It's the Little Things: Cutting-Edge Computing Accessories Improve Productivity, Enhance Security, and Refine Systems, Putting So-Called 'Peripheral' Needs Front and Center

By Waters, John K. | T H E Journal (Technological Horizons In Education), June 2007 | Go to article overview

It's the Little Things: Cutting-Edge Computing Accessories Improve Productivity, Enhance Security, and Refine Systems, Putting So-Called 'Peripheral' Needs Front and Center


Waters, John K., T H E Journal (Technological Horizons In Education)


IT DEPARTMENTS ARE RULED

by a kind of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs: The big-tech stuff--the operating systems, the networks, the data centers--gets the priority, food-and-shelter attention, while upgrading the backup power supplies, evaluating new projector mounts, and taming that rat's nest of classroom cords fall somewhere between the desire for fame and the need for self-actualization.

"We tend to think of this kind of gear as accessories, and so we get around to it almost as an afterthought." observes Matt Flood. network administrator for the Goose Creek Consolidated Independent School District (TX). "And given the budgets school districts have to live with, that's not an unreasonable attitude. But sometimes, when it comes to teacher productivity and even network security, it really is about the little things."

A UPS With Smarts

Among the "little things" is an uninterruptable power supply (UPS), which provides system backup during power failures and smooths out power-source hiccups "This is one of those "accessories' that's just about as optional as electricity," Flood says. "If you lose power, or you don't have stable power, you're dead. And yet, in the past. we just kind of threw the UPSes out there and prayed that they worked."

At its most basic, a UPS is a battery that sits between a computer system and its primary power source. When the main power shuts down or fluctuates, the battery intervenes, keeping the system up and running, typically for short periods.

But today, UPS vendors are offering products with more than just back-up power. For example, the Smart-UPS line from American Power Conversion (acquired last year by the French company Schneider Electric. along with rival UPS maker MGE; Schneider merged the two to form a new division, dubbed APC-MGE) comes with the company's PowerChute management software for "graceful. unattended" network shutdown, and network management cards, which connect individual UPSes directly to the network with dedicated IP addresses, allowing network administrators to manage and monitor each unit via web browser. Embedded technology in the cards enables a UPS to reboot hung equipment and to provide notifications when problems occur.

The West Kingston, RI-based market leader has been in the backup battery business since 1981 and has seen the technology adapt to shifting user demands. "Power protection has evolved over time." explains Ray Munkelwitz, senior product manager in APC-MGE's Network Power Solutions division. "In the early days it was all about protecting the equipment: I just spent $20.000 on this server, and I don't want a power surge or a lightning strike to damage it. But today, with so many low-cost servers on the market, the emphasis is more on maintaining the network: If my network goes down, look at what it costs my business."

One of the often overlooked consequences of a sudden system shutdown is data corruption, Munkelwitz says. "It's really the data that you're protecting with a UPS. I know that the network is becoming an integral part of many K-12 curricula, but network downtime at a school probably isn't the same disaster it might be for a commercial enterprise. Not having access to the internet for a short period might be the equivalent of a snow day. But a sudden shutdown can corrupt your data, creating more problems and more cost down the line. When you crash hard, there can be a lot of work on the other end to get up and running, and you just might lose something. And that can be expensive, especially in a school district, which might not have a large IT staff to diagnose and fix that problem."

Munkelwitz concedes that a UPS still tends to be considered just a peripheral in a number of organizations. "In a lot of businesses, we're an absolute necessity because the cost of downtime is so high," he says. "But I think in school districts, we're still less of a priority. The backup can simply be forgotten, or they might not go that way because of budget considerations. …

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