10 Power Protection Myths Debunked: An Uninterruptible Separation of Fact and Fiction

June 29, 2012 5 Comments »

Budgeting for electricity, securing adequate supplies of it and finding ways to use less of it are all common topics of conversation among data center operators. Ensuring the power their IT resources rely on is both dependable and clean, sadly, can sometimes be an afterthought.

The truth is, the problems and risks associated with power are intensifying as virtualization and movement to the cloud place an increasing amount of stress on storage systems, servers and network devices, which use components so miniaturized that they fault and fail under power conditions that earlier generation equipment easily withstood.

At one point in time, IT merely played a supporting role in the enterprise. However, it is now absolutely central to how most companies compete. When IT systems are down, core business processes quickly come to a standstill. The cost of power and cooling has spiraled out of control in recent years, and data center managers are typically held responsible for achieving high availability while simultaneously reducing power costs – these can be two very difficult and conflicting aspects to manage, however, highly-efficient UPS systems can help with that goal, and products are available today that were not an option even after a few years ago.

In order to rationalize the costs associated with such upgrades, and to properly select a system for your facilities’ needs, common misconceptions associated with UPS systems must first be debunked. The resulting realities, a combination of factors that have been influenced by industry trends and technology advances, are often complicated by marketing hype, which can make that the decision very difficult.

The following will address a few particular myths we’ve heard, and use the subsequent truths to outline the best practices for selecting a power protection solution for any IT application.

Myth #1 – Utility power is clean and reliable

Reality – Utility power isn’t clean, nor is it 100% reliable.

By law, electrical power can vary widely enough to cause significant problems for IT equipment. According to current U.S. standards, for example, voltage can legally vary from 5.7 percent to 8.3 percent under absolute specifications. That means that what utility services promising 208-phase voltage actually deliver can range from 191 to 220 volts.

And, in the U.S., utility power is only 99.9 percent reliable, which translates into a likely nine hours of utility outages every year.

 Myth #2 – A brief outage won’t hurt my bottom line

Reality – Losing power for as little as a quarter second can trigger events that may keep IT equipment unavailable for anywhere from 15 minutes to many hours.

And downtime is costly. Some experts believe the U.S. economy loses between $200 billion and $570 billion a year due to power outages and other disturbances.

According to Price Waterhouse research, after a power outage disrupts IT systems:

  • 33+ percent of companies take more than a day to recover
  • 10 percent of companies take more than a week
  • It can take up to 48 hours to reconfigure a network
  • It can take days or weeks to re-enter lost data
  • 90 percent of companies that experience a computer disaster and don’t have a survival plan go out of business within 18 months

Financially, power outages can mean substantial losses for the company affected. According to the US Department of Energy, when a power failure disrupts IT systems:

  • 33 percent of companies lose $20,000–$500,000
  • 20 percent lose $500,000 to $2 million
  • 15 percent lose more than $2 million

Myth #3 – My business is too small for proactive power protection

Reality – Power problems are equal-opportunity threats.

They hit small businesses as often as big ones. Your PCs, servers and network are just as critical to your business as a data center is to a large enterprise. Chances are, you rely on more sophisticated and expensive data equipment than ever, and these systems run unattended much of the time.

Consider how much investment is at risk. Even a small server configuration and company LAN (local area network) represents an investment of tens of thousands of dollars. Even a basic server, such as a Compaq Proliant DL320, costs more than $2000. Figure on $7000 for an IBM Xseries 360, $15,000 for a Compaq Proliant DL590, $22,000 for an IBM Xseries 380, and $37,000 for a Sun Sunfire Blade System. Add operational applications, management systems, critical databases and networking equipment. Clearly the IT infrastructure is a significant company asset that deserves adequate protection.

Downtime is also very costly. Your IT hardware may be insured, but what about the potential loss of goodwill, reputation and sales from downtime? Consider the number of transactions or processes handled per hour, and multiply that by the value of each one and the duration of an anticipated power incident. Add the delays that inevitably occur when rebooting locked-up equipment, restoring damaged files, and re-running processes that were interrupted. Then add the cost of lost revenue from being disconnected from your suppliers, business partners, and customers.

