Darkness is the new black

May 2008 IT infrastructure

With seemingly no end to Eskom's rolling blackouts, Hi-Tech Security Solutions posed four important questions to IT and security solutions vendors about how to handle irresponsible electricity supply.

What dangers to IT systems and data are associated with Eskom's rolling blackouts?

Rodney Callaghan, Schneider Electric: An uncontrolled shutdown can both damage equipment and lose or corrupt data. As a result, businesses need to bring in specialists to retrieve data, which takes time and can be costly.

Rodney Callaghan, Schneider Electric
Rodney Callaghan, Schneider Electric

Christelle Larkins, MGE Office Protection Systems: The most obvious danger when it comes to the current rolling blackouts is the loss of business-critical data. In terms of your IT systems specifically, the real issue lies with the surge of power running through the machine when the power comes back on. This rush of electricity can damage certain components of all of your machines - from your printers to your servers.

Christelle Larkins, MGE Office Protection Systems
Christelle Larkins, MGE Office Protection Systems

Andrew Tsobanoglo, Fujitsu Siemens Computers: Client will suffer data corruption and hardware failure. The power blackouts are also not enabling the workforce to work as the networks, e-mail and printers all go down as well as productivity with getting the job done.

Manny Moreira, EdgeEvolve: For most IT companies, the process of rolling black-out is disastrous. It affects everything from infrastructure to software development and consulting. With two blackouts a day we are in luck if we can get four hours of electricity at the office. This does not mean we have four hours of productivity due to the negative impact it has on staff motivation and customer satisfaction.

Manny Moreira, EdgeEvolve
Manny Moreira, EdgeEvolve

Carel Coetzee, XON: Bouncing power - when the power goes off and then returns a few minutes later - can cause disaster recovery (DR) systems, such as generators to fail. We have experienced bouncing power at and around our Midrand office. And depending on the nature of the business and the data - data loss can quite literally close the business.

Carel Coetzee, XON
Carel Coetzee, XON

Ricus Ellis, Columbus Technologies: It is a known fact that while processing data be it on a PC or server that you would lose the current data in memory when power outage occurred. It is not uncommon in the event of databases being open and active that corruption will occur there as well. Unprotected electronics in IT systems take huge strain because of power surges and spikes that are generated by the power coming back on and other equipment or heavy machinery that starts up. This could damage certain sensitive circuitry.

What dangers to security systems and data are associated with Eskom's rolling blackouts?

Ettiene Swanepoel, Norbain SA: Current digital security technology is affected severely by the latest power interruptions. During normal operating hours, data is normally written continuously to the hard drive in a digital recorder and power failures could result in corrupt data and/or hardware failure. The end result is normally a loss of months worth of recorded footage and system down time due to data recovery and system repair time.

Roy Alves, Axis Communications: Depending on the installation, Internet protocol (IP)-based video surveillance systems record up to 4 gigabytes (GB) of data per day.

Roy Alves, Axis Communications
Roy Alves, Axis Communications

Imagine a surveillance site, with over 100 cameras capturing data over a month.

When power is eventually restored and if the system is not correctly configured, the server will need to rebuild the database. This could result in long downtimes. There is also a chance of database corruption, especially if an organisation's server constantly experiences sudden loss of power.

What specifically can the IT manager do to minimise the damage Eskom is creating in the short-term?

Rodney Callaghan, Schneider Electric: In the short-term, companies can purchase as large an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) as possible in order to maintain power for a short period (thus enabling the graceful shutdown of equipment).

Christelle Larkins, MGE Office Protection Systems: I think the most crucial thing for any IT manager is to put a business continuity plan in place. The power outages have shown us that anything can happen at any time. It is thus important to go back to the very basics in terms of your systems and processes.

Andrew Tsobanoglo, Fujitsu Siemens Computers: Install generators and UPS systems. The manager should also ensure that his staff is mobile and have second batteries to enable them to work for longer periods of time. His staff must have 3G to enable them to be on-line to get on with the job.

Manny Moreira, EdgeEvolve: Over the last couple of years many IT companies have favoured the virtual office approach when considering productivity, staff well-being and in particular our traffic congestion problems. Eskom's rolling blackouts are also shooting this strategy in the foot as most people do not have alternative power at home. To add insult to injury the traffic congestions are now even worse due to the traffic lights being out.

Steve Buck, Edgetec: If IT managers attempt to keep their business running during blackouts, then they will need a more comprehensive system and that means they will need to ascertain how much power they need to ensure they employ a suitable generator that can handle the load. They will also need to ensure that the generator is properly fitted and maintained. Failure to do so can result in 'dirty' power that wrecks sensitive IT equipment. It is not enough to connect a generator and crank it up.

Steve Buck, Edgetec
Steve Buck, Edgetec

Carel Coetzee, XON: It is not rocket science - backups are critical. And it is not enough to put the systems in place. Companies must be 100% sure that they are working and that they are tested weekly or daily, depending how critical the backed up data is. That means restoring the data to ensure it is all there and that it is not corrupted.

Ricus Ellis, Columbus Technologies: Protection in this order and do not leave any step out, it will only change depending on whether you are a home user, small business or large corporate.

