by Wayne M. Krakau - Chicago Computer Guide, August 1997


There is an insidious enemy striking at our computer systems. It is a lot less obvious than the inadequate network cabling that I’ve previously documented. I’m talking about our inadequate power infrastructure. The ubiquitous power plug just isn’t as reliable as most people assume.

The basic rules of computer power protection are simple and perhaps even obvious (though often ignored). File servers and other critical machines get high-end Uninterruptible Power Supplies (UPSs). Simple workstations that suffer from regular power losses get less sophisticated UPSs. Workstations that don’t suffer from power outages get high-quality (as opposed to hardware-store specials) surge suppressors. Power conditioners fill the gaps between UPSs and surge suppressors for those computers that encounter irregular power without blackouts, though they often lose out to the price-performance ratio of modern low-end UPSs.
All phone lines going into any component of the network should be protected by phone-line surge suppressors. Network lines leading into file servers or other critical machines should have network surge suppressors. In all of this, I am specifying the minimums. If you can afford it, or you can’t survive without it, you should provide even more protection to your precious network. There are plenty of statistics available to show that having a dead network is a great way to drive a company into bankruptcy.
Even with all of this protection, circumstances are conspiring against you. It starts with the increasing strain on the capacity of the U.S. power grid. Power is getting more variable than ever. Everything from toothbrushes to massaging lounge chairs is drawing more electricity than ever from a system capable of generating only a finite amount of electricity. Plus, all these new toys are dumping major league interference back into the power system. (Remember, AC means alternating current.)
During peak periods (which are getting more frequent) brownouts and even blackouts are common. Even if you don’t get a true brownout, the power during these periods is more irregular than during non-stressful periods. Just be thankful you don’t live in Florida. It has a terrible history of almost constant bad power.
Then the hardware and software makers conspire to force you into buying ever faster and more power-sensitive computers. Actually, these new machines are often downright twitchy when not babied with perfect power.
Just to make things even more interesting, the overall quality of the power supplies inside PCs has fallen over time. This affects their ability to keep running with imperfect AC power.
I found out about power supply problems indirectly. I purchased a power diagnostic board that fits in an ISA slot and gives a visual indication via LEDs of the quality of power within a PC. Less than a month after I bought this board, I received a surprise replacement from the company that made it. A letter of explanation accompanied the replacement board. It was a bit vague, so I called the manufacturer to get the full story.
The manufacturer acknowledged that the original board was set to reject any computer power supply that did not follow industry standards for power quality within a PC, and that the board itself was not faulty in any way. The real problem was customer satisfaction. Most of the purchasers of this product were computer resellers who made their own computers to sell. They used the boards to test and debug those computers both prior to and after sales. These resellers were upset because the test board flunked all of their internal power supplies!
Another large contingent of purchasers of this power test board resold mail order computers. Again, they were annoyed that their computers’ power supplies consistently failed the power tests.
Finally, resellers who either sold or recommended the low-end home and SOHO (Small Office/Home Office) lines of many prominent manufacturers for business and especially network use were similarly upset. Those machines didn’t universally fail, but they didn’t come anywhere near universally passing, either.
To satisfy its customers, the test board manufacturer made a new version of the board which had two settings. The first setting was essentially the same as the only setting available on the original board. It followed industry standards. The other setting tested at far below industry standards. It was explicitly designed to allow substandard power supplies to pass. So, the solution to using cheap junk power supplies is to lower the standards! (Don’t you just love the computer industry?)
As a matter of interest, if you need to replace a dead or defective power supply, I have had very good luck using replacement supplies sold by PC Power & Cooling (Carlsbad, CA, 800-722-6555). They carry a variety of power supplies specifically designed to provide better cooling with less vibration than standard supplies. They even sell the tiny fans used to cool the main processor chip. Best of all, they are quite patient with people (like me) struggling to accurately describe an existing unlabeled power supply so that the replacement will fit.
Next month I will continue expounding on my various conspiracy theories, all of course, dedicated to that ultimate of conspiracy theorists, Oliver Stone.

�1997, Wayne M. Krakau