The Ups And Downs (And Ins And Outs) of UPS

A UPS used to be a battery connected to a power source on one end and a server on the other. And that kept the server alive long enough for an operator to do an orderly shutdown in the event of a power failure. Not anymore, as UPS' come out of the closet and get caught in the Web.

Web-based management has become the IT siren's call of the 90's. Every hardwaremanufacturer trying to avoid the rocky shoals of lagging behind the competition mustfactor that trend into its product line. This is true, it seems, even in products likebattery backups that once seemed so fundamental in design.

American Power Conversion (APC; West Kingston, R.I), MGE UPS Systems (Costa Mesa,Calif.) and Exide Electronics (Raleigh, N.C.) are all familiar names to IT managers.Combined, they make up a significant segment of the UPS and power management systemsmarket for mid-range data centers.

Networking Navigation

Not surprisingly, network integration, centralized management and evolving protocolstandards are determining factors in charting their competitive course.

"Web-based management is the most important trend we've seen in the last fewyears," says Eric Kaufman, PowerChute Plus product manager for APC, perhaps bestsumming up the new standard in power management systems. "Users want to manage [UPS']from one central console anywhere on the network."

"Our customers are re-evaluating protocols," says Herve Tardy, director ofmarketing at MGE. "We're looking at WBEM instead of SNMP in the future to integratedirectly with management software like OpenView and Unicenter TNG."

"We're investigating new technology not limited to SNMP," says Marcus A.Maxwell, senior software product manager at Exide. But, he adds that in the near future hesees no replacement for SNMP.

APC has installed over 6million units worldwide. It has done development work orconsulting for Novell, IBM, Microsoft, Cabletron, Compaq and Artisoft and provided thepower management for HP systems at the 1998 World Cup in France.

MGE stakes a claim to being the world's second largest manufacturer of power protectionequipment. Founded almost 50 years ago in Grenoble, France, it has four manufacturingfacilities in the U.S., Europe and Asia and 136 service locations in 80 countries.

Exide Electronics has been manufacturing UPS equipment for 35 years. It brought thefirst digitally-controlled, fault-tolerant UPS to market in 1972.

Power Threads

Increased central UPS management and alarm notification is a common thread runningthrough the product plans of all three competitors. Primarily, this is accomplished withsome sort of snap-in to a popular network management tool like HP OpenView andincreasingly more so, Unicenter TNG from Computer Associates (Islandia, N.Y.).

"Customer demand used to be for Novell ManageWise," says Exide's Maxwell."Then it seemed to change rapidly to OpenView. Now it's focused on Unicenter."

MGE's Tardy agrees: "We see Unicenter TNG becoming the platform of choice. It'sthe one we're most focused on."

APC has had a long relationship with HP. Along with their showing at the World Cup, APCand HP incorporated a UPS with every NetServer sold in China the last few months. Itsproduct family includes the PowerNet Agent that integrates power alerts directly intoTopTools (HP's system management software) and monitors any NetServer from an NTworkstation and PowerChute HP-UX WebAgent that provides SNMP monitoring of any APC powerdevice via a Web browser.

"We focus on tight integration with enterprise management platforms. Our customersspend a lot of money on OpenView and Unicenter," says Adrian D'Souza, APC's productmanager for enterprise management. "They want to make sure that UPS applications arecertified [by those vendors]."

Asked to predict what's over the horizon, all three experts saw increased incorporationof software components into their UPS hardware; and, in turn, increased networkintegration. But that basic hardware configuration is not likely to change soon.

The nickel-cadmium (ni-cad) battery's longer lifetime, than the four to five years ofthe traditional lead acid battery, makes that technology attractive, says MGE's Tardy, butits prohibitive cost keeps it in the background. And, batteries able to sustain a longercharge, say eight hours, would take up a whole room.

For those reasons, "There's not so many new things in power management coming out.It looks like the combination of generator and UPS is still the best solution."

Power quality remains a focus of top priority for MGE, says Tardy. He explains how,with the increased reliability of small electronic components such as PCs and desktopprinters that are turned off and on frequently, the steady flow of power, like the ripplesin a pond that are disturbed if a boat crosses over them, is easily interrupted. Thateffect is called "harmonics," and MGE is concentrating on their Sinewaveproducts to act as a harmonics filter.

Predicting Trends

"We see a trend towards higher software content in UPS products," saysMaxwell at Exide. "That will mean more software functionality built into thehardware."

And, for Exide, trend analysis of the entire power train will be a primary function."An orderly shutdown is not as important for large systems," he says. "Theywant to predict what will fail by tracking indicators like temperature levels and thenprovide full SNMP connectivity."

To that end, Exide is partnering with HP, Computer Associates and Novell to provide asnap-in for its PowerVision management software for OpenView, Unicenter and ManageWise,which will address not only the server farm and its components, but also generators,switch gear, power distribution units (PDUs) and batteries.

"Our new approach is to make life easier for users with out-of-the-boxsolutions," he adds. Exide and APC are also concentrating on what they see asincreased demand for remote service functionality.

Exide offers its PowerCare Sentinel service. It provides UPS software not sold to usersbut installed as part of a service contract that remotely monitors its equipment. A powerevent automatically generates a call to the Exide service center. The call, in turn,creates an alarm that is routed to the appropriate service personnel.

Sensitive Assistant

APC offers a new feature called Assistant Online -- a Web-based, context-sensitive linkto the APC support database, which detects the UPS model and serial number, then provides,when the APC logo is clicked, step-by-step resolution for the problem being experiencedand offers a list of resellers if needed.

APC is blurring the line between the UPS as a provider of uninterrupted power and UPSmanagement software as a Web-enabled tool for server control. Its new MasterSwitch andSmartSlot technology allows a Web browser to power off and reboot servers from anywhere onthe network or via an out of band connection with a modem.

Power related events remain the second leading cause of server downtime. For UPSmanufacturers, the core issue is availability and providing data integrity. And, APC'sD'Souza probably summarized the industry's future plans best when he remarked, "theInternet is the key."