Confronting uncertain power conditions

Network computing is becoming an increasingly complex task as companies grow and introduce new products. As a result, power issues are becoming more critical to productivity, and network managers need powerful solutions to handle the complexities associated with local-area, wide-area, and mixed networks. Businesses need protection from the problems associated with uncertain power conditions, whether they use a single PC, a cluster of workstations, or the network infrastructure required by a mult

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Power-management software helps solve power and data loss problems.

Kevin Meagher and Brad Wyckoff / Exide Electronics Group Inc.

Network computing is becoming an increasingly complex task as companies grow and introduce new products. As a result, power issues are becoming more critical to productivity, and network managers need powerful solutions to handle the complexities associated with local-area, wide-area, and mixed networks. Businesses need protection from the problems associated with uncertain power conditions, whether they use a single PC, a cluster of workstations, or the network infrastructure required by a multinational conglomerate.

A key component of power protection is an uninterruptible power supply (ups). A basic ups is a battery back-up system with associated electronics that provides power to a computer or to another device if the normal electrical power from the incoming utility line fails. More-advanced upss bring the incoming power through sophisticated internal circuitry to provide protection from power abnormalities, such as spikes and sags, providing better coverage over a wide range of incoming power conditions. In the past, a ups-only solution adequately protected many electrical devices, but the power problems facing a network manager today are too numerous and complex for this device to handle alone.

Some of the most common power problems facing the network manager today are

- loss of data,

- notification of utility outages and power-related events,

- increasing network complexity,

- limited resources to manage the network,

- understanding and diagnosing power problems.

The critical link between ups hardware and network managers is power-management software. Used with hardware, power- management software can be a powerful network-management tool.

Loss of data

The biggest problem facing network managers is the loss of data. If a computer is suddenly without power and stops functioning without proper shutdown, data loss can occur. This can corrupt mission-critical files--and even the operating system itself--of some sophisticated operating systems such as unix, leaving the network manager with the daunting task of figuring out what data the surge affected and deciding what necessary corrective actions to take. A brief power outage may even require reinstallation of the operating system--a time-consuming and frustrating task. With the potential for many users to be unable to perform their respective tasks while waiting for the problems to be resolved, the company could face significant loss of productivity.

Today`s power-management software products--whether basic or high-end--provide graceful operating-system shutdown and permit the closing of all open applications and files, thus protecting critical information from loss or corruption. Power-management software also offers configurable shutdown parameters, allowing users to select how long the ups will remain on battery power before beginning the shutdown process. The software can also turn off the ups to prevent complete battery discharge, preserving valuable battery life. More-sophisticated packages initiate a shutdown sequence that can execute a particular command before bringing down the system. This feature allows for sequential shutdown in the order determined by the systems or network manager.

Another important network-management problem is how to rapidly notify people affected by changing power conditions. Rapid notification is standard in most power-protection software packages, giving users an opportunity to save their work before the system shuts down. More-advanced packages will notify network managers of a power problem via e-mail or pager. The manager can then perform on-site or remotely any specific system-management activities before shutdown.

A high-end package may also provide notification via simple network management protocol (snmp) "traps." A trap is a message that is sent to an snmp-supported network-management software package, such as ibm`s NetView and Hewlett-Packard`s OpenView. This message is a brief statement or alert. By using snmp for power-management communication, a network manager receives the information in a form consistent with other network-related messages.

Network managers should consider communications using network adapters, which connect a ups directly to a network, providing protection for non-computer devices. Some advanced software packages also permit communication with adapters to allow one ups to power multiple computers and still shut down properly upon utility failure. When a network manager uses a network power-management software package with a network adapter, the manager can monitor and reboot a remote ups, cycling power to a device that initiates a reset (sometimes required to get a device to function properly). Remote rebooting provides control of a ups and protected equipment that may be halfway around the globe. Using network adapters can potentially save space and reduce cost.

Increasing network complexity

As networks become more complex, network managers have the increasingly difficult task of maintaining consistent software solutions across hardware platforms. Whether using a basic or higher-end package, a software vendor needs to support the wide variety of operating systems existing across an enterprise. For true wide area network protection, users should select packages that communicate across network devices such as bridges and routers. In addition, mixed networks, such as those having computers running both NetWare and unix, are becoming more prevalent, and packages that provide this internetworking capability are certainly worth careful consideration. Integration with network-management software packages, such as NetView for AIX or Hewlett-Packard`s OpenView, can be desirable because it means easier operation. A graphical user interface also helps speed installation and configuration of the software.

Constant downsizing and streamlining of organizations is forcing network managers to face the fact that they must effectively manage an increasingly complex network with no proportional increase in resources. In a situation where many protected computers or network devices are spread out geographically, one of the most important features to look for is remote monitoring. Remote monitoring and snmp compatibility allow network managers to monitor power quality for an enterprise from a single workstation. In some higher-end packages, remote retrieval of battery information is also possible, facilitating ups maintenance. The newest development in power-management software is obtaining information via the Internet. Exide Electronics recently introduced a program called SurfSafe that permits retrieval of such valuable information as computer name, operating system, ups model, firmware version, battery time remaining, system status, and other power information from most popular Web browsers. With Web capabilities, network managers have the advantage of being able to monitor network power anytime and anywhere.

