Why are Simple Batteries the Bedrock of Business Security?

Why are Simple Batteries the Bedrock of Business Security?

Twin Systems colleague Dan Twine digs to the foundation of data and hardware security.

In your body there exists at least three mechanisms of energy storage: fat, sugar, and ATP. All of which play a role in ensuring your body doesn’t become damaged by receiving too much or too little energy at once. Too much energy at once would overheat the body, poison the cells, and generally leave you in quite a sorry state. Too little, and the life-support systems go down. This would leave you too cold, poisoned by clogged up materials you can’t process, and vulnerable to any external attack.

In an ideal world, we would have a storage system that can store huge amounts and manage how much we use perfectly. But things can’t be so simple. Usually, the more densely you store energy, the slower it is to free up and use. One solution to this conflict is to increase density and release rate together by improving how cleverly the energy is stored, the other is to use multiple storage systems together to exploit the benefits of each one and cover the shortfalls. Each has their job and is supported by the others above it. And on top of performance, each higher system adds a layer of security to ensure that every system below it can cope with a more severe starvation.

For example, ATP doesn’t store much. What it’s good at is allowing you to use energy extremely quickly but only when and where you need to. For example, if you’re jumping over a fence, you’re actually using energy twice as fast in the brain, 10 times faster across your body, and 100x faster in your leg muscles. It’s continuously recharged by burning sugar so if it depletes from jumping too much, you only have to rest to be able to jump again.

Because ATP can be used-up so quickly, constantly recharging it is extremely important and therefore so is having a reliable and adaptable sugar source for the whole body. To provide this, your body has the 2nd layer of energy storage: tiny lumps of sugar stuck together so it sits still in your cells. In the absence of food, the sugar is broken up and released into the blood to be burned to replenish ATP and produce energy for heat and low-intensity purposes. Having the in-cell stores to top-up blood sugar when it’s too low (or put it away when there’s too much) can save you from the risks of shutting down or being over-fuelled.

Fat is the opposite of ATP and the final, most secure layer. It’s an incredible backup that can keep your essential functions going for weeks by slowly converting itself to sugar to replenish those stores. But, without ATP or sugar storage, you wouldn’t have the faster-release capability and you’d be able to move at about the speed of a sloth. The role here is to supply energy in a very well-rationed way so that you don’t use your biggest reserves up too quickly and conk out before you find more food.


So why have I just spent the first 500 words of this IT technology blog talking about biology? This blog exists to help business owners understand the technology their offices run on, not procrastinating employees manage their diet. I chose biology because the best way to understand something in the physical world is to see its equivalent within us. When you see the parallels, we are not so different from the computers and cables and servers and switches and keyboards and kettles we operate every day. The consequence of a poor energy security in a human is damage to your ability to perform the health of the body. The consequence of a poor energy security in an office is damage to the ability to operate and the overall health of the business. Not only do sales and services go down, but assets and equipment are lost, reputation is damaged, and morale is reduced. Before the chemical-electronic energy storage method: batteries, Information Technology and in fact all electronics could not exist. Battery power is unequivocally the best power supply, and although a network of generators and solar panels is cheaper, they do not compare in performance unless they are used in conjunction with batteries.

What do I mean by this? Surely the energy in the grid comes from sources turning nature straight into electricity and it does everything from light our lights to cool our fridges? You only need batteries when you need to power things that aren’t connected to the constant supply of the grid: phones, lamps, electric cars. The key words are constant supply, and actually, the grid isn’t as constant as we’d like it to be.

The supply is essentially what’s produced divided amongst everything consuming it. Consumers can be factories, houses, offices, hospitals, or a thousand other things. Producers are mostly coal, oil, nuclear, and gas plants as well as the connected renewables. Obviously, the amount of energy we’re using doesn’t stay the same all day and all week. Offices close, people sleep, the kettle goes on at half time and air con goes on when the room gets a bit stuffy. If you can manage the total supply to always be the same as the total demand then you can keep the supply for everyone constant.

This is done to a fairly close margin by switching generators off and on, encouraging flexible consumers to change their use time by changing prices, and exporting or importing electricity over international power lines. But all of these practices are presented with challenges. Power plants take a long time to switch on and off, not many consumers can change their use time, and just because you’ve got too much and want to beam some over to Ireland doesn’t mean they’re in any deficit and want to accept it. Luckily, people are realistic and fluctuations and accounted for. The grid allows itself to operate between 216 and 253 volts and electronics are designed to operate within this range. If the voltage gets too high, a supply is simply disconnected; if it gets too low, a group of consumers are disconnected in a controlled outage.

However, the grid is not perfect and it is impossible to avoid every power cut and surge. When you throw in gas shortages, adverse weather, grid faults, sudden events or any number of possible disruptions and disasters it becomes very hard to eliminate risk of not only sudden power fluctuations but massive spikes and outages.

The first saving grace is that most simple devices aren’t actually like humans but more like the humble frog, which can freeze its whole body in the winter, staying dormant until it thaws. Basically, if they turn off they’re okay and they’ll just wait to be turned back on again. This isn’t necessarily the case though when more complex IT is involved.

