It's the Little Things

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Cutting-edge computing accessories improve productivity, enhance security, and refine systems, putting so-called 'peripheral' needs front and center.

Reading First IT DEPARTMENTS ARE RULED by a kind of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: The big-tech stuff—the operating systems, the networks, the data centers—gets the priority, food-and-shelter attention, while upgrading the backup power supplies, evaluating new projector mounts, and taming that rat’s nest of classroom cords fall somewhere between the desire for fame and the need for self-actualization.

“We tend to think of this kind of gear as accessories, and so we get around to it almost as an afterthought,” observes Matt Flood, network administrator for the Goose Creek Consolidated Independent School District (TX). “And given the budgets school districts have to live with, that’s not an unreasonable attitude. But sometimes, when it comes to teacher productivity and even network security, it really is about the little things.”

A UPS With Smarts

Among the “little things” is an uninterruptable power supply (UPS), which provides system backup during power failures and smooths out powersource hiccups. “This is one of those ‘accessories’ that’s just about as optional as electricity,” Flood says. “If you lose power, or you don’t have stable power, you’re dead. And yet, in the past, we just kind of threw the UPSes out there and prayed that they worked.”

At its most basic, a UPS is a battery that sits between a computer system and its primary power source. When the main power shuts down or fluctuates, the battery intervenes, keeping the system up and running, typically for short periods.

But today, UPS vendors are offering products with more than just backup power. For example, the Smart-UPS line from American Power Conversion (acquired last year by the French company Schneider Electric, along with rival UPS maker MGE; Schneider merged the two to form a new division, dubbed APC-MGE) comes with the company’s PowerChute management software for “graceful, unattended” network shutdown, and network management cards, which connect individual UPSes directly to the network with dedicated IP addresses, allowing network administrators to manage and monitor each unit via web browser. Embedded technology in the cards enables a UPS to reboot hung equipment and to provide notifications when problems occur.

The West Kingston, RI-based market leader has been in the backup battery business since 1981 and has seen the technology adapt to shifting user demands. “Power protection has evolved over time,” explains Ray Munkelwitz, senior product manager in APC-MGE’s Network Power Solutions division. “In the early days it was all about protecting the equipment: I just spent $20,000 on this server, and I don’t want a power surge or a lightning strike to damage it. But today, with so many low-cost servers on the market, the emphasis is more on maintaining the network: If my network goes down, look at what it costs my business.”

One of the often overlooked consequences of a sudden system shutdown is data corruption, Munkelwitz says. “It’s really the data that you’re protecting with a UPS. I know that the network is becoming an integral part of many K-12 curricula, but network downtime at a school probably isn’t the same disaster it might be for a commercial enterprise. Not having access to the internet for a short period might be the equivalent of a snow day. But a sudden shutdown can corrupt your data, creating more problems and more cost down the line. When you crash hard, there can be a lot of work on the other end to get up and running, and you just might lose something. And that can be expensive, especially in a school district, which might not have a large IT staff to diagnose and fix that problem.”

Munkelwitz concedes that a UPS still tends to be considered just a peripheral in a number of organizations. “In a lot of businesses, we’re an absolute necessity because the cost of downtime is so high,” he says. “But I think in school districts, we’re still less of a priority. The backup can simply be forgotten, or they might not go that way because of budget considerations.”

It's the Little Things

"[A UPS] is one of those 'accessories'
that's just about as optional as electricity.
If you lose power, or you don't have stable
power, you're dead."
- Matt Flood, Goose Creek
Consolidated Independent School District

Thanks to a recently passed school bond, Goose Creek has the budget to upgrade its entire network infrastructure— including its backup batteries. The district is now in the process of replacing old units throughout the district, which comprises 25 elementary, junior, and high schools in the neighboring communities of Baytown and Highlands, near the Texas Gulf Coast, with APC’s Smart-UPS XL units.

“It’s the perfect opportunity to add the new management capabilities,” Flood says. “Before, we never knew when a battery had gone bad, or how well protected we were from an outage. Now we can even monitor temperature changes.”

