Computer crashes 'accepted risk' of lacking power backup

By Kelly Sampson

Special to the Arizona Daily Wildcat

Computer crashes, such as the one caused by an electrical outage on campus Nov. 30, may be just a memory in the UA's future but that future is distant, said the campus computer operations director.

Only one of the approximately 30 different computer systems at the University of Arizona has a built-in safeguard in case of a power outage, said director Richard Ecelbarger.

"Electricity is definitely our number one problem," he said.

The payroll and personnel system, a newer and smaller mid

system, is the only system at the UA with an uninterrupted power supply, he said. The uninterrupted supply is a battery back-up for a computer system that takes over in case of a power failure.

Ecelbarger said the problem is that it would cost at least $250,000 to add such a back-up to all present systems at the UA, and he does not expect the school to make that kind of commitment.

UA Operations Support Specialist Laura Roth-Shepherd said she agreed.

"In the 18 years since I've been here, we've been asking for funding for that," she said.

But for now, when a power failure occurs, all computer systems not equipped with an uninterrupted power supply go down.

"It's one of the accepted risks," said Mike Dineen, an employee at the Center for Computing and Information Technology. "And 99 percent of the time, things go normally. All you can do is prepare the best you can for the 1 percent of the time that something goes wrong."

Ecelbarger said he could not estimate the value of the university's computer equipment outside of CCIT. But with approximately $30 million worth of computer equipment in the center alone, a crash is cause for concern, he said.

The Nov. 30 power outage caused little damage, he said. The shutdown occurred in the early evening, which is one of the lowest computer use times. There was no major hardware damage or data loss, he said.

It did take nearly three hours to get the computer systems back on-line, Ecelbarger said.

After the power was restored at approximately 5:15 p.m., Facilities Management officials told CCIT that it was still too dangerous to turn the computer systems back on, Ecelbarger said. It was another hour before computer technicians began rebooting the systems.

Having an uninterrupted power supply back-up means that a system can either be kept running during a power outage, or if the outage outlasts the life of the battery back-up, the system can be shut down naturally, Ecelbarger said.

Rather than trying to put all of its present systems on an uninterrupted supply, the school is instead moving to smaller systems when present ones need replacing, he said. The newer systems can be purchased with an uninterrupted supply already installed, which costs about $2,000 to $3,000 more.

In the end, these smaller systems with their uninterrupted power supplies will not really save the school any money, he said. It is a matter of buying several systems at approximately $75,000 each, which is what the payroll and personnel work-station systems cost, he said. Each of these would handle a specific function.

At present, a few massive mainframes handle multiple tasks. The IBM 3090 mainframe, for example, which Ecelbarger said costs approximately $10 million, stores financial records, student information records, runs the RSVP registration system and maintains the libraries' Sabio system.

Unless there is a huge influx of funds for the computing facilities, which Ecelbarger said is unlikely, it will be years before the university's systems have been replaced with the smaller computing systems.

But as these smaller work stations slowly replace the giant mainframes of the past, Ecelbarger said, the university's computing systems will become more efficient, more resistant to damage, easier to fix and will not crash during a blackout.

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