The UPS and Downs of Power Protection

By Drew Robb | Posted April 24, 2007

Big businesses employ all kinds of sophisticated uninterruptible power supply (UPS) systems to protect their computer rooms in the event of a power failure. Such systems not only provide battery power so that computers remain powered up when the main power source fails, they also adjust the voltage to eliminate surges and other kinds of electrical irregularities that can damage computers, copiers and other delicate equipment.

Now similar systems exist for small businesses. Basic offline units provide a few minutes of battery power – enough to power down -- but they don’t do much about bad power harmonics. Online systems, on the other hand, allow longer periods of battery power and ensure the power is clean.

“Even simple computing infrastructures are in volatile environments and require power,” said Greg Fournier, desktop UPS product line manager for APC-MGE. “By providing clean, uninterruptible power, you are insuring yourself against losing time and money.”

UPS systems, therefore, safeguard a company against the costs of repairing or replacing hardware that could have been damaged by bad power. The data residing on those systems is also protected, and perhaps most importantly, the company’s PCs and servers remain available so business can continue and Web sites stay online without missing a beat.

Vendor Choices
There are plenty of options when it comes to finding the right UPS for your business. Rittal GmbH & Co. of Herborn, Germany, offers a series of UPS systems for small server rooms and small offices. Its units are available in standalone or rack versions.

“Any company that processes information with its IT systems needs to ensure the supply of power by means of UPS systems,” said Jorg Kreiling of Rittal. “Our low power systems are available in modules with 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 kVA.” (The k is short for kilo, and VA means volt amps.)

A 6 kVA system for example, would probably be enough for a typical rack of servers. If older servers are being used, a 1 or 2 kVA box can sometimes be enough.

These systems provide higher quality online protection usually enjoyed by large companies. This includes filtering disruptions out of the electricity supply. As a business grows, the larger Rittal versions can be cascaded together to meet increased power output requirement. They each have serial and USB interfaces.

APC has a far more extensive line of products. Fournier of APC suggested several options for small businesses of all sizes. For those with ten or fewer computers, perhaps including a server and some networking equipment, he recommended the Smart-UPS SC 1500.

For mission-critical desktops, he suggested the Back-UPS ES 550. For companies with approximately 50 employers and including a small computer room, the Smart UPS 2200 provides protection against under- or over-voltage, surges, noise and outages.

“Key features include extended range automatic voltage regulation, generous internal battery runtime, built-in surge protection and noise filtering,” said Fournier. “It also has software for safe unattended shutdown and management.”

For larger companies in the 100 to 200 employee range, it costs a little more to protect vital systems. This might require APC's Symmetra line. It has built-in redundancy to deliver high levels of business continuity and availability. Such a model, however, might well be overkill for most SMBs.

All of these systems have sealed-lead acid batteries with a life expectancy of three-to-five years depending on use and the environment. In the event of a blackout, the server UPS supporting a full load should provide seven-to-10 minutes of runtime. The desktop UPS at full load should last four-to-seven minutes. If not supporting a full power load, you can expect more than 10 minutes.

The Liebert Corporation provides small UPS such as the PowerSure PSA. This desktop-class box is an online UPS with automatic voltage regulation that may be required by sensitive electronic equipment. A 350 VA PowerSure PSA starts at $222.

For servers, consider the Liebert GXT line. These models fit inside server racks (or can be purchased as standalone towers) and come with features such as power-factor correction, internal batteries and frequency conversion. At full load, they provide five-to-10 minutes of backup power. Pricing starts at $642.

Unlike the options listed above that offer large as well as small uninterruptible power sources, MGE Office Protection Systems (MGE OP) specializes in SMB-based systems. For 10 or fewer computers, the Pulsar Evolution 500 to 3,000 VA models would be suitable. For companies with 50 people, the EX RT UPS 5,7,11kVA is available in a tower or rack version

“This online UPS system provides plenty of runtime and continuous voltage and frequency,” said Brad Amano, business development manager for MGE OP. “For 100 to 200 employees, the Pulsar MX UPS is scalable up to 20kVA for growing networks.” [20 kVA is probably enough for all but modern high-powered server racks. A full rack of dual-core processor blade servers, for example, might require a larger model]

The Pulsar MX provides approximately 10 minutes of backup time, though this can be extended up to two hours by adding battery extension modules. It can protect 20 to 110 servers.

“Protecting PCs and other electronic equipment is necessary not only against power outages, but also to protect the computer’s delicate internal circuitry,” said Amano. “Invisible dirty power causes surges and spikes that can wreak havoc to internal components and corrupt data files.”

System Selection
It’s easy to overbuy when it comes to UPS. And it’s easy to under-buy too. Liebert, therefore, suggests a simple one, two, three approach to selecting the right amount of protection:

  1. 1. Total the volt amps or kilowatts of the devices and add a safety factor of 10 to 20 percent.
  2. 2. Determine how much battery run time you require. Most systems only need five-to-10 minutes, as this addresses almost all electrical disturbances.  At times, however, you may want critical servers or phones to have more. 
  3. 3. When feasible, elect to use an online UPS (also known as double conversion) as this provides the best electrical protection. 

“A UPS is often the first line of defense to protect your hardware from power spikes, sags or outages that cause a loss of computing availability,” said David Joy, vice president of marketing at Liebert. “Small-to-medium size businesses need to determine the level of business-critical function their servers, PCs or phones provide, and then match up a power protection solution that is right for their operation.”

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!


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