Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Powered Up and Cool, But Are You Protected?

We all are so reliant on technology that at times we take it for granted. We take for granted that it will always work when we need it, and that it is designed for resiliency and reliability. In many cases, it is not the design that gets in the way but rather outside factors that exacerbate the issue. One of the main ones, key to the operation of any advanced technology, is rooted in science over 100 years old and relatively unchanged since.

While most of us think that our old friend Ben Franklin discovered electricity with his famous kite flying, the real father of electrical power is English scientist William Gilbert. He extrapolated the writings of Thales of Miletus from around 600 BC of rubbing amber to produce a charge. Nearly 2200 years later, Gibson discussed the ability to take and conduct charges in many different substances and coined the term "electricity" from the Greek word for amber. Around the world, several different machines were built to create these charges leading to devices we still see today such as the Van De Graff generator which is used as a particle accelerator.

Electricity remained a curiosity until the Leyden jar was built in 1745 by Pieter van Musschenbroek which stored static electricity for a single, total discharge. I guess you could say it was the first battery! Many others sped the process of making power available and usable including Luigi Galvani and Alessandro Volta who created the forerunner of the modern battery, the voltaic pile and Michael Faraday who worked with magnets to produce a stable power generating field. Then we marveled at Thomas Edison with his DC generator and Joseph Swan who created the first incandescent light bulb. They were followed by Nikola Tesla who invented the first motor to create AC or alternating current which George Westinghouse saw immediately as the future of electric generation and bought the technology. Lastly, we cannot forget James Watt, Andre Ampere, and George Ohm whose contributions were so paramount that units of electric power were named after them!

Now that we've established where electricity came from, we bow to the knowledge that without it our modern 21st century world would stop dead in its tracks. With increased reliance on network computing, businesses large and small would be severely impacted if those systems were not available, so proper planning for power to those server rooms and data centers is beyond critical. Ironically, in many small to mid-sized organizations guaranteeing good clean power flow is almost never addressed.

To that end, proper planning and evaluation of the power consumption of IT equipment is as important as the setup and deployment of the gear itself. The first step is providing constant power in a clean, consistent wave. Without getting into the tenets of electrical engineering, keep in mind electrical power comes in "watts" which describes the flow of electricity. Electric power, also called current, travels along the wires in a wave.

This is important to the proper care of all devices that are fed by electricity. The continued shape of that wave is crucial to keeping devices running and also to their longer availability and lifecycle. What many people don't take into account is the fact that the power that comes to your door from the electric company is rarely this consistent. We are acutely aware of and worry about power outages due to the immediate nature of the threat. Power goes out, equipment shuts off. It's that simple. But it's significantly more than that.

The jarring effect of sudden power loss can and does wreak havoc with sensitive electronic gear especially complex systems like PCs, servers, and other processor-based equipment. Over time, this will lower the life expectancy of these systems. The problem is there is no way to measure just how much time you are losing. It's like avoiding your doctor's advice to stop eating fatty foods or smoking. Maybe you will continue on for years without a problem, or maybe you'll drop dead tomorrow from a heart attack.

Sudden power loss, or blackout, is not the only threat to your critical infrastructure. As I mentioned before, the flow of power is rarely consistent, and events such as brownouts and spikes are equally dangerous to equipment.Brownouts are defined as temporary reductions in power often due to over demand. When power is reduced during a brownout, lights may dim but servers and PC's cannot slow down so they strain to keep running at their previous levels. Spikes are simply a sudden event that sends a jolt of extra current through the power grid. Most often this occurs during a thunderstorm when a bolt of lightning hits a power line, but lightening doesn't have to be present for a spike to occur. Compare the sudden surge of power to a dam; if your local reservoir gets a sudden burst of water flow, it could break without the proper protections in place. The same is true for your sensitive network equipment.

