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Keeping up with UPS

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A UPS is a very important piece of equipment to any business in South Africa, but purchasing one and just installing it is not enough. It needs to be maintained and monitored to make sure it operates properly when needed, writes ELRICA QUICK.

A UPS has become one of the most critical pieces of office equipment in South Africa, given the on-going power problems as well as the essential nature of technology equipment such as servers, switches and other IT equipment. However, a UPS is not simply something that can be purchased, installed and forgotten about. As essential as it is to operations, it is vital to ensure that the device itself is maintained. This is necessary to make certain that, when it is needed, the UPS will be able to perform with maximum efficiency. Simple preventative maintenance and proactive monitoring, can help businesses to ensure their UPS is always available and in good working order, ready to perform its critical tasks whenever needed.

In the past, performing preventative maintenance on UPS’ was challenging, and problems could only be resolved once they surfaced. However, today’s new UPS models offer integrated advanced monitoring, such as regular automatic status updates, through self-monitoring software. This can greatly assist in ensuring problems can be corrected before they affect the business. However, aside from this proactive monitoring, it is also important to still inspect a UPS regularly to ensure it is operating at maximum efficiency. Through regular maintenance, unnecessary downtime can be avoided, which saves businesses both time and money.

While UPS systems are designed to be reliable and durable, as they age there is an increased chance that they may malfunction either mechanically or electronically. The most common causes of UPS failure are the batteries, fans, electrolytic capacitors, Metal Oxide Varistors (MOVs) – a resistor designed to protect circuits against high transient (short term) voltage – and the relays.

Batteries do not last forever, and will typically need to be replaced at some point during the lifecycle of a UPS. The forecasted lifespan of a UPS battery is between three and five years. However, this depends on the cycles run on the battery. For example, the number of times that the UPS was dependent on the battery will impact the lifecycle of the battery. Newer UPS units include more advanced features and will send out SMS or email alerts regarding the status of the battery and UPS.  Other factors that impact the lifespan of the battery include placement and storage of the battery, ambient temperature and battery chemistry. Being proactive and being aware of these factors can help organisations ensure they obtain maximum life from their UPS batteries, and can predict and prepare for imminent failures.

Temperature has a significant impact on the life expectancy not only of batteries, but of all UPS components. Most UPSs are thus equipped with fans, to help cool the unit and keep ambient temperatures within recommended ranges. The fan will typically switch on or speed up when utility power is not available or when the temperature within the UPS surpasses a predetermined level. To prolong the life of UPS fans it is advisable to limit the scenarios in which the fan is forced to operate. Keeping the ambient temperature within the specified range, monitoring the UPS for unusual or frequent cycling, and correctly sizing the UPS for the relevant load can all help to extend the life of this component.

Electrolytic capacitors smooth out voltage fluctuations and monitoring the temperature of the environment and ensuring it remains within specified ranges, will greatly enhance the life expectancy of electrolytic capacitors.

When it comes to MOVs, they typically malfunction after being exposed to frequent and/or extreme voltage spikes. A UPS is designed to provide surge protection to connected equipment, and the MOV functions to achieve this by absorbing excess voltage. If a severe voltage spike occurs, the MOV may be destroyed. There is little that can be done to prevent the effects of extreme voltage spikes, however, it is important to ensure that if they do happen, the MOV is replaced so that the UPS can continue to provide optimal functionality.

Relays switch the battery on and off, and under normal circumstances it is unlikely that the UPS will cycle enough times to cause the relay to fail. Unusually high cycling could indicate incorrect UPS operation, and the relays and the battery may be affected. Proactive monitoring and reporting will help organisations to become alert to this type of issue, which enables proactive adjustments to be made to the firmware to prevent substantial damage or failure before it occurs.

While the majority of serviceable UPS components are designed to be touch safe, it is wise to bear in mind that a UPS is still a live piece of electrical equipment, and due care and safety procedures should always be taken. General best practices for the maintenance of UPS solutions are to be proactive, be prepared and be organised.  Proactivity is always the best approach with regard to both battery and UPS replacement. Finally, correct organisation is essential. Maintenance inspections should be routinely scheduled, and should always include documentation with details such as inspections performed and date of inspection. Keeping records of the type of maintenance performed and the condition of equipment, including any areas of degradation such as reduced battery runtime, will help organisations to predict future failure.

Monitoring and maintenance are of the utmost importance in preventing problems before they occur, and minimising the effects of costly downtime to a business. Certain factors can easily be controlled to help extend UPS life through optimal conditions, and understanding the effects of elements like temperature and environment. Utilising a reputable brand of UPS from a reliable service provider or partner, and making use of the management features available, can help organisations to leverage their UPS investment to maximum advantage.

* Elrica Quick, APC Product Specialist at Drive Control Corporation

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Online retail gets real

After decades of experience in selling online, retailers still seek out the secret of reaching the digital consumer, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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It’s been 23 years since the first pizza and the first bunch of flowers was sold online. One would think, after all this time, that retailers would know exactly what works, and exactly how the digital consumer thinks.

Yet, in shopping-mad South Africa, only 4% of adults regularly shop online. One could blame high data costs, low levels of tech-savviness, or lack of trust. However, that doesn’t explain why a population where more than a quarter of people have a debit or credit card and almost 40% of people use the Internet is staying away.

The new Online Retail in South Africa 2019 study, conducted by World Wide Worx with the support of Visa and Platinum Seed, reveals that growth is in fact healthy, but is still coming off a low base. This year, the total sale of retail products online is expected to pass the R14-billion mark, making up 1.4% of total retail.

This figure represents 25% growth over 2017, and comes after the same rate of growth was seen in 2017. At this rate, it is clear that online retail is going mainstream, driven by aggressive marketing, and new shopping channels like mobile shopping. 

