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The perils of managing storage at remote offices

Apr 27, 20064 mins
Data CenterSAN

* Why is Mike's UPS not working?

Set it and forget it? A great idea for toasters, but hardly a useful concept when it comes to providing services to remote offices. This is especially true if things go wrong.

I work out of a remote office. Look what happened to me last week when the UPS protecting my storage-area network started acting up.

Voice on the phone: Hello, this is APC Technical Support.

Me: My name is Mike. My UPS died.

Voice: Hi Mike, I’m Alistair. Let me help.

(At this point, I pass along to Alistair all appropriate information regarding model and serial number. It turns out this is an old device, so despite the fact that it was first removed from its box this January and has only been in service for 3 months, it is apparently out of warranty. But I don’t care; I just want some help identifying the problem.)

Me: The “Replace Battery” light went on, along with an alarm. I’ve replaced the battery, but apparently the UPS doesn’t recognize that it has a new, fully charged battery in place. What should I do?

Alistair: One minute please, I’ll check…

Alistair (now back from the database): Your UPS has lead sulfation, which happens when a battery sits for too long.

Me: I know what lead sulfation is. (I really do! It’s the process that takes place in a lead-acid battery when the lead and lead-oxide plates interact with the sulfuric acid electrolyte between them, eventually depositing so much crystal crud on the plates that the electrical flow is inhibited). So I replaced the battery with a brand new one that I had previously tested with a voltmeter. The “Replace Battery” warning light is still lit up.

Alistair: I’ll check with my manager.

Alistair (A few minutes later, having received management input): My manager says it must be lead sulfation.

Me: But I’ve replaced the battery! You put lead and sulfuric acid in the UPS itself???

At this point, I began to pick up on the fact that this conversation wasn’t going in a useful direction. After another five minutes of relearning what lead sulfation is, and being unable to convince Alistair that battery replacement would have fixed that issue, I gave up.

Later that evening I received an e-mail from APC tech support. In abbreviated form, it read:

“Dear Mike,

Thank you for contacting APC’s Technical Support on April 18th 2006. I would be happy to assist you… You had requested some information regarding your UPS and how it might get damaged by staying on the shelf too long. Below is the link which should resolve your query. [A link was inserted here, which provided more information on the perils of lead sulfation.]

… In the event that you require additional APC solutions, please check out the link to my personal APC Web Commerce page … From this page you can take advantage of APC’s Trade-UPS program … Thank you for choosing APC!”

Of course I replied, telling them that: “This answer addresses plate sulfation within a lead acid battery, and most certainly does *NOT* answer the question of why the device itself is defective, which of course was the question I asked.

“I repeat my question: Why has your device failed after only a few months of service?”

I’ve heard nothing back from them since, and will likely pass on the opportunity to “upgrade” with another UPS from this company.

What happens when a remote office is left on its own? In cases like mine, they may waste an hour or more dealing with unhelpful tech support staffers, who can follow a script but are lost if the conversation strays along an unplanned-for path. If frustration sets in as a result, you may wake up to find that remote systems that were once protected are in fact now running without a UPS or some other key piece of technology, lowering their reliability and raising your level of managerial heartburn.

The suggestion here for managers with remote storage (or any other remote asset for that matter): manage warranties and service contracts centrally. This will let remote workers carry on with their business and will reduce the number of surprises you will have to deal with.

The suggestion for APC: educate your support staff to the difference between providing answers and solving customer problems. Until you do that, suggestions to buy newer versions of your products are at best inappropriate.

Next week: Notes from the floor at EMC World in Boston.

*** The 2006 edition of The Great Storage Haiku Contest is now officially underway. Thus far we have entries from Asia, the United States and Down Under. The contest rules are here and you can send entries directly to me. Winning entries will appear in this column in May.