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Protecting Your Business
From The Perils Of Power

By Shakil Ahmed

In past columns I’ve written about protecting your data from the evils of hackers, viruses, and just plain bad planning.  Today I’m going to give you something new to worry about.  This is a danger that most small businesses—especially those with home offices--fail to even consider.  Although our friends at Hawaiian Electric Co. might not be eager to discuss this, sags, surges and even power outages are a fact of life.  A single spike or surge can completely destroy your hard drive.  Likewise, a power outage can devastate the file you are working or even worse.

“A loss of electricity, even for a second,” said Makiki resident and Infoworld Reviews Editor Steve Jefferson, “can be quick death for your data. The smartest thing you can do is install a UPS (Uninterrupted Power Supply). It's cheap insurance if what you do with your computers is important to your business. They act kind of like bag pipes," he said, "temporarily providing electricity to your system when the power company is not."

And what exactly does a UPS do?  A uninterrupted power supply, as the name implies, provides the juice to allow your computer to run—at least for a little while--when the power is cut off in your office or home.  It also shields your computer from power surges that otherwise might seriously damage or destroy your data.   Some of the units on the market today have software that is intelligent enough to save any documents that happen to be open and exit the them as well as the operating system automatically before UPS’ battery runs down.

“A UPS unit operates more than just as a safety net,” said Rich Halverson, founder of Guide.net a hosting facility and e-commerce consultant at the Manoa Innovation Center. “A good UPS,” said the former UH Computer Sciences professor, “will monitor and regulate the quality of the power coming from the wall outlet so one’s equipment receives the steady 120-volt power it needs.  We operate a number of servers at our office and would be remiss in not running a UPS.”

Finding The Right UPS

UPSs are available in a variety of sizes, from $100 units that will keep you box running for a few minutes to $3,000+ models that can keep a network going for an hour.  For this particular story we looked at units from some the most popular vendors --Tripplite and APC. Both units are well under $200 in price and designed for average standalone desktop machines in a small office or a SOHO setting. We looked at the APC Back UPS pro 500 unit (street price around $175) and the Tripplite Office 500 (street price around $120).

From a hardware point of view, both were quite easily installed.   After attaching a battery cable (to ensure that the uninterrupted power supply has it’s own source of power!) you simply plug in the cables from your PC, modem, monitor, etc into the surge protected outlets on the units. You then plug phone/modem/fax line into input/output connectors directly into the UPS unit.

The APC model has a sleek black look with a slanted top where the cables plug in that makes access easy. The Tripplite has a more traditonal look (like a miniature tower-style computer) and has its outlets on the rear.

If you choose to run the power management function you need to attach either a serial cable or a USB cable from the UPS’s port to a free COM (or USB) port on your PC.  The main issue is to be certain that you have an extra port available on your CPU.  Otherwise, like me, you’re going to have to install a new one.

One of the cool options with both the Tripplite and the APC units is that their management software will automatically shut down your computer and automatically save files if the systems sense a power outage. That’s the theory anyway. If you don’t install the software, at full load, the UPS lets you run about five to ten minutes on battery which leaves you plenty of time to shut your own system down if you don’t run the power management software.

I had a few questions about installing about the Tripplite power management software but consulted briefly with their technical support person on the mainland and got immediate answers.

We tested the power management software by yanking the Tripplite’s power supply from the wall socket.  The unit responded by emitting a squealing sound and, after a few minutes, shut down the applications and documents (as well as the OS) flawlessly.

I applied the same test to the APC unit but unfortunately it didn’t work at all—the entire machine simply shut down without disengaging the OS or the programs.  This is not how it was supposed to be.  The test machines that we built specifically to review the UPS units were standard except for the AMD microprocessors and a VIA chipsets.

After much consulting with the APC tech support people on the mainland we came to the conclusion that there was a possible compatibility problem with Windows 98 SE and the VIA chipset that controlled the USB port.  In my opinion this is a problem that can occur when you don’t run an Intel system.  Still, according to the APC people, the backup unit should have worked with my test computer.

I followed APC’s advice and installed a software “patch” (fix) from Microsoft that was supposed to solve the problem. For good measure we swapped out the APC unit that was giving us trouble and tested an identical Back UPS pro 500.   I don’t know if it was the fix from Microsoft or if the old unit was defective but the new APC system worked flawlessly.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line:  Both units worked wonderfully once I tweaked them. The advantage with the modest (and less expensive) little Tripplite was that it would run power management software for Windows 98, NT or Unix systems on the same unit.  The APC model we were sent, however, could only operate its power management features on Windows 98.   As I mentioned above, those who run AMD machines may or may not have some compatibility problems with the USB controller.  (If you want to play it safe, the APC system will probably work best with an Intel machine).  We tested the Tripplite (which works on a serial port) on an AMD machine and it didn’t seem to mind.

I’ve been using both units for about a month now and they sit unobtrusively beneath my desk.  Since I run both machines 24/7 I sure feel better with a UPS there and I don’t leave home without one.   For more information go to www.tripplite.com or www.apcc.com.

Shakil Ahmed is the founder of PDC Systems, a Honolulu computer and networking company established in 1991. Questions or comments should be addressed to askshak@pdcsystems.com

Pacific Business News - July 28, 2000

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