A Simple but Costly Mistake

Is Your UPS Connected Right?

If you have a ‘Server’ in your Practice (a computer that holds all your precious data), it’s probably protected by a device called an Uninterruptable Power Supply (UPS).  The UPS’s job is to keep the Server running for a short period of time in the event of a power failure.  They are essentially a small battery pack.  Servers shouldn’t just be switched off in a power failure else you run the risk of corrupting data that was in use at the time (like your Management software that runs your Practice).  You could even corrupt the entire Server operating system leaving it unusable.  A properly installed and configured UPS is your protection against this corruption.   I say “properly installed and configured” because in many offices this is not the case.  Here are the issues that you should check on for your Practice.

Beware of Surge Only Ports

Some models of UPS’s have a combination of Battery protected outlets and Surge Only protected outlets, and this is where the problems arise.  UPS’s are surge protectors as well as battery backup protection.  In some units the manufactures might provide 3 outlets on the back with full surge and battery protection, and then 3 additional ports with just surge protection (to use for less important peripherals such as a monitor).

These ‘Surge Only’ ports are the problem I want to warn you of.  It’s a simple enough mistake to not realize these ports don’t have the desired battery protection for your Server as you’d expect, and to accidentally plug your Server into one of them.  In a power failure, your Server will slam off risking the corruption you sought to avoid.  The solution is simple:  Check to see if your UPS has a mix of ports, and if so, verify that your Server is plugged into one of the battery protected outlets.  The manufacturer usually clearly labels the ports for you to see (as shown in photo below).

Example of UPS with several Surge Only ports. Notice they are clearly labeled

Don’t Forget the Communication Cable

In the event of a power failure, the UPS can only keep the Server running for some small amount of time (usually 5 to 20 minutes).  Larger UPS’s can run longer (perhaps an hour), but eventually they will run out of battery reserves and shutoff.  To avoid slamming off the Server most UPS’s have a communication cable that can be hooked to the Server (typically via USB) and allow it to ‘tell’ the Server when it’s about to turn the power off.  The Server typically has a small program from the manufacturer installed that is used to ‘hear’ this message from the UPS, and when it does it begins an ‘orderly shutdown’ of the Server, essentially the same process as you walking up to the Server and clicking on Shutdown.  Some people think “I can just go shutdown the Server myself if the power fails”, but what about if the failure occurs at night time, or while you are at lunch, etc.?  I see setups all the time where the UPS is installed and the critical cable and/or software aren’t.  Without them, you are just delaying the power failure for a few minutes and the same corruption can occur.   Check that your UPS is setup to communicate with your Server properly.

Typical USB Communication Cable

You Get What You Pay For

A UPS is designed to generate AC power (Alternating Current – same as your building) when your power fails.  They do this using batteries contained within the UPS.  These batteries are like the battery in your car and they store DC (Direct Current) power.  All UPS’s generate AC power from its DC reserves, and this is done with an AC/DC power convertor.  The problem is not all power convertors are created equal, and lower quality units generate a ‘Stepped’ or modified sign wave rather than a pure sign wave that your Server prefers/needs.  They do this because it’s cheaper to make.  A simulated stepped sign wave can cause all sorts of odd problems for your Server.  I’ve seen Servers that don’t power up every time or run at all when on UPS battery power, some that reboot randomly, and other power related issues.  You may not even know you have this issue (yet – until the power goes out).  All of these issues can result in corruption of your data.  You should verify that your UPS is a true sign wave model by looking up the specifications online.  If you need a new UPS verify this prior to purchasing.

Depiction of a Stepped Sign Wave DC to AC power conversion vs. a true Sign Wave

Specifications of a UPS with a true Sign Wave output

Specifications of a UPS with a Stepped Sign Wave. Note the listing of some Surge Only plugs

Batteries Wear Out

Just like your car battery, the batteries within a UPS have a limited lifespan.  I expect them to last 3 to 5 years at the most.  This means that they usually do not outlast the life of the Server.  If your UPS is more than 3 years old it might not be providing the protection you think it is.   In the worst cases, I’ve seen old batteries unable to keep the Server up for more than a handful of seconds, not enough time to allow an orderly shutdown.  If this was the case, you could be risking data corruption.  Many UPS’s have built in periodic self-tests to watch for this problem, and typically will turn on some form of LED saying ‘replace battery’ if it needs servicing.   Personally I recommend that you undertake a ‘calibration’ of the UPS once every six months.   A calibration will simulate a power failure and times how long the battery will last prior to depletion.   Since it’s an actual test, you can trust the result.  If the UPS has insufficient runtime when on battery it is time to do something about it.   Most UPS’s have replaceable batteries, and I would say this is a good option to follow if your UPS is properly installed and configured already as noted above (why have to go through all that setup with a new UPS if you can just rejuvenate your old one).  The battery won’t be cheap, but it will be less than the price of replacing the UPS.  Installing it is usually a fairly simple process, but be sure you do it with the Server OFF and follow the manufacturer’s instructions.   Be sure to recycle that old battery.

Typical UPS Replacement Battery

Pull the Plug

Once you think you have all these issues in order, you might consider a real life test to be absolutely sure you have it all configured right.   Pull the plug (the main power cord to the UPS) to make the power fail, and watch ALL the results until the Server has shut down properly.  Plug the cord back in and see if it all starts back up.   Make sure that everything that ‘should’ happen actually does.  Do this when the Practice is closed and shutting down the Server won’t be a disruption.  Not the most exciting way to spend 20-30 minutes of your life, but taking the time now to be sure the entire system is working right can give you some peace of mind.

Pulling the Plug is the Final Test

Recommendations

Finding that you need a UPS for your Server or Workstation and don’t want to do the legwork to find a good one?   There are many good solutions out there, but let me share my first hand experience with what MME typically uses:

  • For a Server – An APC SmartUPS SMT1500 – should cost you about $480 from a place like CDW or NewEgg
  • For a simple PC Workstation – An APC Backups RS 700 – should cost you about $112 from CDW or NewEgg

If your existing IT person didn’t suggest this to you, perhaps you would consider working with the people that did. If you need a little help with this in your Practice, this is what MME Consulting does. We can help you implement this quickly and efficiently. Just give us a call at 866-419-1102 or check us out online at www.mmeconsulting.com.

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