Protecting your computer against disasters (natural or otherwise) requires preparation. But it doesn't take a fire, flood or nuclear war to cause computer meltdown. The most dire threats or fluctuations are power interruptions such as blackouts, brownouts and surges. Whether the power goes out for five seconds or five hours, such fluctuations corrupt data and damage hard drives and other sensitive components. At the very least, recovering from an unexpected power outage can cause significant downtime. Protection in this case is spelled UPS--an uninterruptable power supply device, which typically resembles a common multioutlet spike bar or power bar.
The most common type of UPS, standby or off-line, is a battery backup that kicks in automatically when power drops below a certain level. Because there's a momentary, imperceptible flicker in power levels as the UPS switches from utility to battery power, the best choice for expensive or sensitive equipment running critical applications is an online UPS device. This eliminates the switchover period by supplying power from the battery and utility lines simultaneously until the power fails.
All UPS devices are not created equal, says Dan Rothman, general manager of UPS manufacturer Fenton Technologies in Santa Ana, California. "The bigger the VA [volt amps] number, the longer the run-time. A very large, power-hungry network with several computers will overwhelm a UPS with a small VA. By the same token, a single PC backed up with a high VA will run for a good while on battery power," Rothman says. To determine the VA level you need, multiply the voltage (110/120 volts in the U.S.) by the total number of amps your equipment requires.
Since UPS devices maintain power for short periods of time, Rothman adds, a good UPS includes monitoring and automatic shutdown software that closes applications and shuts down the computer before the UPS battery runs out.
Lost data is another frequent scourge of computer users. Protecting vital data means backing it up daily, either with a removable storage drive or an off-site backup service.
Removable storage drives offer an easy, secure way to transfer data among computers and facilitate long-term storage of older files. Off-site storage adds extra safety, says Steve Doize, desktop manager for Compaq's Prosignia line of PCs. "There's always the possibility of a fire, flood or robbery," he says. "If your data is on-site, it could be destroyed, and you'll be no better off than if you never backed up at all."
Off-site data backup is done via Internet. You simply download the necessary software, register with the site and choose a convenient time. When the time comes, your computer automatically connects to the Internet, uploads the desired files to the storage site, then disconnects--all without human intervention. When you consider the costs for add-on storage drives, storage media (tapes, disks, etc.) and labor, off-site data backup is often a cheaper alternative.
Protecting your PC should be your top priority. If it isn't, heed the advice of entrepreneurial expert and noted pessimist Mr. Murphy, who said, "Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong."
(For more on external backup drives, see "Wise Buys.")