How important is your UPS battery backup, really?

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As a business owner or manager, you may not spend a lot of time in your company’s server room or wiring closets.  But, if you are also the de facto IT person on staff, you may find yourself in those places more than you’d like.  Either way, you might have noticed (or tripped over) some devices that didn’t look quite like a server or network appliance.  Maybe you’ve even pulled a muscle trying to lift or move one of these things at some point.  All of your expensive computer devices seem to have their power cords plugged into them, but what do they do for you?

These units are commonly known by the acronym UPS, which stands for Uninterruptible Power Supply.  Sometimes they are referred to as UPS battery backup units.  In simple terms, these devices supply backup power to your computers and network equipment in the event of a power failure.  More advanced UPS devices will also regulate voltage surges, spikes, and dips, and may be able to shutdown and restart your servers, send notifications of power issues, and perform other safety functions.  You may ask yourself, “Why is that so important?  If my power fails at home, I just wait until it comes back on, reset the clocks, and everything is back to normal.”  Your home PC may even have withstood power failures with nothing more than a warning about the computer being shut down improperly.  If you have ever purchased a UPS, you might also question the price, which is considerably higher than you might expect from a “glorified power strip.”

However, computer and network systems are much more sophisticated than most home appliances.  In fact, most computer operating systems require a “graceful” shutdown, where certain processes are run before powering down, to ensure that the system can boot up properly again.  A “hard” shutdown, on the other hand, can cause data corruption which may render a server or appliance unbootable.

Another catastrophe can occur if the hard drives in a system are affected by the sudden power loss.  According to APC’s white paper entitled, Preventing Data Corruption in the Event of an Extended Power Outage, “[a]nother cause of concern is with a computer’s hard drive.  While progress has certainly been made in the industry over the last decade in hard drive technology to prevent “head crashes” (where the read/write head of the hard drive could actually damage the surface of the disk if not properly “parked”), another advance in hard drive technology has actually contributed to the likelihood of data corruption.  To achieve high levels of performance, hard disk controllers are often designed to take advantage of caching techniques, which involve temporarily writing information to memory and then writing the data out to the actual disk later.  In the event of a power loss, information in the cache is lost, leading to potential data file or data corruption.”

Consider the industry quotes below when deciding whether UPS protection is crucial to your business or not:

• “Even a moment’s disruption can have devastating effects on power sensitive customers such as internet service providers, data centers, wireless telecommunication networks, on-line traders, computer chip manufacturers and medical research centers.  For these customers, power disruptions can result in data corruption, burned circuit boards, component damage, file corruption and lost customers.” – U.S. Dept. of Energy Office of Power Technologies, Electrical Power Interruption Cost Estimates for Individual Industries, Sectors, and U.S. Economy, February 2002
• “Failure to boot after a power failure is generally caused by corrupted files or a damaged hard disk – neither of which last known good configuration is capable of repairing.” – MCSE Microsoft® Windows® XP Professional Readiness Review Exam 70-270, Section 70-, 11/28/2001
• “Total failures, or blackouts, constitute a complete loss of electrical power to the networking or computing equipment…these failures can cause system and network crashes, PC lockups, and corruption or loss of valuable data from servers and workstations. “ Introduction – Contingency Planning Management Magazine, Power Protection Basics, March 2002

So, before you consider trimming some of your IT budget by foregoing protection from a UPS system, add up the hidden costs.  Can you afford having to restore from backup, or, worse yet, replacing hard drives and power supplies on some or all of your equipment after your next power outage?  Make sure to consult your IT department or support company representative to find out the best way to protect your server room or data center.  You can also check out these white papers from APC:

Practical Options for Deploying IT Equipment in Small Server Rooms and Branch Offices (White Paper 174)

Preventing Data Corruption in the Event of an Extended Power Outage (White Paper 10)

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