UPS There Cazaly

A handful of disastrous power outages in Australia and New Zealand coupled with wariness surrounding the early stages of electricity deregulation in Australia have jolted users into ensuring they control the switch for the technology driving their business.

Previously restricted to larger organisations whose reliance on power was more obvious, UPS (uninterruptible power supply) technology is being snapped up by small businesses and even home users as computers and the Internet seep deeper into popular culture.

New Zealand came into the spotlight early last year when power was lost throughout large chunks of the Auckland metropolitan area.

In Australia, the large distances power utilities must cover has contributed to unreliable power conditions, especially throughout rural and regional areas.

But perhaps the most recent factor contributing to unreliable power conditions has been the deregulation of electricity in Victoria, although vendors and regulatory bodies disagree as to the extent of its impact.

According to Jeff Braun, national customer services manager with Data Power, a Melbourne-based reseller of computer solutions to Australian industry, the SOHO market for UPS is still in the embryonic stage, with larger organisations still making up the bulk of customers.

The traditional territory of UPS manufacturers has always been in the area of server protection, although all are moving to reinvent the low end to accommodate smaller companies and even home users as the density of PCs increases exponentially.

With a server, the most significant period is the first 30 seconds, Braun said. "The server itself has some kind of cache or RAM which it syncs to the hard disk. If you don't have that data already written to the hard disk when there is a power problem, that data can be lost forever."

The majority of UPS business in Australia and throughout the world has been dedicated to commercial business at larger organisations, or at least those large enough to justify the use of one or more servers. But as smaller companies move into more network-intensive computing solutions, the importance of maintaining the integrity of corporate data is about to drive a surge in sales of power protection technology.

Data Power's Braun is careful not to place too much blame on private power utilities for the apparent fall in power quality, although he believes that demand for UPS spiked dramatically in parallel with privatisation in Victoria.

"The Australian UPS market is static at the moment," Braun said, compared to nine months ago when demand was actually straining supply. "At the moment it doesn't seem to be doing as much whereas at the end of last year we saw a dramatic increase in business."

American Power Conversion Australia has just completed a countrywide technology roadshow in an attempt to educate SOHO users about the need for power protection.

APC is among the big UPS vendors rushing to deliver more sophistication to low-end users and is currently working on a cost-effective power redundancy solution, usually reserved for bigger users. The product is called the Redundant Switch, which allows the connection of two UPSes of the same capacity.

Leanne Cunnold, general manager for APC Australia/New Zealand, believes there is potential for an enormous market for UPS products targeting the SOHO market.

"When we first went to trade shows and spoke to people, small businesses were not asking about power protection. Now I think people are being more affected by power problems because of the spread of computing and the Internet. Anyone with a server or even just a PC is a candidate for a UPS solution," Cunnold said.

Working closely with many of the world's major computer companies such as Microsoft, Cisco, Dell, Novell and others, APC is moving aggressively towards cornering the market for PC power protection, offering features such as "graceful" application shutdown in the event of power surges or blackouts.

APC's UPS products, right down to the entry level Buck-UPS, all ship with the Powerchute software.

As with many technologies designed to enhance or protect existing computing environments, UPS development has moved increasingly towards software-based solutions which, while delivering more sophisticated manageability and configuration features, have in a sense contributed towards increasing their complexity at the expense, of course, of reliability. The upshot is that resellers need to be properly trained to know exactly what to sell particular customers and, even more importantly, be capable of supporting UPS technology.

"Our research indicates that channel recommendations account for the bulk of UPS sales," APC's Cunnold said.

Data Power is addressing the SOHO market on the strength of its core business servicing the computing/power protection solutions for Australia's manufacturing and distribution industries. Here, Braun claims, the importance of power protection is especially critical.

The transport, warehousing and distribution industries require that their systems and networks be operational 24 x 7 and during public holidays. As a result, this sector tends to see the biggest demand for power protection solutions.

Aside from UPS technology, these companies also tend to rely on power redundancy solutions which are often built into storage units.

As the manufacturing costs of UPS and other power solutions fall, many of the once-costly features are moving down towards the lower end. For instance, APC has moved to introduce a cheap solution targeting smaller users.

"There has never been such awareness of UPS outside of big companies before. This is because at the SOHO level people have attributed problems to their computer or software," said CunnoldA number of UPS vendors estimate that something like 80 per cent of standard computer and system failures are due to power problems. IBM estimates that an average computer experiences 120 power-related failures each month.

Formed in 1959, Sola is Australia's oldest company specialising in power protection solutions for organisations and has recorded its most rapid growth to date over the last 18 months.

Sola's Australia/New Zealand managing director, Hugh Evans, said the company is now looking to compete more fiercely in the lower-end market, which he believes is poised for massive growth. "It's a largely untapped area," Evans said.