We have seen what can be wrought as a result of inattention to power, so what do we do about it? Most commonly seen in the SMB marketplace are devices that mitigate the flow of electrical power called uninterrupted power supplies, or UPS. A UPS has a dual purpose, the most commonly considered is to keep power going to attached devices when a power outage hits. Yet a good UPS performs a significantly more important function, assuring a good clean power flow. When describing how events like spikes and blackouts can have serious impact on the performance and life of equipment, the consideration was there was no intermediate device between the power feed and the equipment. But a UPS, in addition to having battery back-up capability to keep power flowing, acts as a kind of filter to smooth out those fluctuations in the electric power wave. It's akin to having a flow restriction device in your shower. Regardless of the flow of water from the main, the flow of water to the shower head is delivered at a nice, constant rate.

There are also optional features in these UPS devices that can be extremely beneficial. One would be a monitoring module that can be added to the UPS structure. For example, modules can generate alerts when power is compromised, or the temperature in the room fluctuates out of the acceptable range. Alerts can be sent to email addresses and/or mobile devices, and can be recorded and logged on the network for later analysis. For small and mid-sized business that don't employ a dedicated IT person, some level of this capability is beneficial and allows alerts to be directly dealt with by the IT service provider.

UPS units are the minimal consideration in protection for a modern business network. In the small to mid-sized business with a simple server room that often also houses the company's phone system, assuring consistent and uninterrupted power is nearly all they will need. But neglecting another environmental factor could also be disastrous.

I have seen many of these "equipment rooms" as cramped closets or repurposed office spaces, and in some cases with little or no HVAC venting. Proper cooling of the space must be considered or disruption and failure will occur to these sensitive systems.

There are guidelines for the proper amount of air conditioning to keep these spaces in the recommended temperature range of between 68 and 77 degrees Fahrenheit. Suffice it to say if this is not adequately planned for, you may be investing in new gear much sooner. Heat can literally fry system boards and wiring or cause cooling fans to overextend and fail. Because there are so many factors to weigh, getting a consultation from a professional is highly recommended. Even if you think you are safe because you only have one server and a little firewall, if they are crammed in an old broom closet (don't laugh, I have seen this!), you are looking at the potential for a major failure.

As you ascend the ladder in server room size and the amount of equipment in it, there are more comprehensive solutions from a bevy of manufacturers such as American Power Conversion (APC), Liebert, Eaton and more. These range from rack-based solutions where the UPS and cooling are combined in a self-contained and enclosed unit, to huge blade server racks with rack-sized air handling. For the SMB space, APC has been the leader for years in solutions that fit both size and budget.

APC has several very thorough white papers including one titled "Cooling Strategies for IT Wiring Closets and Small Rooms," by Neil Rasmussen and Brian Standley that has a wealth of information. The decision on what is best for your unique needs often hinges on price and how many features can be obtained for a reasonable investment.

In my experience, it is rare to see a small or mid-sized organization that needed to go to the lengths of an enterprise organization in regard to a server room. Features like raised floors to hide all the cabling, hot and cold row design, and multiple sources of power and connectivity are generally not necessary or affordable for the SMB. That said some SMBs have opted for a cloud-based infrastructure which essentially rents out space in large datacenters. Of course this nearly renders the discussion of power and cooling moot. I say nearly because you still will have some gear on-site, like the phone system or a firewall, and it will have to be protected too.

This white paper is a simple overview of the power and cooling needs of small and mid-sized business today. As this is written, Pennsylvania is preparing to deal with the uncertainty of power costs when previously enacted rate "caps" are lifted on January 1, 2011. While shopping for the best deal is going to be a huge part of that, making sure the power is protected and stable must be considered too.

Proper planning and consultation can help mitigate the potential for crippling budget increases and equally crippling failures. Find a trusted partner that can help your overall IT strategy and allow them to manage your network so the network won't manage you! Whatever you do, leave the kite experiments to the experts. You'll find ways to make the power you need more affordable like virtualizing servers, replacing PCs with thin client workstations, or telecommuting.

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