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CHASING DOWNTIME DEMONS

As the Threat From Power Disturbances Grows, So Too Do Its Related Costs. Conservative Estimates Place Cost of Damage to Equipment and Network Downtime in Excess of Us$26 Billion Per Year.


April 1, 2003  


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Downtime is a dirty word, unless you’re talking about the type that takes place over the crash of warm waves while on vacation. The reason is simple: It translates into lost revenue, lost customers, even lost credibility. And like most dirty words, it’s all too common as the imminent threat of downtime due to power disturbances looms daily over modern communication networks.

Demand for protection is driving serious growth in the power-quality (PQ) equipment and services market. It’s also driving a more proactive approach among cabling industry professionals, and making contractors a more integrated part of the uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) demand process.

“Hook up any power sensitive device — 98 per cent of electronic devices are power sensitive — and, on average, the typical North American building will have14 ‘power-related events’ per year,” says Alan Katz, senior product manager with MGE UPS Systems Inc. in Costa Mesa, Calif.

Katz’ responsibilities include evaluating emerging technologies and specifying designs for new UPS and critical power system products. And his statistic helps explains why the North American power quality equipment and services market generated revenues of US$4.95 billion in 2002.

By 2006, says consultants Frost and Sullivan, revenues are expected to hit US$6.26 billion as the demand for network reliability skyrockets.

It’s small wonder that everyone, it seems, is demanding guarantees against surges, outages, sags, transients, or harmonics. Farah Saeed, industry analyst with Frost and Sullivan’s power supplies and batteries division, says the demand drivers are fairly obvious: Mission-critical applications such as credit card operations and stock brokerages require undisturbed power services.

Downtime results in potential loss of revenue and customers, and heightened demand for network reliability will be a dominant factor driving the market.

As the threat from disturbances grows, so too do related costs. Conservative estimates place cost of damage to equipment and network downtime in excess of US$26 billion per year. Who’s vulnerable? “Any business with over 50 employees would have a large, central computer system that’s vulnerable, or very critical,” says Katz. “That means that instead of it being an afterthought, UPS is now becoming part of the initial wiring scheme.”

“UPS equipment plays the role of ‘backup’ source, backing up power for as long as it takes to gracefully shut down the computer. And, if the UPS equipment is connected to a computer or server, it automatically triggers a signal for the computer to shut down properly.”

“Before, the contractor just did the wiring. Now, the contractor is actually being asked to put UPS in central locations. They are becoming an integrated part of the UPS demand process. And that demand is making the contractor become part of the solution.”

One trend Katz is seeing is a demand for protected lines at locations where the customer has a critical wiring load.

“A UPS would be put in; and the contractor would use dedicated wiring routes or protected feeds,” he says. “A lot of businesses now are starting to demand that their phone systems, or PBX, are backed up. It’s not just limited to computers.”

Dick Bird, business manager of business critical systems for Hewlett-Packard (Canada) Co. in Mississauga, Ont., sees the power-quality demands growing on the service-delivery ‘front lines’.

Bird, is also product manager for HP’s fault-tolerant NonStop server line, which the company says has been designed for any business such as a large bank that cannot afford to let its critical computing applications be unavailable — even for a minute. He says when his team sets out to install a new system, one of their tasks is a site preparation visit.

“We look at the power, the air conditioning, raised-floor capabilities,” he says. “And if a customer doesn’t have UPS, it would be something we recommend they get if they want to be able to continue processing these consumer transactions. If you’re at an ATM and money doesn’t come out, you’re not going to be happy.

“UPS is cheaper, small and less expensive than 20 years ago, and more in demand,” says Bird, who notes the vast majority of his customers already have UPS environments installed in their data centers.

Katz says that as companies have become more and more dependent on e-mail systems, and transaction processing systems internally, the need for UPS across the computing infrastructure is becoming more and more necessary because any outage seen at particular data center needs to be addressed across all of the applications.

“It used to be just large companies were affected, but now, even small companies have to wrestle with these concerns,” he says. “We now have a lot of computer devices that we can’t afford to go down. And the volume of computer devices in buildings is increasing.”

What’s behind growing power-quality problems? Keith Fortune, communications facilities manager for the Bank of Montreal, thinks the source of the problem is not the power.

“We see problems with electrical power quality and lot of it, in my mind, has come from the equipment, rather than the incoming hydro power,” he says. “We keep forcing technology to be ‘faster’ and ‘bigger’ — meaning, more powerful — in smaller and smaller boxes. And we keep reducing costs making things more vulnerable to power disturbances. That’s really what’s happening.”

“The old, dumb terminals had heavy copper insulated wires (with) transformer type power supplies, whereas the wiring in the PC is as small as a human hair. And surges, spikes, noise and harmonic distortion — to name a few — can damage boards and a lot more.”

Fortune believes the solution is a two-fold fix. Protect the equipment better — with UPS, with power conditioners, and with filtering of the data lines, and avoid “cross-over” problems by improving communications between data and electrical troubleshooters. “When people say ‘it’s a power problem,’ only the power guys deal with it,” he says. “And if it’s listed as data then only the data technician’s get involved. That’s what drives us nuts because a lot of problems are intermittent and cross impacting; they aren’t easily identified or rectified.”