Myth #4 – I have a generator and a surge suppressor – I don’t need a UPS

Reality – Generators and surge suppressors are a good start, but remain incomplete solutions for systemic problems.

Backup generators address power outages but provide no protection against the eight other power disturbances. Furthermore, critical systems can lock up in the 10-30 seconds it takes to switch to backup power. Generators themselves can create harmful power effects when switching between utility and generator power.

Surge suppressors address the power surges, but have no effect on the under-voltage and variance conditions that can erode equipment health over time or zap it in an instant.

Uninterruptible Power Systems (UPSs) go beyond these power-protection strategies while presenting a compelling business case in any commercial environment. UPSs protect your IT systems by conditioning incoming power to smooth out the sags and spikes that are all too common on the grid and other primary sources of power. UPSs also provide ride-through power to cover for sags or short-term outages (30 – 60 minutes, typically), by selectively drawing power from batteries, backup generators and other available sources.

Myth #5 – All UPSs have the same battery service life

Reality – The design of a UPS dictates how frequently it uses battery power, which in turn affects battery runtime and service life.

Standby UPSs shift frequently to battery mode, which can reduce battery runtime and service life. Furthermore, the brief interruption of power during those frequent transfers could lock up IT systems, and their typically wide output voltage regulation window may cause the IT power supplies to shut down.

Line-interactive UPSs provide a higher level of protection against power anomalies than standby systems, but must typically resort to battery power when transferring between normal and regulated modes or coping with the instabilities of generator startup.

Double-conversion UPSs are easy on batteries. Within broad tolerances for input voltage, the UPS rectifier/inverter combination can regulate output without resorting to batteries. Additionally, transfer from normal to battery mode is instant, so there’s no risk of power interruptions freezing IT systems.

With new high-efficiency, multi-mode UPSs, battery usage duration and frequency are similar to a double-conversion UPS and in some instances may even be lower. Furthermore, these UPSs operate at up to 99 percent efficiency under normal use. Higher efficiency translates into longer battery runtime and cooler operating temperatures, which both extend battery service life.

Myth #6 – UPS load has no effect on efficiency

Reality – Manufacturers usually state UPS efficiency ratings at full load, but most of today’s UPSs are markedly less efficient under lighter loads, which is how they are likely to be used.

Since so many IT systems use dual-bus architecture for redundancy, the typical data center loads each power bus (and each corresponding UPS) at less than 50 percent capacity, often as little as 20 to 40 percent.

As a result, it is important to know UPS efficiency across the entire load range, not just under theoretical ideal UPS operating conditions. While many UPSs drop off markedly in their efficiency under light loads, others can perform at 99 percent efficiency even when lightly loaded, as much as 15 percentage points better than a traditional UPS.

Myth #7 – I don’t need service if my UPS is working

Reality – The old adage of, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” may be feasible in some circumstances, but applying it to the maintenance of a UPS can have devastating consequences.

Because a company relies on a UPS to deliver continuous power without any disruption to its business, proper service is a critical component to ensuring optimal performance from a UPS while minimizing the risks of downtime.

Research indicates that regular preventive maintenance —which affords the opportunity to detect and repair potential problems before they become significant and costly issues—is crucial in order to achieve maximum performance from your equipment. In fact, studies show that routine preventive maintenance appreciably reduces the likelihood that a UPS will succumb to downtime. A Study of Root Causes of Load Losses compiled by Eaton revealed that customers without preventive maintenance visits were almost four times more likely to experience a UPS failure than those who complete the recommended two preventive maintenance visits per year.

Myth #8 – I don’t need to monitor my UPS

Reality – Even with a UPS, your IT system could still go down in case of an extended power failure or if the UPS gets overloaded for too long.

Communication software can not only provide real-time notification of UPS status, but also lets you assign automatic actions to perform in case of a power event. This is extremely useful if your system operates continuously without users being present to manually shutdown affected equipment.

Additionally, virtualization is now bringing a new set of complexities, as the bond between operating system and physical hardware is no longer the standard. Some suppliers of UPS software must ensure that shutdown software agents are installed on each virtual machine as well as on the host machine. This can be quite tedious if the number of virtual machines is large, which is becoming the standard in many virtualized environments. Leading-edge UPS manufacturers have developed new software platforms that reduce this management complexity by integrating their software into virtualization management platforms like VMware’s vCenter®, Microsoft SCVMM® or Citrix XenCenter®. In these environments, one single software installation can control and shutdown any cluster of servers. Another benefit is the enablement of automatic live migration of virtual machines in case of a power outage, as you are no longer limited to the option of shutting down the servers and stopping operations; business continuity is now possible through this integration.

