How to protect your power

How to protect your power

When I was hired as the Director of Technical Services for Trader Joe’s in 1994 I had only a small understanding of the importance of a stable, clean supply of electricity to computers. Of course I knew that a computer needed electricity to operate, but it never really hit home how important it really was. That is, until I began working at my new job.

Within a short time after starting, it became obvious that we had a problem. Our mainframe computer kept crashing. In fact, it crashed a dozen times a week, which was a royal pain since the applications did not have any real restart capability. This meant if a program crashed, the restart procedure was manual – figure out what the program was doing when it crashed, delete some records, fix a file corruption, then restart it from where it left off.

Oh those were the days! The job was very satisfying: a nice paycheck, competent people and a challenge. But it sure was difficult coming in day after day to fix problems caused the previous day by system failures.

The worst part of it was, we had no idea why the system was crashing so much. We checked the hardware over top to bottom – it was all working perfectly. We replaced every board in the system a dozen times in desperation – that didn’t change a thing. We hand-checked everything, yet we could not find anything wrong.

Until one day I was working in the computer room and noticed a very, very slight dimming of the lights. Nothing significant, in fact, I’m surprised that I noticed.

On a hunch, we ordered a huge UPS on loan to see if that fixed the problem (in those days, a UPS was very expensive). It was soon obvious that we had found the source of the problem: power.

We had the power examined by a professional and found that our city didn’t do a very good job of keeping it “clean”. The power sagged and spiked all of the time, which caused those old mainframes to go crazy. In fact, it caused ours to crash several times a week.

The UPS didn’t solve all of the problems – every couple of weeks or so the power went out for a few minutes (the UPS would only hold for about five minutes), and in response the computer would crash. Once a month or so, the power went out for longer than ten minutes. Obviously we needed more than a simple UPS to solve the problem.

I began asking management for a generator, but my pleas fell on deaf ears. For whatever reason, the managers could not understand why we needed to spend fifty thousand dollars on this type of device. They were perfectly willing to put up with the hassle of constant computer crashes.

Until the threat of El Nino, however, changed their minds. Although El Nino turned out to be a big fizzle, me and one of my fellow computer managers were able to use it to convince our bosses that a generator was necessary. We got authorization to spend the money.

Of course, we didn’t realize that everyone was doing the same thing, and we had to wait almost nine months for the generator to be installed. By that time, El Nino was over, but we got our generator.

The crashes stopped almost immediately. The mainframe became amazingly stable, with the time between system crashes stretching to nine months or more. We were protected even when the power went out for an entire day, which was great for our company and for our own peace of mind.

Thus, I learned the hard way: computers need power, and the power must be clean and constant. The best way to do this is to install a large enough UPS to cover things for the couple of minutes it might take for the generator to kick in.

For home systems, a generator is, of course, overkill and probably not necessary. A UPS, however, is essential, because a UPS does more than just provide power for a few minutes. It also smooths out those sags and spikes, which increases the life of components and prevents system crashes and errors.

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