A Cart With Connections

It was a similar remote management capability that finally led Nevada’s Silver State High School to invest in a newly launched laptop cart from Parat Solutions. In fact, the school may be the first in the nation to implement Parat’s justreleased Paradidact mobile IT transport system.

Silver State is considered Nevada’s first virtual high school. A state-sponsored charter school, it serves students in grades 9 to 12 statewide with a range of online classes. However, Silver State administrator Alan Staggs prefers to describe the school as a “hybrid” because it focuses on students living in the surrounding district who must attend classes on campus at least one day a week. During those on-campus sessions, the students continue to work on their online curricula with their core teachers.

To support that goal, the school recently purchased 30 new laptops. But provisioning and maintaining those machines for student use promised to be a time-consuming, labor-intensive process. “I’ve been in schools that had laptop carts, which are basically mobile computer labs, and they were used maybe three times a week with three different teachers,” Staggs says. “Here, this cart is going to be utilized in all subjects every day by everybody. Our IT guy is busy enough as it is. We didn’t want to burden him with the job of updating and maintaining 30 different machines.”

The Paradidact cart seemed a perfect solution. Laptops connect to the cart’s docking system through a series of vertical slots lined up on a drawer. Closing the drawer connects all the laptops at the same time to the power supply for recharging. It also links the machines collectively to a wireless access point. Through a piece of software known as a Wake-on-LAN system, administrators can access the contents of laptops through the local area network and synchronize up to 32 laptops from a remote location.

“The beauty of this cart is that network connection,” says Staggs. “While they’re charging, the laptops stay awake and connected to the internet to receive automatic updates. And we can push content onto them and synchronize them without having to fire up the individual units. We can throw content at them, go off and do something else, and come back to 30 updated laptops.”

DID YOU KNOW?

PROJECTOR AND PROJECTOR MOUNT MANUFACTURERS use the same terms to designate projector adjustments as aviators use to describe the movements of an airplane: Pitch refers to the upand- down adjustment of the “nose” of the projector around the left-to-right lateral axis; yaw refers to the side-to-side adjustment on the vertical axis; and roll refers to the adjustment that raises and lowers the sides of the projector around the nose-to-tail axis.

The new carts also have room to carry printers, scanners, and other peripherals. The integrated wireless access point provides the connection to those devices among the laptop users, as well as the internet connection.

Headquartered in Remscheid, Germany, with offices in Berwyn, PA, Parat launched its new cart in the United States late last year. Parat’s sales director, Peter Jauss, says the company is currently in talks with Dell, which he says plans to offer the cart as part of its Intelligent Classroom program.

The cart’s network connection is getting the most buzz, Jauss says, but the ergonomic aspects of the design might prove to be just as appealing. “Teachers don’t have to get on their hands and knees to unplug individual connections,” Jauss explains. “They just pull out the drawer, hand out the notebooks, and they’re up and running. Classroom disruption is significantly minimized, which means that teachers don’t have to mess around when they should be teaching.”

All Bundled Up

Few byproducts of the increasingly gizmo-filled classroom are as frustrating as the coils of cords and cables issuing from the stacks of computing and communication devices—especially if anything has to be moved or replaced. Tidying up that wad of wires isn’t merely an aesthetic exercise; cords jammed into cupboards and behind cabinets can be hazardous to the equipment.

“It’s not unusual to see power cords, Ethernet cables, telephone cords, and maybe some speaker wire stuffed together into a cabinet,” says Brad Tagget, product manager for APWMayville. “Where you’re going to put all of the cables you need to get power to your devices and to connect to your network is usually an afterthought. But if you’re not careful, you can clog up the center of your cabinet, which is really space you want to reserve for heat removal.”

Cable and cord management has become something of a fine art, not to mention a cottage industry, and solutions abound, ranging from simple bags of twist ties to sophisticated cable-lacing frameworks.

Mayville, WI-based APWMayville is a provider of cabinets, enclosures, frames, racks, and mounting products for the broadcast, audiovisual, security, data communications, and telecommunications industries. Earlier this year, the company introduced its new PowerMount system for mounting vertical power strips. The system is designed specifically for easy installation and repositioning of power strips. “System” might be overstating the product’s scope, but these clever mounting brackets allow a power strip to be affixed in virtually any location inside a rack. The PowerMount product offers a handy, 180-degree swivel feature for rotating the power strip during maintenance or integration procedures, such as cabling and accessing power cords. It’s also scalable: If power demands increase, more power strips can be added.

