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Uninterruptible power supplies, surge protectors and lightning strikes

Lightning strikes are rare, but they can wreak havor with servers. Do uninterruptible power supplies and surge protectors offer adequate protection to servers and other computer equipment in the case of a lightning strike?

Just as I was leaving for the recent TechEd show in Orlando, Fla., Tropical Storm Berry was forecasted to hit the...

area where I live. Berry was a weak storm, and didn't seem to be much of a threat, so I left for TechEd as scheduled.

But right after arriving in Orlando, my wife phoned me to tell me our home had been damaged by the storm. The damage wasn't from strong winds or flooding, but from lightning.

I work out of my home, and the entire second floor is set up as a data center. It's small by enterprise-class standards, but I do have a few dozen servers set up, that I use for writing about various IT-related issues.

All this hardware (not to mention the software running on it) represents a significant investment, and because my livelihood depends on these servers, I have naturally taken steps to protect them. Each computer in my lab is protected by an uninterruptible power supply (UPS). As an extra precaution, I had plugged each UPS into a quality surge protector. Even so, the surge protectors and UPSs were no match for a direct hit from a bolt of lightning. In fact, only one of my UPSs survived the hit.

I learned a few hard lessons from the lightning strike. Although I was in Orlando at the time of the lightning strike, my first priority was to get my systems back online. Part of the reason for that was that I needed access to my e-mail, but I also wanted to find out the extent of the damage so that I could report it to my insurance agent.

By pure coincidence, a domain controller/DNS server and my mail server were both plugged into the UPS that wasn't damaged. But e-mail wasn't working because my Internet router and my gigabit switch were plugged into a different UPS. The other problem was that most of the circuit breakers in my house had tripped. My wife located the fuse box and reset the breakers for me.

In order to get back online as soon as possible, I had my wife dig some old (but still good quality) surge protectors out of the closet, and I talked her through the process of moving everything from the damaged UPSs and surge protectors to the spare surge protectors.

Having spare surge protectors on hand allowed her to bring the systems back online much faster than if I had to send her to the store to buy a bunch of UPSs. Besides, who knows if the electronics stores would have had enough UPSs, or the right types, in stock. Granted, plugging your servers into a surge protector rather than a UPS isn't an ideal solution, but it works in a pinch if your goal is to get back online quickly.

The first two lessons learned from this experience were:

  1. Take the time to learn where your server room's circuit breaker is located, and how to reset it.
  2. Have enough spare surge protectors on hand that you can run your servers off of them if necessary.

Once all of the cords had been rerouted, I had my wife to power everything up and run a few simple tests. Miraculously, all my equipment had survived the lightning strike. I decided to wait until I returned home to replace the UPSs, but in the meantime, I managed to track down some representatives from the company that had manufactured my UPSs, since they were attending TechEd as well.

The company's Web site lists an equipment protection policy that essentially guarantees to reimburse customers for damage to equipment caused by power surges. I knew of the company's policy, but I had never heard of anyone cashing in on the policy, so I wanted to see how it worked.

I told a representative from the company what had happened, and he told me that the UPSs had performed exactly as designed. He went on to explain that the company designs their UPSs so that if a power spike is too large to handle, the UPS will blow rather than allowing the spike to reach the equipment that is plugged into the UPS. Who knew that UPSs were designed to be disposable?

I was also told that if the UPSs were under warranty (which they were), that I could call the company's support line and they would arrange for the UPSs to be replaced. I was also told that had the units not been under warranty, the company would have given me a substantial discount on replacement units.

Although I have no doubts that the manufacturer would stand behind their warranty, I decided to file an insurance claim instead of filing a warranty claim. The reason was based solely on logistics. I was out of town at the time that the incident happened. My wife is petite, and I could not imagine asking her to box up a bunch of heavy UPSs, load them on a truck and take them to the post office to ship back to the manufacturer.

I didn't want to wait until I returned home a week later to start the ball rolling on getting replacement UPSs, so I just called my insurance agent. He came out, verified the damage and got me a check to cover the replacement cost (minus the deductable of course). In the meantime, I got online and ordered replacement UPSs and arranged the shipping so that the units would arrive the day I returned home.

Since I had to cover the cost of the insurance deductable and the cost of shipping, filing a claim with the manufacturer probably would have been a better decision from a financial standpoint. But since I was out of town when the incident occurred, filing an insurance claim was more practical. (Incidentally, I've been advised by the person who handles my finances that the IRS will allow me to write off the insurance deductable I had to pay as a catastrophic loss.)

About the author: Brien M. Posey, MCSE, is a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional for his work with Windows 2000 Server, Exchange Server and IIS. He has served as CIO for a nationwide chain of hospitals and was once in charge of IT security for Fort Knox. He writes regularly for and other TechTarget sites.

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