“For instance, we’ve had problems with data wiring in systems furniture, and it took us a lot of troubleshooting and we never really came up with the answer. But we finally found out what problem was: The patch cords connected from system furniture — the horizontal data wiring which terminates into the furniture. We plug data connectors from the furniture into the PC, and that cable has plastic fins that would heat and would bend over, pushing the wires over so you would not have connectivity.

“We had to replace all the power wiring in the furniture. And it’s my belief there was either some kind of ground fault or neutral current inside the furniture. It wasn’t system-generated or hardware-generated. I believe it was coming through the power,” he says.

“There are thing like that we can’t explain, but, people spend lot of time trying to repair, doing parts replacement. And a certain amount of those problems, I believe, are created by electrical voltage fluctuations; these power-quality problems are intermittent and you can’t control the hydro power.”

But you can control the relationship between data and electrical professionals, and Fortune says more “interface” results in “less recurring problems and more efficient technology because issues are being dealt with proactively.”

Meanwhile, the pressure to avoid “downtime” is only expected to grow, as time goes on.

Frost and Sullivan analysts see future growth in the power quality equipment and services market fired by end-users’ desire for a total power quality solution, by development of customized products with zero tolerance for downtime, and by the push for real-time remote monitoring facilities.

Their report analyzed five industries — industrial, communications, institutions, and aerospace and defense — from a supply and demand-side perspective. Power quality products and
services in the analysis included UPS, transient voltage surge suppressors, DC power systems, and PQ Service.

The report predicts the communication segment will sustain the highest growth trend, with a compound annual growth rate of approximately 5.2 per cent over the 2003 to 2006 forecast period. The institutional segment is expected to maintain a high revenue growth rate at 4.6 per cent over the forecast period. That hike is expected to be a direct result of a huge increase in business from hospitals seeking to provide more redundancy for their back-up power systems.

The catalyst? Increased concerns over the impact power outages can have on patient care and sensitive equipment.

In terms of major market drivers for PQ services, the report offered the following predictions and cited these influences: Decreasing power quality will drive demand of PQ equipment; network reliability will ignite demand for PQ services; medical applications will require added transient protection; an increase in defense and aerospace budgets will maintain market revenues, and medical equipment upgrades will drive opportunities for PQ equipment growth.

As far as challenges and market restraints, the report pointed to these possibilities: A downturn in the communication industries curtailing viability of narrow-focused PQ service providers; a slow U.S. economy preventing capital equipment investments; intense price competition due to commoditization of low-end PQ products; minimal customer education on PQ issues hindering growth; and a slowdown in air traffic growth hindering PQ market expansion.

“With the current competitive nature of the power quality equipment and services market, manufacturers must be attuned to the end-user market to remain competitive to differentiate themselves from the competition,” the report concludes.

The Frost & Sullivan analysis says providers in the power-quality services market must create marketing plans, and increase the brand recognition factor within targeted customer groups, to efficiently target the correct customer group and increase their market presence.

“The level of competition in the PQ equipment market is constantly increasing as the demand for safe, reliable, and better power quality multiplies. Additionally, PQ equipment vendors are often vying for the similar end-user group, creating a challenging environment in which to acquire new customers,” according to the report.

The most “important task” for the PQ vendor is to raise customer awareness by educating them — “targeting the potential customers, offering better and customized products, and in the process being able to retain these customers, it concludes.

Education around UPS offerings is “critical,” says Katz, who adds that contractors need to be aware of what they’re buying, and what kind of quality they’re getting when they make a UPS investment.

“The concern that people have is this: There’s a whole bunch of UPS’ out there to choose from. You can buy some consumer grade UPS for half the price of another product on the market. But then what you have to take into consideration is the quality of batteries, and the manufacturers’ reputation when you consider the consequences of the UPS failing.”

So what does he suggest? “Being educated on the different types is vital,” he says, adding that contractors consider various points before making any UPS purchase:

First, does the company have a local service organization? If anything goes wrong, will you have adequate and available levels of tech support?

“Also, contractors are wise to always take the opportunity to look the equipment over, he says. “You want to make sure it’s contractor-friendly, from an ‘ease-of-installation’ standpoint.”

Better education, better equipment protect, and better communications appear to be the essential and integrated parts of the new approach required in dealing with the escalating PQ demands in the battle against ‘downtime’.

“Downtime — the kind that kills productivity — happens more often than it did five years ago,” says HP’s Bird. “It’s due mainly to the proliferation of internal e-mail systems, and order processing/ERP system. And it can be catastrophic.” His advice to structured cabling industry professionals? Ensure they are proactive about incorporating UPS, and other technologies needed, to provide the complete infrastructure for mission-critical environments.CS

JoAnn Napier-Chiasson is a business-communications consultant and technology author based in Halifax. She can be reached via e-mail at jnc@ns.sympatico.ca.

“We keep forcing technology to be faster and bigger — meaning, more powerful — in smaller and smaller boxes. And we keep reducing costs — making things more vulnerable to power disturbances. That’s what’s happening.”

“When people say ‘it’s a power problem,’ only the power guys deal with it. And if it’s listed as data then only the data technician’s get involved. That’s what drives us nuts.”


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