A Q&A with John McGee, managing director at critical infrastructure specialists, Durata UK. John talks all things UPS; from selecting the right system to proper maintenance, future proofing your facility and current industry trends.
In a world where we are so heavily reliant on ‘always on’ technology, what are the risks to business in the event of a power failure, or if the UPS system in place isn’t up to scratch?
It depends very much on the nature of your organisation and the importance of IT to its operations. How long can you afford to be without vital IT, data and applications?
For example, if you’re a hospital, can you afford to lose anysamples or results of medical tests because of a sudden power outage? Even if you are careful about backups, how critical might a delay be to accessing patient information during an operation because you had to wait for the power to come back on before restoring data from a recovery site?
Commercial organisations too depend on timely access to data. A transport company, such as an airline, can lose vital business–and suffer significant reputational damage—if its booking system stops working because of a breakdown in power supplies. This has happened!
If your organisation depends on immediate access to data, as most organisations do today, you need to have a properly specified and carefully maintained UPS system appropriate to your needs.
What should be the first step when choosing a system that will ensure a business is kept up and running should a failure occur?
You need to think carefully about what you need to be supported and what you think you will need in the future. If many of your applications have been virtualised and are running from a remote data centre, you might think you only need a small UPS for your remaining in-house IT infrastructure, but think about how your needs may change in the future.
Modular UPS systems are commonplace now, so you can add capacity easily as and when you need it, but it’s still a good idea to put in at an early stage, infrastructure such as switch gear, that will allow you to plug in additional UPS capacity without downtime in the future.
Also consider that UPS systems today run at power factors of almost unity, so they are much more efficient. If you install more UPS capacity than you strictly need on day one, you are not affecting your running costs all that much because the UPS can run efficiently even at loads as low as 20% of rated capacity.
If a company knows its requirements and wanted to go for a bespoke solution, what exactly does this encompass that an off the shelf solution doesn’t. Do you think it’s worth the extra spend?
It’s not the products themselves that need to be customised; it’s how the system is put together and managed that counts. We see so many bad UPS installations that have been put together by people who are not specialists. The best bespoke solutions are produced by bringing in professional help at the start, to specify what exactly is needed and how the right infrastructure, such as switchgear and bypass panels, can be built in from the outset to ensure smooth running and seamless upgrades as and when they are needed.
Remember that a UPS is a sensitive piece of electronic equipment that needs to be treated with respect. Batteries should be maintained at a constant temperature, but we often see them next to equipment under heavy load which naturally generate a lot of heat. Ideally, we recommend that batteries be kept in a separate room under constant temperature to prolong their operating life.
With regards to choosing the right UPS batteries, is there a solution that is generally common place in the industry at the moment, or does this depend entirely on the needs of the business?
We hear a lot about Lithium-Ion battery technology but haven’t seen it take off yet. Li-Ion batteries have a much longer operating life than lead-acid batteries, they are lighter weight and they are more compact, taking up a lot less space for the same runtime. The technology has also seen a high level of investment and advances in recent years largely as a result of non-data centre applications such as electric cars (EVs) and energy storage systems.
However, there is a premium to pay for all this, and since they’re a long way from becoming commonplace, they have not yet achieved commodity prices. For all the talk about lead acid (VRLA) batteries, they are highly recyclable with a good service supply chain to ensure that products are removed from site and dealt with in the most environmentally considerate way.
First cost is often a major consideration when specifying a UPS, and in this respect VRLAs are the go-to choice. However, for customers who want to take a longer view and consider total cost of ownership (TCO), there is online help such as Schneider Electric’s Trade-Off Toolsto assist with decision making.
In relation to remote monitoring services, how strongly would you recommend that a company invests in this? What does it entail?
There are some good products available, but the key is to use them in an organised and systematic fashion. IT guys love getting status updates on their phones late at night; it appeals to their nature! But you need to make sure that actions are channelled in the right direction. Is the issue at hand the responsibility of the IT or engineering departments? Is it a facilities management issue? These are the questions you need to address and put in place agreed processes and procedures to ensure that issues are resolved promptly and properly.
When it comes to maintenance and servicing, how often should this take place and how do you go about choosing the right person for the job?
Research has shown time and again that human error is one of the main causes of data centre downtime – I refer back the aforementioned airline story. Many of these errors occur when unrequired maintenance takes place, or when parts are replaced or installed incorrectly. So as far as I’m concerned, the right people for maintenance and servicing of mission critical systems like UPS, are always either the manufacturer or a properly accredited support organisation.
A lot of companies take on maintenance work that they’re not best placed to carry. This is not because they lack skills or knowledge, but because they are not sufficiently familiar with either the specific products they are supporting or the overall systems design/architecture. Durata doesn’t take on maintenance contracts; we prefer to remain vendor neutral and work alongside properly accredited maintenance partners.
How energy efficient can these systems be? With a growing need for sustainable power in the industry is there any scope to utilise renewable energy?
I have heard of initiatives such as the Green Grid’s Open Standard for Data Centre Availability (OSDA) which encourages people to use renewable energy, such as locally produced wind or solar power, to generate local energy stores that can be used as a backup in the event of a power failure. It’s a good idea but you need to think about the problem holistically.
A diesel generator, the usual backup power source of last resort, may burn fossil fuels but it only comes on when it is needed. Whereas, you would need a cooling system to keep a battery store at constant temperature even when it is not being used. You might also need to trickle charge those batteries contstantly, so you need to consider how economical, never mind environmentally friendly, the overall system would be.
How can a business ensure a UPS system is future proofed?
That all depends on the business plan. UPSs generally last five years or thereabouts. You need to be able to match your UPS system to your expected business requirements and have the infrastructure in place to scale up or down as required. Modularity can help you do that, as long as you have thought about the essential infrastructure needed to enable maximum flexibility.
Finally, is there anything you’ve seen currently trending in the industry?
There’s a lot of talk about IoT and Edge. We’d like to see it realised more quickly! If all applications migrate to the cloud and are hosted centrally, there will be little need for UPS systems in most business premises; all the vital IT servers would be hosted remotely.
On the other hand, the growth of smaller data centres at the Edge would boost general demand for UPS systems as critical servers become more widely distributed around the network’s edge. That’s where we hope to see a lot of business growth in the future.