space," she said.

Nothing new

But while power protection is far from being a new concept, it is still finding its way in a new world. "Internet service providers (ISPs), application service providers (ASPs) and larger corporates with wide distributed networks are looking at the sophisticated power solutions to support the integration of real-world devices into their IT management sectors," said Colin Laing, project services director with Sydney-based integrator NetStar. As far as power awareness, this trend is beginning to appear at the smaller end of the spectrum, he observed. Networking is becoming more popular in the smaller office environment compared with say 5 years when there were more stand-alone PCs.

"The growth of the small office LAN environment has dramatically increased the need for protection amongst the lower end of Australia's business spectrum," Laing said, adding that there is an increased awareness in the SOHO environment where people are looking at protecting their small business or domestic finance data. Back in the mainframe days, large organisations would generally factor in the cost of procuring large-capacity power generators to support their big iron boxes. The experience of most integrators these days however is that UPS represents a hard sale.

According to Steven-Meyer Cohen, national manager of IPEX professional consulting services, 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," Cohen said. "They don't like to be powered off suddenly and must be shut down properly."

Gaping holes

However, 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 include proper power protection. Cohen comes from a Telstra background characterised by large mainframes with powerful diesel generators at the ready to buffer against any power problems. Naturally, the amount of data being handled was huge, Cohen said. It was accepted that power protection was a crucial element of the whole solution. Nowadays, he sees this discipline disappearing, as smaller companies with less experience become more and more reliant on the technology and the integrator to take care of them.

"Larger companies have implemented policy procedures and processes to manage the client server environment in a similar fashion to a mainframe environment adhering to health checks, capacity planning and so on," Cohen said.

The emphasis on power protection is now shifting to the server level. Many UPS products are shipping with multiple outlets allowing network administrators to recycle power to different appliances, whereas previously a whole range of possible applications and appliances would have to be rebooted once a power outage occurred. Another feature is Out Of Band Management that enables power management over a modem as opposed to working over a network.

This is what power protection is all about at the moment, APC's Cunnold believes, driven largely by the demanding requirements of a new breed of service providers. But the smaller companies remain a problem. "We have a lot of customers that have called us at the sounding of the death knell," Cohen said.

Two common scenarios amongst many integrators interviewed are "We had a power outage and the server went down, or we bought a UPS but didn't configure it properly to the network interface".

Education gaps

Companies interviewed by Integrator agree that the gap in education is now at problem levels. Many describe the typical client looking at a minimum investment of $20-30,000 for a simple LAN supporting basic file and print services, Net mail and basic connectivity and confer that it's a challenge convincing them that in 6 months time they may regret not investing a little in power protection.

"It's like the guy who buys a car and asks if he really needs to take out road maintenance," Cohen said.

A 1999 study by the US Government's National Archives and Administration Bureau found that 43 per cent of businesses which suffered a severe power-related crisis as a result of power failures spanning several hours or more never recovered sufficiently to resume business.

Further, 50 per cent of businesses stranded for more than 10 days during blackouts and without adequate data management solutions filed immediately for bankruptcy. 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 that 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.

"Power protection is a business necessity," said Adam De-Freitaf, data centre manager with EDS.

He emphasised that as organisations expand their technology environments to cover more and more locations and provide users with access to increasingly complex applications, they are being forced to factor in power protection. "Nowadays, it's not uncommon for external power supplies to fluctuate or even fall out, De-Frietaf said. This fact, coupled with the emphasis on the need for 99.9 per cent service levels, has brought UPS to the forefront of most new technology projects.

But whose responsibility is power protection? As David Shelton, executive director of ASX listed technology integrator Wilhart points out, power has always been a tricky issue in this regard. "Responsibility for power is one of those undefined things negotiated between integrators and their clients," Shelton said. But, he adds, this needs to be clearer, especially given that many smaller businesses are only just beginning to develop an awareness of power problems.

Historically it has been more the responsibility of the integrator but this is changing depending on what sector of industry an integrator is in.

"Many companies are assuming responsibility for their own power needs and specifying their own requirements," Shelton said.

Traditional industries such as telecommunications finance, manufacturing and process engineering have always led the way while companies in new industries such as ISPs and ASPs are learning quickly as they struggle to adapt to the world of 24 x 7.

Technology integration

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. Lifts, air conditioning systems and so on are all slowly being incorporated into corporate networks to allow for more efficient monitoring. "For instance, a building manager will know when the temperature in the computer room is overheating," Shelton said. It's a development that he believes is pushing UPS towards the core of most companies' network designs.

For many smaller companies, however, while they may know something about power protection, there is a need for education about what sort of protection they need and how a UPS should be properly configured to the network.

"If you have a fuel injected car, you probably know that you need filters, but its shouldn't be the driver's responsibility to know all the ins and outs," Shelton said.

"The increased reliance of companies on information technology in supporting and even driving the business has made power protection a key priority amongst systems engineers charged with maximising uptime," said David Johnson, director managed services with one of the world's largest integrators, Getronics.

However, he adds that there is still only a small percentage of customers that understand its "mission-critical nature". Integrators dealing with smaller companies need to provide education as part of their service offering.

Advanced issues

Primarily, companies need to be jolted into awareness of the issue. There are many different solutions depending on organisations' situation and even their geographic location. Areas in the north of Australia are notorious problem spots for power, but as NetStar discovered recently when it began preparations to relocate its premises from 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 Laing, 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 for integrators to expand their offerings by developing and marketing expertise in power protection, he believes. After all, the Internet is pushing organisations to embrace technology like never before. And, as Hadland points out, the natural adjunct to this of course is that "people are learning quickly that things can go wrong".