The Blackout, Your Hard Drive and Missing Data Integrity

Your data deserves a safe landing in the event of a blackout, big or small. Storage Supersite Editor David Morgenstern wonders why no computer vendor offers the necessary technology.

The problems were really only beginning for the Northeast when the lights went out during last weeks (or "sustained, deep under-voltage" as the power engineers called it). Even as power was restored to air conditioners and Broadways neon lights and stranded travelers jetted their way home throughout the following weekend, side effects such as water contamination could last for a good while.

That same one-two punch may have landed on the millions of computers connected to the power grid when it failed. When power goes out suddenly, theres a chance that a hard disks boot sector will be damaged or a system database file will become corrupted. (Longtime system administrators are familiar with the routines to repair a drives master boot record following such an event.)

While the servers of many large enterprises were protected by electric backup generators or failover battery-powered UPS (uninterruptible power supply) systems, most medium and small business didnt have that level of protection and availability assurance.

For the millions of computers on desktops, however, there was little recourse—or rather, little built-in recourse. Come Monday morning, users will boot up and hope for the best. And thats the real shame, since computer manufacturers could have fixed this reliability gap long ago.

After all, companies for years have offered big and small UPS battery kits, which support a variety of useful features, including line conditioning; battery-management capabilities; and most importantly, automatic shutdown in the case of a power failure. Nowadays, a basic UPS for a robust desktop machine runs about $200.

At the same time, failures of the national power grid arent usually the source of these problems. Aside from the occasional brownout and other acts of nature, power outages are mostly caused by someone accidentally yanking the power cord out of its outlet.

So why havent computer manufacturers added this function to their machines?

In a sense they already have, observed Bob ODonnell, IDC research director for device technology. His advice: Take a close look at your notebook computer. When connected to a wall outlet, the battery functions as a UPS to provide backup and automatic failover in case the power stops. Even better, he said, the notebook will let users keep working as long as their battery and Power Options Properties permit.

"Is a UPS purely for saving your data, or is it to continue working for another half an hour? With very rare exceptions, blackouts are short term anyway, and users simply want to ride out a brownout for a while," he said.

Besides, integrating a UPS into a desktop computer—one that would support the usual configuration with a hard disk, DVD drive and a monitor as well as perhaps another peripheral or two—would add a great deal of weight to a machine, ODonnell said. (A UPS can run about 40 to 50 pounds.) And more important to the manufacturer, the UPS would add cost, something thats anathema to this price-sensitive sector.

This is all rather circular logic on the part of computer makers. If a customer wants to ride out a power glitch for a half hour or more, then he or she can purchase a separate UPS or a notebook computer. These are the existing market alternatives.

Instead, all thats needed for reliability is a very small battery, one that can sustain a machine for a minute or two while the system saves open files, closes applications and shuts itself down. It doesnt even have to present this action to the monitor, although that action might be appreciated by the user. The hardware cost would be minimal.

In addition, hardware manufacturers are the best choice to provide this technology fix; they are the closest to the power hardware and can support it throughout the systems lifecycle.

With all the problems power irregularities can produce for your data, and all the misery that they can cause users, its no less than shameful that manufacturers havent provided safe, automated, battery-enabled shutdown for their computers—or at the least offered it in some models.

Would you pay more for this built-in UPS functionality, or should people just buy a notebook? Let me know what you think!

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.

More from David Morgenstern: