Monthly Archives: June 2008

Power Outage

Yesterday was supposed to be hot and humid — which it was. It was also supposed to be rain-free — which it wasn’t.

Very high temperatures and humidity, combined with a fast-moving front coming in from the West, created a brief, violent aerial battle. There were huge explosions, brilliantly bright flashes of light, thunderous claps of sound, near-horizontal rain — and darkness.

All the power went out. Several times, but the final time, a little before 8 p.m., knocked everything down until nearly 6 a.m. Sunday morning. While only two people were home at the time, the two of us had a whole bunch of computers up and running. Eight, if you want a number. There were three laptops, which we were both using for various tasks (my spouse was using both a Dell Windows machine as well as a MacBook Pro; I was using an older iBook G4), a file/Web/DNS server that essentially runs everything else, an experimental Mac OS X 10.5 server running on an old iMac G4 (yes, it is a grossly inappropriate platform, but it is a machine for experiments, and in that case, perfect), a Mac mini that serves as a media server, and two desktop Macs. All of these are protected by UPS (uninterruptible power supply) units — and herein lies the story.

All but one of these machines is protected by an APC UPS, ranging in size from a 280 VA unit to a 1500 VA unit. There was even one older APC BackUPS Pro 1100, not protecting anything at all but plugged in and turned off because it was acting strange. One unit was “protected” by a Belkin UPS that failed miserably.

But let”s talk about the eight year old APC BackUPS Pro 1100 first. This was purchased in 2001 in order to isolate a Dell Optiplex desktop machine from the vagaries of East Coast power. Because of the population density and the often violent weather, a UPS is definitely required if you don’t want your computer to die from a random brownout or blackout or power surge. This particular unit did an admirable job until the Dell, entirely without any aid from errant power, died in 2004, a little after its warranty ran out. For a variety of reasons (the silly thing had RAMbus memory, for example), it was not economical to repair the Dell, and the carcass was given to a coworker. The Dell was replaced by a Mac mini running Parallels with Windows XP — a much better, and even faster, solution.

The APC BackUPS Pro 1100 lived on for a while, until one or more of the batteries failed. At that point, everything was unplugged from the unit, and it was powered off, but left plugged into the wall. It wasn’t hurting anything, and there was some vague thought about replacing the batteries. In truth, we forgot about it — until yesterday. After one of the first mini blackouts, it started beeping. The high-pitched beep made it hard to pinpoint, and we initially thought something else might be beeping; it was turned off, after all. But no: when we finally pulled the power and then removed the safety jumper on the back, it went silent. This unit is now slated for disposal, after around seven years of service.

Let us now turn to the Belkin. This unit, purchased on sale at the now-defunct Rockville Pike CompUSA, has always been somewhat suspect. Several other Belkin units, purchased at the same time (because of the same sale), were installed on Washington Apple Pi equipment, and are also “suspect.” Why are they suspect? Because they can’t withstand even a simple brownout, much less a blackout. If the power drops, they crash any connected machines. The Belkin UPS itself stays up, lights glowing and occasionally beeping, but whatever is connected to it is dark.

Unfortunately, “what was connected to it” in this case was our file/Web/DNS server. That’s what we purchased the unit to protect (the Belkin even has a USB port to allow for a “graceful shutdown” of equipment), and that is what it failed to do. After the first, brief blackout (of maybe ten seconds), the file/Web/DNS server crashed. When the power recovered, the monitor came back on but the screen was dark. After the second, third, fifth, etc., mini blackout, this was repeated. Finally, when everything went out for good, everything went dark — except the Belkin UPS. From this we can conclude that the Belkin is neither a particularly good surge suppressor or anything even remotely resembling a UPS, since it is definitely interruptible.

Forty miles to the south, the Washington Apple Pi equipment connected to identical Belkin UPS units suffered the same fate. From this, I can conclude: buy an APC UPS. All the APC units, both at home and those connected to Washington Apple Pi equipment, worked exactly as intended.