A lesson from last weeks power blackout: When it comes to problems with the AC coming out of the wall its easy to point our fingers at the utility company—or the landlord.
On the other hand, when it comes to maintaining the data integrity of your hard disk and its files, or the reliability of your system, its common practice to pass the buck—from the hardware manufacturer to the OS company; and then on to the application software vendor; and, finally, to the customer.
Two principles are clear: For any problem, someone else is always responsible for the fix;, and we users will be left holding the bag (which likely contains our backup data set, if it exists).
A case in point is the uninterruptable power supply, a technology that could have been integrated into desktop computers long ago. As I pointed out in my previous column, a small, built-in UPS would provide a safe landing for your system and preserve the integrity of data structures if the power goes out.
The reaction of readers to this proposal was mixed. For some of you, this idea is a no-brainer, and manufacturers should get on board with a solution, while others considered it a waste of good money. After all, they pointed out, this technology already exists in notebook computers.
"This is a thought-provoking suggestion," Chris Rollins offered. "The PCs power supply could continually charge a small battery, and the PC internals could operate off that battery power. Unlike notebooks, size and efficiency arent as important in a desktop. A small UPS costs $50 to $500; however, a desktop could utilize a fraction of a UPS components at a fraction of its price. All that remains is an IRQ [interrupt request line] and a software driver."
A number of readers said they would be willing to pay as much as $25 for added reliability, which is a reasonable amount for a machine priced at less than $1,000. Still, even that small cost would be a stretch for manufacturers, based on the markets expectation for cost savings.
"Working in the industry for many years, from hard disks to motherboards, I have yet to see people willing to spend a penny more for their systems," Alan Shih said. "How many times a year does a brownout or a blackout occur? People forget easily when not reminded. But it seems that the pain is not high enough for the user to be willing [to spend extra for the capability]. Now, if we start to have a blackout once a month, you would see a large flood of UPS and laptops in the workplace."
"A long time ago, PC Power & Cooling offered a power supply with a built-in UPS," recalled Porter Hard. He added that the most common power problem is human error. "In addition to eliminating a lot of redundant inversion, it put the UPS on the right side of the red switch (I said this was long ago), which helped prevent the most common form of power-related data damage. For whatever reason, they couldnt give them away."
According to self-proclaimed "grizzled old-timer in the computer field" David Porowski, reliability is very difficult to sell.
"A company that I worked for a decade ago sold custom BTO (built-to-order) computers for the local graphics industry," Porowski said. "We tried to sell separate UPSes for these systems, but we met with resistance from purchasing agents. They said the machines were just too expensive. Then we tried putting a mini-UPS and power-supply combo in the chassis. This was also considered far too expensive."
Nowadays, the entire responsibility for preventing data loss is shouldered by the customer, Porowski remarked. Many software applications can be set to save current work automatically at regular intervals. And the widespread availability of CD-RW drives puts primary backup and recovery into the hands of end users.
"With the current (and likely) future job market, many contract IT workers, including graphic artists, may be expected to furnish their own laptops. This totally eliminates the companys liability to [provide] anything beyond a network connection and server-based apps."
So, will we ever have any progress on this issue; or more to the point, who would pay to improve the reliability of our systems when few segments of the market—especially customers—find value in the idea?
Perhaps a simple change of viewpoint could do the trick. Instead of determining whether customers will pay $5, $10 or $25, hardware vendors should approach an integrated battery-backup system as an internal support issue.
A safe, automated shutdown system for desktop computers would certainly cut down on support costs. Reduce the number of support calls over the life of a system, even by one or two, and the price of the additional technology would be covered. The resulting "side benefit" could be increased data integrity for you and me.
David Morgenstern is a longtime reporter of the storage industry as well as a veteran of the dotcom boom in the storage-rich fields of professional content creation and digital video.
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