1. Surge protection plugs - measured in speed of reaction and amount of current surges it protects against, it must also have an indicator to show it can still provide you with the protection as specified. Many surge protection devices can only protect once and then your system is open to spikes and surges after that.

2. Uninterrupted power supply (UPS).

3. Generator that can in turn take over from Eskom and provide continuous power to your systems via an automatic switch-over board that starts up the generator automatically.

4. A good option to have is a power monitoring device that checks on the performance of your systems continuously. Both UPSs and generators need continues maintenance.

What specifically can the person responsible for security (security manager, risk manager etc) do to minimise the damage Eskom is creating in the short-term?

Ettiene Swanepoel, Norbain SA: The installation of on-line uninterruptable power supplies are generally accepted as best practice to protect data and hardware against these power outages. This will at least provide the assurance that a controlled shut-down of equipment will follow if the UPS is not supported by an alternative power supply like a generator.

Roy Alves, Axis Communications: From a surveillance perspective, the use of Power over Ethernet (PoE) allows a network camera to receive both data and power over a single Ethernet cable. This is a major security benefit, as a security or risk manager need only ensure the servers recording the video content are connected to a dedicated uninterrupted power supply (UPS) with standby generators. Power over Ethernet, together with a UPS allows network cameras and video servers to continue to operate even when there is a power failure.

What specifically can the IT manager do to minimise the damage Eskom is creating in the long-term?

Rodney Callaghan, Schneider Electric: For the medium- to long-term, organisations need to put a power back-up strategy in place that would include a generator, a UPS to bridge the time gap between Eskom shutting power down and the generator kicking in, the relevant management software and a redundant system with static switches for a supply that comes from a number of different sources.

Christelle Larkins, MGE Office Protection Systems: The ultimate success and possibly even survival of your business cannot rest on the shoulders of the IT manager alone. I think the point of departure for any long-term plan has to be coming up with a business continuity strategy championed by the directors of the company, supported by the IT department.

Michelle Kasselman, Iomega: Plan and build disaster recovery infrastructure, possibly in remote areas and not in the same region as the main site. With the possibility of load shedding happening out of sync with main site, establish alternate communication routes to maximise up time and enable regional access.

Michelle Kasselman, Iomega
Michelle Kasselman, Iomega

Markus Hugo, Tripp Lite: We have no idea as to how long the rolling blackouts are going to affect us. Ideally in large corporations it would be necessary to supply UPS power to critical equipment during the initial outage and have a generator set backing up the UPS to supply power to the IT infrastructure indefinitely.

Markus Hugo, Tripp Lite
Markus Hugo, Tripp Lite

Chamu M'Kombe, IBM Business Continuity and Recovery Services: Consider alternative power sources eg, solar, wind, generators. Get staff to work from alternative premises and encourage remote connectivity via 3G. Have a contract with a vendor of business continuity and DR solutions.

Chamu M'Kombe, IBM Business Continuity and Recovery Services
Chamu M'Kombe, IBM Business Continuity and Recovery Services

Steve Buck, Edgetec: Energy has become a major problem for every single South African and businesses are the greatest power consumers. They will eventually need to cut back and that means initially tackling the most power-hungry devices in the company. Servers and server rooms draw a lot of current. Server power supplies devour amps and generate a lot of heat that requires airconditioners to counteract.

Server consolidation to a blade environment, with the associated hardware utilisation rate jumping from between 8 and 12% to as high as 80% when run in combination with virtualisation technology, means businesses need fewer servers and that means less power and less heat. Even so, blade servers draw less power and generate less heat than their floor-standing counterparts. They also require less space.

What specifically can the person responsible for security (security manager, risk manager etc) do to minimise the damage Eskom is creating in the long-term?

Ettiene Swanepoel, Norbain SA: A long-term solution should include the installation of a power generator that either substitute power to the entire site or at least the security system. Generator power should be supported by on-line UPS power to guard against generator switch over time and possible power spikes generated during switch over.

Roy Alves, Axis Communications: UPS and back-up generators should be part of every organisations information technology (IT) and camera surveillance system. To ensure business and security surveillance continuity, all systems should be deployed with provisions for UPS back-up and Power over Ethernet network cameras and video servers.

One-liner on how to justify spending on power solutions to the CFO/CEO?

Rodney Callaghan, Schneider Electric: If you calculate how much it costs to bring in specialists to retrieve lost data, the cost of downtime, and basically the cost of not being able to do business, it becomes apparent that a power protection solution will pay for itself within a short period (within three to four months).

Michelle Kasselman, Iomega: Downtime has a direct effect on profitability and data integrity. As this represents a huge risk to the survival of an organisation, no cost should be spared to mitigate this.

Carel Coetzee, XON: What is your organisation's data worth to you? How much of it and which of it can you afford to lose before you cripple the business? How many incalculable opportunities are you willing to miss?

Markus Hugo, Tripp Lite UPS: 90% of today's business is done via electronic communication, without power to your invested IT infrastructure it is totally useless.

Ettiene Swanepoel, Norbain SA: Investing in an electronic security system is normally done for very good reason and when the power fails it is for these exact reasons that the electronic security system should be fully operational.

Roy Alves, Axis Communications: In South Africa, security infrastructure is a business imperative; therefore for organisations to remain competitive and productive during these power outages there is a definitive business case to invest in security continuity.

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