Myth #9 – Once I have a UPS, my power protection solution is complete

Reality – A complete power protection solution typically includes more than just a UPS. Here are some accessories worth considering:

 UPS energy storage: Today, most UPS products use lead acid batteries to store emergency standby power. A proven technology with many decades of successful service in a variety of industrial settings, the lead acid battery remains the most cost-effective energy storage solution as measured by dollars per minute of backup time.

Yet despite these merits, lead acid batteries are unpopular among data center managers due to their size, weight, maintenance requirements, toxic contents and relatively short lifespan, among other issues. As a result, UPS makers have long been searching for an alternative standby power technology that’s smaller, simpler and “greener” than lead acid batteries, yet no more expensive to operate.

Today, that hunt just may be nearing its end. Several exciting new standby power solutions, all rapidly approaching mainstream commercial viability, appear poised to give the lead acid battery a run for its money, including flywheels, ultracapacitors, fuel cells and lithium ion batteries.

Generator: During a utility failure, a UPS gives you the few minutes of time you need to shut down servers gracefully. These days, however, many companies can’t afford to be without IT systems for the hours or even days that may elapse before electrical service is restored. Such organizations almost always include a generator in their power protection architecture. While UPSs provide brief periods of emergency power, generators draw on a supply of diesel fuel to keep IT systems operational for anywhere from 10 minutes to seven days or more.

PDUs: As an essential component of any power quality infrastructure, power distribution units (PDUs) distribute power to downstream ITE load equipment. Most companies use both floor-mount PDUs, which provide primary distribution to server racks, and rack-mount PDUs (also known as ePDUs), which distribute power to individual servers and other devices. PDUs can be equipped with optional devices like surge suppression and individual breaker (branch) monitoring systems to monitor energy use.

Myth #10 – A few points in energy efficiency isn’t going to save much

Reality – The latest UPS technology can aid in immense utility savings

Today, UPSs are helping to maximize uptime while being extremely energy-efficient and scalable. New UPSs maximize efficiency by operating in multiple modes, changing their operating characteristics to adapt to the electrical conditions of the moment. By engaging internal components only as necessary, these multi-mode UPSs can achieve exceptional efficiency, up to 99% across a broad load range. Replacing legacy UPSs with the latest energy-efficient technology is one way to reduce maintenance and energy costs and ensure power reliability to a greater degree.

For example, in a 1-MW data center, a 10-year-old UPS could be wasting 120 kW or more of utility power and dissipating a lot of added heat. Replacing that vintage equipment with new, high-efficiency UPSs can free up to 120 kW of power to support new IT equipment and reduce the burden on cooling systems. Replacing just one 550-kW UPS from a redundant UPS configuration with a high-efficiency model could save more than $40,000 in power and cooling costs each year, while eliminating 190 tons of carbon dioxide emissions ad netting substantial utility company rebates.

Conclusion

Businesses today invest large sums of money in their IT infrastructure, as well as the power required to keep it functioning. They count on this investment to keep them productive and competitive. Leaving that infrastructure defenseless against electrical dips, spikes and interruptions, therefore, is a bad idea.

A well-built power protection solution, featuring high-quality, highly efficient UPS hardware, can help keep your business applications available, your power costs manageable and your data safe. By familiarizing yourself with the basics of power protection systems, and how to choose the right one for your needs, you can ensure your mission-critical systems always have the clean, reliable electricity they need to drive long-term success.

5 Comments

  1. Sean Kuchle July 3, 2012 at 4:34 pm -

    Great write up, very valuable information!
    One comment through, I know you mentioned UPS Maintenance, but I think you could have stressed the importance of battery maintenance as well, as this is where in my experience most system failures are.

    Also if you need a UPS Maintenance Provider Jantech Services works all on all major manufactures.
    http://www.jantechups.com/services/ups-maintenance-agreements.aspx

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