UPS: It's About Power, Not Packages

By Adam Stone | Posted July 13, 2004

Those summer thunderstorms rolling in this afternoon may bring down the humidity, but they can also bring down your network. There's nothing like a good lightening strike to zap your data into oblivion.

Fortunately, technology offers up a simple and inexpensive solution: The UPS, or uninterruptible power supply. At its most basic, a UPS provides a battery that allows a computer to maintain power in the event of a power outage. A typical UPS will keep computers running for several minutes after the main power goes out. This gives you time to save any work in progress and shut down properly.

At CDW Corporation, a Fortune 500 technology-products provider, spokesman Brian Schwartz says it is inconceivable that a small business would operate without a UPS. "It becomes a risk versus reward question," he said. "What would happen if lightning, fire or water, for example, severely damaged your servers? The cost of these [UPS] devices is miniscule compared to [the cost of] what could happen."

Another Acronym You Need to Know
The UPS field is daunting, with many dozens of competing models ranging in price from $40 to $300 and up. To find a product that fits your needs, it helps to understand the nuts and bolts of the device.

A UPS may come in one of two different types, a standby power system (SPS) and an on-line UPS system. An SPS watches the power line and goes to battery power as soon as it detects a problem. An on-line UPS switches to backup power slightly faster by providing a constant stream of power from its own systems, even when the main power functions properly.

These terms are significant. An SPS will typically cost less, and for good reason. The milliseconds of delay between a power outage and the SPS going into action could spell trouble. In some computers that fraction of time may be enough to cause a shutdown. Others, though, may tolerate the slight lag.

Beyond these two basic definitions, things get fuzzy. There is no standard terminology in the UPS industry, and different manufacturers may use very different language to describe their product. While this situation is improving, the basic SPS/on-line distinction so far remains the surest guide.

How Much is Enough?
What can a UPS do? It depends how much you are willing to pay, says Greg Fournier, product line manager at power-protection products manufacturer APC. At the bare minimum, he says, anyone running a computer needs a surge protector. From there he advises a UPS with at least the ability "to provide enough power to get you through small electrical events, something where you have a very quick blackout or dip in power."

People whose business relies more on computers should look for a UPS with power-management capability. This feature "shuts down your system gracefully and closes all your open documents" in the event of an outage. Some power-management devices can even regulate the overall flow of juice to your computers in order to ensure that they receive a steady supply of power even during summer brownouts or short-term power reductions.

How long a UPS can keep your system alive depends on the system and the UPS. A typical desktop arrangement might only need a UPS rated for 15 minutes of running time after a power loss. Bigger, more complex networks obviously need more staying power, and in fact some UPS units can run for five hours or more.

Other UPS features you might want to consider include:
A manual bypass switch: This allows power to pass through the UPS even when the unit itself is not functioning for some reason.
Visual displays: Provide various status readouts such as the amount of battery time.

On a more technical front, UPS quality is assessed by sinusoidal power output — the strength of the of the AC output wave. The closer it is to a sine wave, the better the unit.

Finally, it's important to take a look at the vendors themselves, specifically when it comes to liability. Many UPS makers offer to make good on damage that occurs due to faulty UPS performance. All other things being equal, such a guarantee can be the dealmaker for many small-business owners who, after all, see a UPS primarily as an investment in their own peace of mind.

Need help figuring out what kind of UPS you need for your business? Assess your risk at APC's Web site and then go use the site's UPS configuration calculator.

Adam Stone writes extensively on business and technology issues. He makes his virtual residence at inkbiz@yahoo.com and his physical home in Annapolis, Md.

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