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Empowered To Protect

New technology, longer power reserves, and lower costs make for better UPS systems
That rarely happens. And Darnell Group analyst Jeff Shepard says battery-based UPS systems have their own problems. Heat, too much shaking, and heavy usage can hasten lead-acid battery failure, which happens between six months and five years of usage under the best conditions, he says. Flywheel vendors such as Active Power Inc. and Pentadyne Power Corp. have high-end products that appeal to customers looking for high-availability UPS systems. A Pentadyne flywheel, which can cost $45,000 or more, will handle a power outage for 30 seconds, which covers 90% of the instances in which battery UPS systems are used, he says. "You could ultimately replace the batteries and have the utmost availability," Shepard says.

Even though all UPS systems basically do the same thing, various vendors have different approaches. MGE UPS Systems Inc., for example, uses technology that constantly transfers power from AC to DC and back from DC to AC to keep its systems running all the time. MGE concentrates on the high end of the market and on larger customers, including those running storage area networks, says Jack Pouchet, director of marketing at MGE. The vendor itself is set to run for four hours in case of an outage and has 140 engineers around the country to assure that its customers can achieve the same amount of uptime. "The longest [outage] we've seen is eight hours with one customer," Pouchet says.

One MGE customer has a supercomputer to protect and a planned major expansion. Joe Moretti is director of communications and IT at Sci-Quest, the northern Alabama Science Center in Huntsville that lets the public view and interact with 150 science projects. The center uses one MGE UPS to protect 15 general-purpose Windows and Linux servers and a second one to provide backup power to an interactive large-screen theater run by a Silicon Graphics Inc. supercomputer and storage area network. Moretti says he selected MGE rather than UPS systems from APC and Liebert Corp. because MGE's products offered the same functionality for less money. MGE systems start at around $35,000.

The science center used to experience server crashes because power-company glitches caused the previous UPS systems to switch on at the wrong time and shut the servers down. That couldn't be tolerated when the center opened the $2 million interactive theater, Moretti says, so the organization upgraded its UPS systems. Sci-Quest is a nonprofit organization and already is funding similar theaters and supercomputers for Birmingham and Mobile. More are in the planning stage.

Another UPS vendor has an alternative to both batteries and flywheels. PowerDsine Ltd. is using the 802.3 standard to embed UPS hardware and software in IP switches from vendors such as Avaya, Nortel Networks, and 3Com. The transfer of power over Ethernet provides great savings over setting up servers with new AC outlets and allows a single switch to provide backup for dozens of servers, says Amir Lehr, VP of business development and strategic planning at PowerDsine. PowerDsine has a six-port system for $898 and a 24-port system for $1,499. "Our UPSes have connectivity to IP, which other products don't have, and the ability to forward and control power over IP," Lehr says.

PowerDsine is a relatively young vendor without much of a track record or market presence, so it's unclear whether its technology will gain ground over the more established approaches. If it does, the larger UPS vendors can be expected to bring out copycat products.

For customers, however, the type of technology used doesn't matter that much. Low cost, low maintenance, ease of use and management, and consistent power during planned and unplanned downtime are what most IT managers look for when shopping for a UPS system.