But it is equally clear that not all retailers are getting it right. According to the study, the unwillingness of business to reinvest revenue in developing their online presence is one of the main barriers to long-term success. Only one in five companies surveyed invested more than 20% of their online turnover back into their online store. Over half invested less than 10% back.

On the surface, the industry looks healthy, as a surprisingly high 71% of online retailers surveyed say they are profitable. But this brings to mind the early days of Amazon.com, in 1996, when founder Jeff Bezos was asked when it would become profitable.

He declared that it would not be profitable for at least another five years. And if it did, he said, it would be in big trouble. He meant that it was so important for long-term sustainability that Amazon reinvest all its revenues in customer systems, that it could not afford to look for short-term profits.

According to the South African study, the single most critical factor in the success of online retail activities is customer service. A vast majority, 98% of respondents, regarded it as important. This positions customer service as the very heart of online retail. For Amazon, investment back into systems that would streamline customer service became the key to the world’s digital wallets.

In South Africa online still make up a small proportion of overall retail, but for the first time we see the promise of a broader range of businesses in terms of category, size, turnover and employee numbers. This is a sign that our local market is beginning to mature. 

Clothing and apparel is the fastest growing sector, but is also the sector with the highest turnover of businesses. It illustrates the dangers of a low barrier to entry: the survival rate of online stores in this sector is probably directly opposite to the ease of setting up an online apparel store.

A fast-growing category that was fairly low on the agenda in the past, alcohol, tobacco and vaping, has benefited from the increased online supply of vapes, juices and accessories. It also suggests that smoking bans, and the change in the legal status of marijuana during the survey, may have boosted demand. 

In the coming weeks, we can expect online retail to fall under the spotlight as never before. Black Friday, a shopping tradition imported “wholesale” from the United States, is expected to become the biggest online shopping day of the year in South Africa, as it is in the USA.

Initially, it was just a gimmick in South Africa, attempting to cash in on what was a purely American tradition of insane sales on the Friday after Thanksgiving Day, which occurs on the third Thursday of November every year. It is followed by Cyber Monday, making the entire weekend one of major promotions and great bargains.

It has grown every year in South Africa since its first introduction about six years ago, and last year it broke into the mainstream, with numerous high profile retailers embracing it, and many consumers experiencing it for the first time. 

It is now positioned as the prime bargain day of the year for consumers, and many wait in anticipation for it, as they do in the USA. Along with Cyber Monday, it provides an excuse for retailers to go all out in their marketing, and for consumers to storm the display shelves or web pages. South African shoppers, clearly, are easily enticed by bargains.

Word of mouth around Black Friday has also grown massively in the past two years, driven by both media and shoppers who have found ridiculous bargains. As news spreads that the most ridiculous of the bargains are to be had online, even those who were reticent of digital shopping will be tempted to convert.

The Online Retail in SA 2019 report has shown over the years that, as people become more experienced in using the Internet, their propensity to shop online increases. This is part of the World Wide Worx model known as the Digital Participation Curve. The key missing factor in the Curve is that most retailers do not know how to convert that propensity into actual online shopping behaviour. Black Friday will be one of the keys to conversion.

Carry on reading to find out about the online retailers of the year.

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Reliable satellite Internet?

MzansiSat, a satellite-Internet business, aims to beam Internet connections to places in South Africa which don’t have access to cabled and mobile network infrastructure, writes BRYAN TURNER.

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Stellenbosch-based MzansiSat promises to provide cheap wholesale Internet to Internet Service Providers for as little as R25 per Gigabyte. Providers who offer more expensive Internet services could benefit greatly from partnering with MzansiSat, says the company. 

“Using MzansiSat, we hope that we can carry over cost-savings benefits to the consumer,” says Victor Stephanopoli, MzansiSat chief operating officer.

The company, which has been spun off from StellSat, has been looking to increase its investor portfolio while it waits for spectrum approval. The additional investment will allow MzansiSat’s satellite to operate in more regions across Africa.

The MzansiSat satellite is being built by Thales Alenia Space, a French company which is also acting as technical partner to MzansiSat. In addition to building the satellite, Thales Alenia Space will also be assisting MzansiSat in coordinating the launch. The company intends to launch the satellite into the 56°E orbital slot in a geostationary orbit, which enables communication almost anywhere in Africa. The launch is expected to happen in 2022. 

The satellite will have 76 transponders, 48 of which will be Ku-band and 28 C-band. Ku-band is all about high-speed performance, while C-band deals with weather-resistance. The design intention is for customers of MzansiSat to choose between very cheap, reliable data and very fast, power-efficient data. 

C-band is an older technology, which makes bandwidth cheaper and almost never affected by rain but requires bigger dishes and slower bandwidth compared to Ku-band connections. On the other hand, Ku-band is faster, experiences less microwave interference, and requires less power to run – but is less reliable with bad weather conditions.

MzansiSat’s potential military applications are significant, due to the nature of the military being mobile and possibly in remote areas without connectivity.  Connectivity everywhere would be potentially be life-saving.

Consumers in remote areas will benefit, even though satellite is higher in latency than fibre and LTE connections. While this level of latency is high (a fifth of a second in theory), satellite connections are still adequate for browsing the Internet and watching online content. 

The Internet of Things (IoT) may see the benefits of satellite Internet before consumers do. The applications of IoT in agriculture are vast, from hydration sensors to soil nutrient testers, and can be realised with an Internet connection which is available in a remote area.

Stephanopoli says that e-learning in remote areas can also benefit from MzansiSat’s presence, as many school resources are becoming readily available online. 

“Through our network, the learning experience can be beamed into classrooms across the country to substitute or complement local resources within the South African schooling system.”

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