Helping NT when the Lights Go Out

Hands On: Tripp Lite’s PowerAlert

We all depend heavily on the continuous availability of electricity, but there are times when the power company fails us. These events can be disruptive to our computers and times when we can appreciate having an uninterruptible power supply, or UPS, to carry our machines until the power comes back.

But even with UPS support for servers and other key components within a network, some outages are long enough to outlast even a beefy UPS. Windows NT has the ability to communicate with a UPS system via a serial port connection built into the operating system. This feature reacts to a power failure and starts a shutdown of the attached system -- but nothing else. It doesn’t monitor the power, notify anyone of power failure or keep statistics about power uptime and downtime.

This is a simple feature that is suitable only for simple situations. Most Windows NT servers are not simple installations and can benefit from a more comprehensive solution, such as PowerAlert from Tripp Lite.

PowerAlert is a client/server application designed for monitoring UPS systems from numerous manufacturers -- not just those made by Tripp Lite. The monitoring can be performed on a local machine for its attached UPS or, if networked, to monitor and control UPS systems at remote locations. The software provides diagnostics, trend monitoring and remote operations that can be performed on any UPS, provided an appropriate driver file is available.

Shut Down Everything

Unlike configurations from years ago -- when a single UPS was dedicated to a single system -- today it is common for one UPS system to protect multiple systems or servers. One problem with this scenario is that NT’s existing capabilities enable only the system that is talking to the UPS to go into shutdown on a power failure. If there are multiple systems sharing a UPS, this shutdown only happens on the connected system, leaving the other systems blissfully unaware of an impending crash. PowerAlert solves this problem with an agent called Remote Shutdown Client (RSC), which shuts down other systems via a network broadcast message.

PowerAlert Server, the system connected to the UPS, sends a shutdown broadcast message to all the systems on the network that are listening. Any system that is configured with RSC will initiate an orderly shut down process when a message is received. This feature also could be used to shut down network clients before an application server is brought down for service. A second option of RSC is to only notify the user of the remote system that the server is being shut down. Of course, RSC can’t work unless a UPS also supports your network hub.

We tested PowerAlert on four Windows NT 4.0 Intel-based servers with Service Pack 4 installed. Two were connected to a Tripp Lite SmartPro Net 1,400 watt UPS, outfitted with two serial ports. Both systems were able to communicate with the UPS to detect a power failure. A third server was connected to an APC UPS with a serial port, and a forth was connected to a "no-name" UPS that did not have a serial port. We installed PowerAlert on all three servers that had serial port-connected UPS systems. We installed RSC on the fourth.

The software was easy to install and configure, although the install would have been more convenient had the software scanned the serial ports for UPS devices, similar to how the NT modem wizard finds a new modem. After the software was installed and configured we tested the system.

Power Outage

The Tripp Lite UPS and the APC UPS each had a test button that we used to test the software without actually pulling the plug from the wall. This test went well, but we were not satisfied. Rather than pulling the plug from the wall for the final test -- which was discouraged by the Tripp Lite and APC manuals -- we threw the circuit breaker off, providing a full-fledged power outage.

All four systems started sending alarms and counting down until shutdown. After 30 seconds we returned the power. All four systems returned back to their normal state. When we did it again, we let them completely shut down before returning the power to normal. PowerAlert performed admirably in all of our testing.

In addition to its ability to shutdown on power failures, PowerAlert can perform scheduled shutdowns on any monitored system and keeps statistics on power anomalies and assorted fluctuations. These anomalies are logged and can be graphed for trend analysis.

PowerAlert is available alone or packaged with many of Tripp Lite’s uninterruptible power supplies. Additional software is available from Tripp Lite for UPS monitoring via SNMP and using HP OpenView. All Tripp Lite software is Year 2000 compliant.

PowerAlert 10.1
Tripp Lite
Chicago, Ill.
(773) 869-1111
Price: PowerAlert ships free with all of Tripp Lite’s Smart UPSs. It is also downloadable from the company’s web site.

+ Works with many brands of UPS systems
+ Can monitor multiple systems at once
+ Can shut down systems across the network, even when not connected to a UPS

- No support for Alpha processor on NT
- Did not automatically find UPS systems during configuration

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