Higher-end packages should also contain a scheduled shut- down/restart feature, which will safely shut down and restart the system on a daily, weekly, or customizable basis for energy conservation or security purposes. For example, a user could choose to shut down a server (and power-off the ups) Fridays at 6 PM and restart it on Mondays at 7 AM. Depending on the rate of energy consumption and power cost, significant power-cost savings could result. System security is also increased because the computer and ups are automatically brought down and powered-off during times when no users are present.

Of all the topics related to power protection, detecting and solving power problems before they happen is perhaps the most desirable objective--but also the most difficult to achieve. Advanced network power-management software packages help tackle this issue by providing a log of power events that occurred over time. Analyzing this data, network managers say they can spot trends and resolve chronic power problems. Some advanced packages also contain a battery test that automatically runs every month and obtains information, which acts as an early warning of potential battery problems. Other packages contain real-time meters and power waveform graphs to show power parameters and detect and diagnose power quality problems. Meter graphs show values for typical power parameters such as voltage and frequency over a specified period. A power waveform graph also gives a visual indication of power quality by comparing the incoming and outgoing sine waves. Using power-management software, network managers can calculate the total harmonic distortion--a measure of power quality.

Although these features are useful for analyzing recurring power problems, there is no way to predict random events. The best method to protect a system is to select a ups that has the level of protection desired, considering the benefits of all three topologies--standby, line-interactive, and online--and to choose an appropriate power-management software package.

One step further

Even though power-management software is a critical link in managing both small and large networks, there are organizational structures that necessitate an even higher level of management and control. Global competition, shifting international economies, and uncertainty about the future challenge organizations with difficult technology decisions. Information system (IS) departments in most businesses, regardless of size, struggle to position themselves to deal with massive change, increased performance pressure, rapidly rising customer expectations, and a bewildering array of information technologies and standards.

Known as enterprise-management software, this category of sophisticated software can oversee and control an organization`s entire IS infrastructure. More than ever before, the availability of an organization`s information and communications technology depends upon the functional integrity of its foundation equipment--power systems, environmental equipment, safety, and security systems.

Non-network devices, such as heating and air-conditioning equipment, are just as critical to maintaining operational availability as the actual computer equipment itself. For example, an air-conditioning unit may directly support the cooling requirements for a mission-critical server cluster. If the air-conditioning unit fails, temperature levels could rise, placing the cluster in jeopardy. Avoiding potentially damaging situations depends solely upon the monitoring system selected to help manage the critical site. Foundation-management software, such as Exide Electronics` Foreseer, when tightly integrated with enterprise-management packages, such as Computer Associates` Unicenter tng, transforms raw data into useful information. This gives a facility or IS manager information needed to manage foundation equipment before potentially damaging events occur.

A good foundation/enterprise-management package should allow connections to virtually all equipment in a facility, and it should display data from a central location. This capability allows complete monitoring from one host computer. Sophisticated packages should also connect equipment over a variety of communications interfaces--networks, modems, and serial, T1, or Ethernet lines. Using a package that supports a serial connection is especially important because a serial interface ensures that the system obtains and integrates all available data as opposed to receiving only summary alarms from selected points.

Alarm management is another important consideration when purchasing enterprise-wide foundation equipment-management software. A clear, visually engaging alarm-notification scheme should tell a user the problem and its severity at a glance. Some packages can assign alarm thresholds with specific instructions for each condition and a predetermined escalation procedure. The software should send alarm messages and specific instructions to the mainframe console for immediate attention and should automatically notify the proper person of alarms and potential problems.

Another important feature of some enterprise-management packages is the availability of detailed views of the monitored site. Views that allow for personalization, such as accepting photographs and scanned images, make monitoring easier. For example, most monitoring software can graphically depict entire data centers, buildings, and floors. But some packages can allow the user to click on a specific building and continue to click down to detailed specifications for a specific piece of equipment, such as a pump on an air conditioner or batteries for a ups.

Because monitoring entire enterprises produces considerable data, a good enterprise-monitoring package should generate a variety of easy-to-read reports. Data is useless unless it is put in a meaningful format. Reports such as load analysis, capacity planning, equipment run times, and alarm reports should be standard. Every enterprise-monitoring package should include the option to customize reports because all organizations have different needs.

Solving today`s power-protection problems in an increasingly complex networking environment requires a total system approach combining ups hardware and power-management software. Network managers should carefully consider the problems they face and select the software solution that not only meets today`s needs but also allows for future expansion. Whether network managers are managing the IS infrastructure of a small business or a multinational conglomerate, they should seriously consider power-management software.

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Event notification screens from OnliNet power-management soft-ware inform network managers about power events in an easy- to-read-and-understand format.

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Advanced foundation-management software such as Foreseer presents information clearly and intuitively.

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Foreseer can integrate distributed or centralized enterprises.

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Using Foreseer`s online graphing utilities helps facility managers spot dangerous trends before a situation reaches critical levels.

Kevin Meagher is director of marketing of the enterprise systems group, and Brad Wyckoff is software product manager of the communication systems group, both at Exide Electronics Group Inc. (Raleigh, NC).

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