One of the chief aims of the product is to improve overall air- flow for better equipment cooling, says Tagget. “It’s pretty simple,” he explains. “The mounts allow you to take the cabling out of the air path.” And because the power strips can be set to face the front, middle, or back of the cabinet, the cables can be positioned to guard against accidental bumps, twists, and disconnects.

As cool (literally and figuratively) as the PowerMount system is, it’s even cooler when paired with a square-T lacing panel, through which cables of varying thicknesses and lengths can be woven. APWMayville offers several models; versions are also available from other manufacturers. Look for a T-hook design that allows quick and easy installation of prebundled cables, Tagget recommends, as well as “tie-off points” for cable ends.

“This isn’t sexy stuff,” says Tagget, “and it’s sure not the first thing you think about when you’re planning your computing or audiovisual systems, but as those systems mature, these kinds of accessories help you make what you might call refinements that improve efficiencies. At some point you’re really going to want to have those cords and wires neat, organized, and out of the way. You’ll feel it every time you have to move or replace a piece of equipment with its cords tied in a knot.”

Secure That Projector

While you’re looking at solutions to hold your cables down, consider upgrading the hardware that holds your classroom projectors up. The latest generation of projector mounts fits well under the “refining accessories” rubric, offering a range of sophisticated features for both convenience and security.

The latest release from Chief Manufacturing is a good example: The RPA Elite product line is a next-generation projector mount, an upgrade of the company’s well-known RPA series of inverted ceiling mounts. The new product line incorporates easy-installation and adjustment features with an emphasis on security. The RPA is a “low-profile” mount, which means that it mounts the device flush to the ceiling. Even though it’s a flush-mount solution, the RPA Elite allows for 20 degrees of pitch and 12 degrees of yaw without removal of the projector. The mount allows installers to make fast and precise projector registration adjustments with a screwdriver.

Interestingly, the company has paired its All-Points Security System locking hardware, which secures the projector at key connection points, with a quick-release lever called the Q-Lock. Once the mount is unlocked, administrators can flip the lever to change lamps and filters, without losing the registration. “The connection points are hidden,” explains Karen Mefford, marketing manager at Chief Manufacturing, “so no one can disconnect the projector from the mount. It’s all concealed under this universal steel interface.”

One of the most common problems associated with ceilingmounted projectors, especially in classrooms in older schools, Mefford says, is uneven ceiling structures that make it difficult to mount the device in exact alignment with the projector screen. Some modern projector mounts come with features that compensate for these structural irregularities. The Chief RPA line provides the LSB-100 Lateral Shift Accessory, which is designed to allow the projector to be shifted a few inches to the right or left of the installation spot. This feature is also useful for accommodating different lens placement when projectors are replaced in existing installations, Mefford says.

Chief Manufacturing produced the first projector mounts with the now industry-standard roll, pitch, and yaw types of independent adjustment capabilities back in 1978. Based in Savage, MN, just southwest of the Twin Cities metro area, Chief is a 29-year-old manufacturer of “support solutions for presentation systems”—in other words, the company makes monitor and television mounts, speaker mounts, projector mounts, motorized mount accessories.

“I guess you could say that the sexy trend in this market is automated movement,” Mefford says. “We’ve got motorized mounts and swing arms operated by remote control. Another trend is disguising flat-panel displays. We’ve offered monitors that pop up out of furniture for a while now. But we’ve added accessories that blend a flat panel into the wall. We have a decorative frame that makes it look like art, and an optical accessory that turns it into a mirror when not in use.

“But the demand for efficient and convenient ways to secure the hardware is more than a trend. Security is always an issue—not just in schools, but in any public space where these kinds of technologies are used. I guess a secure monitor mount is an accessory, but lose one projector, and you’re bound to start thinking of it as a necessity.”

:: web extra ::For more information on this topic, visit T.H.E. Journal. In the Browse by Topic menu, click on Hardware.

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Palo Alto, CA.

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2007 issue of THE Journal.

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