Power surge

Uninterruptible power supplies find expanded role in VOIP, security systems, branch offices

When the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke's data center moved to a new building, one of the first actions NINDS officials took was to acquire a new uninterruptible power supply (UPS).

A UPS provides temporary power via a battery that keeps computers and other equipment running smoothly in the event of a brownout or power outage.

NINDS, part of the National Institutes of Health, had several power concerns. First, the data center's Rockville, Md., neighborhood was originally wired as a residential area, not as a business center. "The electrical infrastructure isn't really suited for the draw of power off of it," said Megan Brennan, an information technology specialist at NINDS.

Second, the data center shares a power bug common to the Washington, D.C., area: frequent summer thunderstorms. Those factors inspired NINDS officials to use the data center's relocation as an opportunity to upgrade their UPS. They purchased an American Power Conversion Corp. InfraStruXure system, which includes APC's Symmetra UPS, InfraStruXure Power Distribution Unit and battery cabinets.

The system provides 30 minutes of power in the event of an outage. Brennan said the UPS installation protects the data center from the power outages and "persistent brownouts that are a feature of summer [life] in Rockville."

NINDS' case is fairly typical of UPS usage. Organizations want to smooth power irregularities that threaten to unsettle data centers. But government agencies are broadening the application of UPS beyond the traditional data centers and server farms. Emerging markets include voice-over-IP installations and security

systems.

Vendor offerings are broadening, too. Some UPS providers have segued to the cooling field to address customers' growing heat dissipation concerns. Others have improved software by adding predictive analysis to UPS monitoring capabilities.

From a product design perspective, rack-based UPS systems have become increasingly popular. The sleeker designs consume less floor space than traditional systems and can be housed in space-constrained areas such as telecommunications closets.

Amid these trends, UPS vendors work to raise the profile of their products, which have historically played a behind-the-scenes role.

Brad Nacke, government business manager at Liebert Corp., said vendors have been revamping UPS' image. Formerly sold as a backup device, these products are becoming an integral part of an organization's security plan.

"They can be as secure as they want to be on hardware and software," Nacke said. "But if the power drops out, they're not secure anymore because they are not up and running."

Expanding role

The need for power security is fueling government sales and feeding interest in new applications. VOIP, in which phone service is delivered via data networks instead of traditional telecom lines, is one such field.

Government customers "are asking for more runtime," said Russell Senesac, APC's InfraStruXure product manager.

Commerce Department officials, for example, followed their deployment of VOIP gear with a UPS upgrade. Speaking at a recent E-Gov conference, Karen Hogan, Commerce's deputy chief information officer, said the department's enhanced UPS capabilities would give users a 60-minute cushion in the event of a power failure. The previous UPS installation only provided a 15-minute buffer.

IT managers view UPS as an important addition to VOIP. Traditional telecom gear, such as private branch exchanges, offered reliability in the form of an internal battery for backup. Rick Muehleib, product manager of GTSI Corp.'s Power Solutions, said VOIP installations also need backup power to maintain high availability. "We are seeing a lot of interest in [UPS] to support those systems," he said.

Industry executives also cited video surveillance and access control systems as potential markets for UPS' backup capabilities. Failure to protect such systems could compromise security in the event of a power outage. Muehleib said some agencies have begun to express interest in power protection in those areas.

Navy officials, meanwhile, are snapping up these products for use at sea. "Shipboard UPS is getting a lot of attention right now," said Mark Ascolese, president of Eaton Powerware. The Navy, he said, is "turning ships into Internet data centers. So power protection and power quality to run that [Internet access] is pretty critical."

Form and function

Product design is one factor behind UPS' expanded use. Rackmountable UPS systems, for instance, take up less space than older, bulkier systems.

UPS vendors are "coming out with smaller and smaller versions," Muehleib said. A few years ago, a UPS for backing up a workstation may have weighed more than 100 pounds, Muehleib said. A 1.5kVA UPS — enough to power a couple of servers and a network switch — is now available in a 2 rack unit configuration that weights about 50 pounds. A rack unit equals 1.75 inches in height.

The smaller, rackmountable devices find homes in telecom closets and other close quarters. UPS shrinkage has led to an expanded role in remote government operations, such as field offices where the demand is for relatively small, 2kVA UPS installations capable of providing 10 to 15 minutes of runtime. The task is to get an office through a brownout without risking data, Senesac said.

The ability to quickly upgrade systems is another benefit of the rack design, which features modular components. Customers can add hot-pluggable power modules to accommodate an increase in load demand. This scalability provides a pay-as-you-grow approach and keeps an organization from purchasing more UPS capacity than it actually needs, Senesac said. APC officials, he added, encounter such devices in the field that are oversized by a factor of 10.

Management software is another area of UPS innovation. The addition of predictive analysis is among the developments in this area. Those management systems incorporating predictive analysis can monitor the devices and alert IT managers about an impending failure.

Eaton Powerware's DataTrax Systems business unit offers Foreseer for predictive analysis. "Predictive analysis is where this industry needs to go," Ascolese said. "Most sites can't afford any downtime." The Air Force Space Command is among Foreseer's federal customers.

Some UPS vendors, meanwhile, are pushing into cooling systems. APC officials, for example, offer a cooling module for the InfraStruXure system. "Cooling is the biggest issue right now," said Senesac, who noted that customers struggle with heat dissipation in server racks.

Senesac said only 10 percent of the APC customers who buy rack systems also order cooling modules, but he expects demand to accelerate during the second half of the year.

As for other vendors, Liebert sells both cooling systems and UPS products. Eaton Powerware partners with computer manufacturers that offer cooling solutions, Ascolese added.

"The technology...certainly has come a long way in the last few years," said Scott Friedlander, group vice president of enterprise technology teams at GTSI. The arrival of new capabilities is not a moment too soon for organizations seeking to protect a growing array of computing, telecom and security devices.

Moore is a freelance writer based in Syracuse, N.Y.

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