Earlier this year, Sola released its Sola 305, standby UPS for the SOHO market. According to Evans, sales have more than tripled expectations with 10,000 units out the door already.

Evans believes there is a recognition at Best Power, Sola's parent company in the US, that the experiences of Australian and New Zealand companies are influencing the design and manufacture of power control devices throughout the world.

One of the main reasons he believes the 305 has been so successful in Australia is its simplistic design, featuring a standard power board shape and Australian power sockets apparently lacking in some of its competitors' products.

But Evans believes that the need for power protection is growing independently of any perceived loss of quality as a result of deregulation or any number of accompanying factors. In fact, he believes that in many cases where power problems create disruptions at companies, or even in the home, the user is often to blame.

"The need for power protection is growing independently of the quality of power. There's going to be a need for power protection regardless.

"It's very easy just to blame someone else but the need for protection by the applications that are being proliferated in the computer industry are really driving this market."

There has been a large increase in technology usage in the home and home office market which has created a need for UPS and other technologies guaranteeing reliability.

SOHO users now have the need for better reliability. Increasingly, computers are being used to store the small user's equivalent of mission-critical data.

Brett Burden, national sales manager with UPS specialist Upsonic, says that demand at the low end is pushing vendors to deliver more feature-rich products.

"All the products we have for SOHO have all the features of the more expensive offerings at other companies." Two of the most important of these are remote communication and automatic voltage capabilities.

Burden is among the group of UPS vendors which point the finger at power utilities in deregulated markets for the apparent downturn in power quality.

He claims to have noted somewhere near a 10 per cent reduction in power quality in Victoria this year, leading to a big increase in brownouts or situations where power drops to very low levels.

The result has been very positive for all areas of the UPS market, especially since older products occupying the low end tended not to employ automatic voltage regulation which is essential to deal with this problem.

"Remote communication and automatic voltage regulation are now becoming standard in the low end," Burden said.

Keith Orchison, chief executive of the Electricity Supply Association of Australia, said: "I don't think you will find any statistical evidence to support that contention. In fact, there are statistics to show reliability and quality of power has actually increased within both deregulated and regulated markets."

There are special events such as fierce storms and so on which impact adversely on overall statistics for power during a given year, Orchison added. One such recent example was the Sydney hail storm, which created widespread power disruption to homes and businesses all over the city.

Sola's Evans agrees. "Most power problems are due to users overloading their circuits. Also, with networks now the dominant control medium, the importance of smooth power is even greater. Networks don't like power failures - that's where the majority of commercial business is targeted."

Alan Hughes, Australian managing director of US-based power specialist Nikko, said that he has never seen such interest in UPS outside of the big companies.

"I think this is mainly because at the SOHO level people have attributed what are often power failures to glitches with their computer or software."

In fact, many UPS vendors estimate that something like 80 per cent of standard computer and system failures are due to power problems. IBM estimates that an average computer experiences 120 power-related failures each month.

More and more people are realising the importance of power protection as computer technology creeps deeper into small businesses and homes, according to Dennis Tan, product marketing manager with Melbourne distributor Westan.

"I'm not sure that there has been a degradation in power quality," he said, pointing instead to increased awareness of power protection in Australia via such crises as the power blackouts which struck Auckland and later Brisbane.

Extreme weather conditions typical of North Queensland rate as probably the biggest driver of UPS demand in Australia, Tan believes, with Brisbane far and away Westan's strongest market.

But overall, he believes that companies and domestic environments are beginning to use more power, largely as a result of computers dealing with heavier loads via the need for reliable access to networks such as the Internet.

"Power requirements there are actually outgrowing supply, as is the case with other parts of the country."

In short, computers themselves are using more power, driven in main by faster processors and heavier applications. For example, a 17 inch computer monitor uses something like 20 per cent more power than a 15 inch screen.

One Queensland user interviewed by ARN said that power problems have forced the company to use UPS for everything from PCs up to servers.

Nikko claims to have been active in the SOHO UPS market for three years. Last week the company released its 500VA King Pro SuperSlim UPS onto the Australian market.

Hughes agrees with Tan that Queensland is seeing the most activity in the UPS market because of weather conditions there.

"Queensland is more vulnerable to storms and other natural phenomena, coupled with the difficulty in delivering power to remote locations.

"I'm confident that a survey of Australian UPS usage would reveal a higher proportion of Queenslanders installing UPS because of bad power experiences."

But demand is definitely increasing all over the country, Hughes added, as companies and home users seek to insure themselves from power failures.

"Few people would have installed products as insurance two/three years ago, waiting instead until after the event."

Westan's Tan estimates the company will see a 20 per cent increase in UPS sales over the next 12 months.

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