Blackout gives dark reminder to protect your computer, data


WHAT'S THE WORST way to protect your PC from a worm that's spreading across the Internet? How about this: Cut off the electricity and don't turn it back on for a couple of days.

That unlikely double-whammy hit millions of computer users Aug. 14, when the Blackout of 2003 wrapped the Northeast in a hot, sticky blanket of darkness. Suddenly, the possibility of contracting the MSBlast worm seemed insignificant compared with a world without power to run computers, elevators, air conditioners, subways, television sets, cell phone towers, gas pumps and other devices that lives and livelihoods depend on.

The utilities and transmission line operators who run the Northeast grid will be pointing fingers for a long time, trying to figure out who knew what when and whether anything could have prevented the cascade of failures that left almost a fifth of the nation's population without electricity.

The scary thing is that this failure wasn't the result of too much demand and too little supply - the common scenario for summer blackout. It was hot on Aug. 14, but not all that hot. Demand was well within normal limits. This one was pure screw-up - human, electronic, mechanical or a combination of the three.

It could happen again, at any time. In fact, our own Baltimore newsroom - well south of the blackout zone - went dark for a few scary moments this week when an underground utility cable failure cut off the power.

Luckily, we have dual backup systems that kicked in within a few seconds. You probably don't. So if you depend on computers or other technology to run your life, it's a good time to think about keeping damage to a minimum when the electricity dies.

First, the obvious: protect your computer against power outages. Most blackouts don't last for days. They're generally only a few minutes long, or at most a few hours. Even so, there are two major sources of concern - what happens to a PC when the power goes off and what happens when it comes back on.

The latter produces the most serious problems. Power often roars back with a voltage surge that can harm your PC's delicate circuits. It might affect only a network card or modem, but a big enough kick can fry the main circuit board and leave you with a $1,500 doorstop.

You can stop almost anything short of a lightning strike with a surge suppressor, which senses sudden increases in voltage and "clamps down" to keep it from reaching your computer.

Surge suppressors are generally built into power strips, and good ones are available for as little as $25. Look for one with a power rating of at least 500-700 joules, a minimum clamping voltage of 400 volts, and a response time of 10 nanoseconds or less.

Better surge suppressors have a light that indicates whether the suppression is still active (the protective varistors wear out over time). Also, make sure the power strip meets Underwriters Laboratories Standard 1449 for Transient Voltage Surge Suppressors. You'll usually find this on the box, or stamped on the power strip itself.

Your computer also can take an indirect hit at the moment the power goes out, particularly if it's writing data to the hard drive. A sudden outage can scramble information - you'll probably lose whatever you're working on. In the worst case, your hard drive could be trashed.

That vulnerability is why Microsoft Windows and the Macintosh OS have a shutdown procedure. It makes sure you save whatever you're working on and then writes important system information to the hard drive that your computer needs to start back up. A remarkably large proportion of tech support calls are generated by users who still just push the power button when they're through working - and then wonder why they have trouble starting up again.

Home and small business users can protect themselves against this problem with a battery backup, also known as an uninterruptible power supply, or UPS. This gadget is essentially a heavy box containing a rechargeable battery that plugs into a wall outlet. The computer plugs into an outlet in the UPS.

When the power dies, the UPS automatically kicks in and supplies enough power to keep your PC running for a limited time. Note the word limited here. A bottom-of-the line, $100 UPS might only supply 5 to 10 minutes of power to a single computer. More money will buy more power for more equipment, but there's nothing for the home market that will keep a system running for more than an hour or two.

The most you can expect from a UPS is a chance to shut down your computer in an orderly manner - as long as you're around. Some come with a cable that attaches to your PC's serial port and software that automatically tries to shut down when the battery is almost exhausted. But that technology is still, unfortunately, a bit flaky.

As a rule, if you're around when the power failure occurs, it's a good idea to unplug the power cord from the back of your PC and wait till the juice has been restored for 10 or 15 minutes before plugging it back in. Don't rely on the PC's power switch - most are push-button "toggle" switches these days, so it's hard to tell whether they're in the on or off position when the power is out.

It's also a good idea to shut your computer down overnight if you're not using it, and unplug it when you go away on vacation. That minimizes exposure to electrical glitches.

Finally, while it's almost a cliche to recommend backing up your important data regularly, the Blackout of 2003 exposed a new hassle for the unprepared. Millions who depended on computers and PDAs to keep their contact lists and diaries saw their ability to look up phone numbers, addresses, appointments and other information disappear with the power, or fade away as the batteries on their PDAs slowly died with no electricity to recharge them.

So make sure you print out or write down your really important phone numbers, addresses and appointments on a regular basis. Paper and ink may seem passe, but they stay around when the power goes off.

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