The power and the glory: don't be complacent about electricity supplies

We all take electricity for granted, but an IT director cannot afford complacency as power interruptions can wreak havoc in the...

We all take electricity for granted, but an IT director cannot afford complacency as power interruptions can wreak havoc in the workplace. Julia Vowler discovers what an unruly beast electricity can be.

For an IT director, power comes in two varieties - the political kind at the top of the greasy corporate pole and the kind that comes out of a hole in the wall and keeps the computers working. However desirable the former, any IT director who doesn't take care of the latter is heading for boardroom banana skins. No point looking for credibility as an e-hero if you can't even keep the chief executive's PA's desktop working.

So, like it or not, that very mundane, but in its own little way very mission-critical kind of power just has to be there on the IT hygiene list, along with helpdesks, software upgrades and virus checking.

But surely, of all the commodities in the world, electricity is electricity is electricity. It pumps out from the sockets, day in, day out, at a constant voltage, without let or hindrance, powering up computers and communications kit, and off they all go.

You'd be surprised, says Peter Mansbridge, Group IT director at Chloride Power Protection. "The assumption is that power is always clean and always there," he says. "That's not true."

Quite apart from the familiar horror story of the JCB on the building site next door slicing through the electricity cables, according to figures published in January this year by electricity industry watchdog Offer, the average number of supply interruptions for all l4 distribution companies in l998-1999 was 78 per 100 customers, causing an average of 81 minutes of off-supply per customer.

Sometimes, Mansbridge points out, users don't even realise that their problem, such as a locked keyboard, is caused by the electricity supply.

"A lot of problems attributed to MSWindowsare very often due to glitches in the power lines by switching transients, for example as people turn a printer on or off," he warns.

Communications kit, he warns, is particularly susceptible to power supply problems, and in an age of networking and the Internet, that's an increasingly vulnerable position to be in. "They can take out a telephone switch very easily," he says.

Moreover, "contaminated mains supply eats into the effective lifetime of hardware and telecoms kit", warns Mansbridge.

But isn't this all too much fuss to make about little more than a minor inconvenience?

According to a report from the National Computing Centre and the Department of Trade and Industry (l998) into the cost to industry of information security, of 1,000 organisations surveyed, nearly a fifth (18%) of security breaches were caused by power failure.

It also depends, of course, how mission critical your computers are. In highly mission-critical operations, such as trading floors, time is money and is counted in seconds.

The danger from dirty power, says Mansbridge, "depends enormously on the sort of business you're in... if you're in a very high tech financial institution, it's a no-brainer".

Even in areas such as manufacturing, it can be a significant problem. For example, he points out, in a car assembly paint shop, if the robot painting arm suffers a power supply glitch it reverts back to the beginning of its program, resulting in an uneven paint coverage. "It can ruin the paintwork of a car," says Mansbridge.

With the increasing reliance of business on call centres, a new area of vulnerability is arising. "If a telephone switch goes you've got hundreds of call centre staff idling and irate customers building up," he warns.

All in all, across business and industry, the NCC quotes an average of £9,000 for recovery from a power failure - not just getting the system back on line, but finding and restoring any lost or corrupted data.

So, while standby generators, uninterruptable power supplies and power protection devices cleaning up the power before it enters the computers and communications kit are scarcely likely to be on anyone's list of fun shopping, they do need to be on the list of the diligent IT director - especially now that the Turnbull Report on corporate governance makes managing for business continuity a legal requirement.

"Death, taxes and power failure," says Mansbridge, are the three certainties of life.

What happens to the electricity supply and what problems does it cause?

  • High voltage spikes, although very brief (typically half a cycle of mains alternating current), can soar to 2,000 volts, and voltage surges can last longer. They can cause electronic component damage, both immediate and long-term, computer memory loss, program corruption and operating errors. With large spikes catastrophic hardware damage can occur.

  • Microcuts are losses of mains for less than one full cycle. Not normally perceptible to the eye, they can cause systems to lock and stop working for no apparent reason. Heating of the internal components can lead to problems later in life. Most at risk is the hard disk of the computer. If the internal power supply shuts down for more than a few milliseconds, the heads will make contact with the disk causing disk errors.

  • Brown-outs or voltage sags are low mains voltages which can last from 20 milliseconds to several hours, causing a dimming of lights. On IT and communications kit they can cause unexpected system crashes, showing up as frozen keyboards, data losses or corruption, and cause long-term damage to motors (disk drives) and logic circuits due to increase in temperature.

  • Blackouts are total losses of power and cause loss of data in Ram and cache, and possible loss of the file allocation table resulting in total loss of data stored on the drive.

  • Noise, such as radio frequency and electromagnetic interference, can also cause corruption in programs and data files.

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