Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
Small Business and the Internet

Bolts and Volts

October 2007

By Mike Gould

Sometimes electricity is not your friend. One of my clients, an important major publisher of local business news (whose name rhymes with "Hey and Hey") called me last month to announce that their office had been on the receiving end of a bit of lightning and would I please come over and fix the network because none of the computers could see the web or do email.

So I zipped over on my lunch break to find several pieces of inert electronics: no lights on, nobody home, no internet access. Since this blasts home several important points with regard to business technology, this article was born in a flash of blue and a smell of ozone. Or maybe it's just the deadline-challenged writer looking for a bolt of inspiration. You be the judge.

When Zeus Doesn't Like You
The good news was that none of the devices caught fire and burned down the office. The bad news was two fried hubs, two blown iMacs, and one very expensive injured printer that required a visit from a technician. The dentist in the office downstairs lost an expensive sound system, so there was plenty of woe to go around.

The event occurred on a Sunday, so Monday morning found our despairing publishers with some major hurdles. They first called their ISP, 20/20 Communications, who informed them that they could see the publisher's DSL modem just fine from their end of the wire, which meant all the problems were internal to the office.

Path of Destruction
The way the office was wired for networking, all the wires from the wall network connections (the ethernet jacks that the various computers and printers plug into) terminated in the phone closet in a patch bay. From the patch bay, ethernet wires connected the plugs to outlets on an ethernet hub, and the hub was plugged into the DSL modem, enabling the hub to share the internet connectivity coming from the modem. In other words, and going in the opposite direction, the network flow into the office goes like this:

DSL modem > hub > patch bay > individual jacks on the wall > computers and printers.

Pretty standard stuff for a small office. At one wall jack, an ethernet cable went to another hub, into which both a computer and a printer were plugged. This enabled both devices to share the one wall outlet.

I quickly determined the signal was being interrupted at the first hub; this was an older unit that sat atop the DSL box. It was quite dead and as this was a major conduit to the rest of the network, explained nicely the lack of internet mojo at the computer end. Fortunately, the DSL modem had four outlets of its own, so I was able to plug four of the cables from the patch bay into it. Doing so, iMac #1 was back on the air - Jim (er, I mean the editor) was able to see the internet. Jan's (uh, the publisher's, that is) Mac was still dead, and I quickly determined that the other hub next to her desk had died as well. Bypassing the dead hub brought her Mac G5 back online, but we had to do without a connection for the printer.

Lost in the Ozone
Next up were the two older iMacs. Here the tale was grimmer; both had dead ethernet connections, rendering them useless for any kind of modern office work. They got off lightly at that; as their logic boards and hard drives still worked, so we could get the data off of them and onto replacement iMacs. As these are one-piece computers, there is no network card to replace, and replacing their circuitry would cost way more than they are worth.

The Big Honking Color Printer/Copier/Publishing System jobbie sitting in the corner also took a hit, but it was a minor one; the technician was able to bring it back to life by hitting the secret sacred reset button, hidden at the back of the unit.

So this is what we learned from this little incident: always have office equipment (computers, printers, and especially hubs) plugged into surge suppressors. And modern equipment seems to weather such storms better than older stuff. The hubs that blew were about five years old, and the iMacs were older than that.

I think the surge entered the closet, ignored the modern DSL modem which was plugged into a suppressor, and blew out the old hub which wasn't. The hub lasted just long enough to distribute the blast to the rest of the units plugged into it. The old wall-mounted hub down the line died, but the modern Mac plugged into it survived, as did the printer. The surge then took out the old iMacs and took a swipe at the printer as it died. The fact that the old iMacs only had their network connection fried suggests the surge was network-borne and not from the wall.

Ground Rules
So first thing to do to avoid similar incidents is to go to your friendly local hardware or computer store and buy a passel of plug strips with surge suppressors built in. Pay good money for good units; talk to the salesman about what degree of protection you can expect. There is no point in protecting a $5K server with a $20 suppressor; get a good one.

If you are in an area with occasional brown-outs (and this may be all of us in the future), consider buying an uninterruptible power supply (UPS). This is a unit which in addition to functioning as a very good surge suppressor, has an onboard battery that kicks in whenever the voltage sags in your office as a result of some problem from the power company. I have one of these in my office, and on hot days when the grid is struggling with power demands and that 110V becomes 104 or whatever, I hear a little beep that tells me the UPS has detected an electrical shortfall and has made up the difference with some volts of its own. So instead of my computer quitting unexpectedly, it sails on unaware of the incident. If the power goes out entirely, the UPS gives me 10 minutes or so of power to gracefully quit my programs and shut down the computer. Most UPS companies will also insure any equipment plugged into it for electrical damage.

The only good to come of the incident was the discovery that the computers were covered by insurance, and replacements are on order. That and the fact that everything was backed up (right, Jan?) so that if the damage had been greater, we could have been back in business shortly with the backups loaded onto replacement computers.

Mike Gould, is a part-time mouse wrangler for the U of M, runs the MondoDyne Web Works/Macintosh Consulting/Digital Photography mega-mall, is a member of Factotem.com, and welcomes comments addressed to mgould@mondodyne.com.

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