Anything with a processor and memory, from your Xbox to your AI supercomputer, is constantly handling data. It reads it out of the memory, it processes it, and it writes new data back to the memory. When doing these tasks, everything written in the memory has to be exactly right. There are two important details about how this happens. Firstly, if the processor tries to process data when some bits are missing or wrong, it can’t just look at what’s there and make a sensible assumption, it’s a computer, it’ll give up and either give you some nonsense or tell you the data is too messed up to even try to process. Secondly, computers actually have two types of memory. One of them is what’s being written to and read from, the other, called “volatile” memory, just holds the present tasks in its hand through processing. If the computer turns off, everything that has been written stays written, while everything volatile is dropped as if it simply evaporated. If you turn it back on and it was halfway through writing some data, it’ll have completely forgotten what it was writing, where it was writing to, and how far through it was. You now have some non-perfect data which could have massive consequences later on if it’s at all important. Or you’ve lost work that hadn’t yet been written down at all. Or you’ve updated only part of a massive application that has become total nonsense to a computer trying to read and use it. This is why a computer can take so long to shut down safely. It’s been programmed to go through everything in its volatile memory and make sure it’s finished writing everything that needs to be written before letting it go.

You probably get the gist: sudden loss of power can mess up your data. If you’re using a more modern computer, you’ve probably experienced losing work you hadn’t saved because something made your device turn off; maybe you’ve had to bin a file marked as corrupted (which may also mean lost work). However, it’s unlikely you’ve had to find files to be incomplete or wrong only weeks down the line; and I hope I’d be correct in guessing you’ve never had an entire application go haywire because you knocked the power switch whilst shifting your chair. Something is happening that stops these files from being left a mess on the disk like a dropped egg on the floor. A ghostly chef is cleaning it up or at the very least putting a wet-floor sign over it before disappearing into thin air. This chef is batteries, or at least a tiny non-chemical version called capacitors.

The capacitor is like the ATP of the computer. It doesn’t store much energy at once but it can use it all in almost an instant if needed, or expend it a bit more slowly. Capacitors are cheap, easy to make and extremely useful so they’re employed in a huge variety of roles. In this case, the capacitor isn’t needed to supply lots of energy in a short time (think camera flash), but instead a burst of power similar to the normal supply in the event that the normal supply suddenly disappears. The role is to supply energy to the computer for just long enough to deal with the potential mess between the volatile and written memory stores. Sometimes the computer uses this window to discard an incomplete file, or if a file is being updated it might reinstate the “shadow” (a copy of the file from before the update started”) and discard the version being altered. It hasn’t got time to check everything is okay like in a shutdown period, but it can prevent the most obvious data damage. It also protects some of the hardware in the device, such as a disk from being damaged by a dropped reading/writing head.

Additionally, a capacitor can help to protect against the opposite risk of a power surge. A power surge is an overabundance of energy to the delicate components in electronics. The difference is where your body would overheat, electronics are made of thin metals that warp or sometimes melt. Like your body, which sticks sugar together to prevent overload, a capacitor works by grouping electrons together on a thin plate. The more power is supplied, the more electrons are grouped up. This means that if power supply increases, some of that extra power goes into the capacitor rather than the more valuable computer parts. However, as the storage size is more like ATP, the amount of power it absorbs is very low so the blunting effect against a surge is very limited.

Capacitors are the bare minimum of computer and data protection. Having a small one protects the hardware, e.g. flicking the head away from a hard disk; a bigger one can give time to perform some operations to limit or clean the mess that power loss can leave data in; combine a bunch of them with a flash drive and you can record everything in the volatile memory before it’s lost (meaning your computer can know everything it was doing when it turns back on and often not lose important data at all). It’s all risk-analysis and cost-benefit. The more important your data and more likely an outage, the more stressful it will be to know that you’re vulnerable and the more benefit there is to more expensive protection. However, when business and finance is involved, no capacitor-based protection is enough.

What does this mean? Just because a capacitor bank can allow you to record where the computer was in operations, doesn’t mean it can recover all of the data it was processing or saving. If the operation was large or it was saving an entire file, even speedy SSD memory can’t get it all down before the capacitors peter out. In addition, even a bank of them cannot save a device from anything more than a small power surge, they’re still too small.

This is where the real chemical batteries come in. Chemical batteries can fully power devices for much longer than capacitors. They don’t have to turn off at all in a temporary cut. In addition, the right battery system can take the full brunt of any surge. No data-loss, no damage, not even a minute of downtime. Even in the extremely rare event that the outage lasts so long the battery runs out, you have the notice and time to shut down the equipment safely and ride out the rest of the “blackout” (saving a smidge of power to keep the lights on). The business standard for battery protection is the kind of battery you put in a petrol car – lead-acid – combined with a device that intelligently manages its input and output. The two together form what is called an “Uninterruptible Power Supply” or UPS. Some businesses invest in a pricier version that uses the kind of battery that runs an electric car – lithium-ion. The difference is only that the lithium-ion battery can provide power for longer (for a given UPS size).

These devices are currently the limit of available technology for power security. The most advanced systems in the world are used to keep external backups protected. Servers will have capacitor-bank style protection within and the whole facility will be connected to a UPS on steroids (i.e. the size of a large room) to power the centre for very long times, or at least until they need to top them up with generators.

External backup can be thought of as the data-fat of the business. It won’t keep up with the fast-pace of the continuous data-writing of a PC, but it will store your data on a daily basis and protect you from other kinds of threats. For example, if your data storage hardware is damaged (perhaps there was a surge the day before your UPS installation, or un-specialised workers were tasked with moving your equipment), a Twin Vault will have everything it contained up until the day of the incident. If your business is victim of a malicious cyber attack and starved of access to its internal data and connected backups (such as cloud services connected to its Microsoft accounts), Twin Vault can use its reliable data reserve to keep your business going, albeit slowed down a bit while it replenishes the few hours of lost work.

All-in-all, it’s clear how layers of energy and data security protect your business in the same way our body protects us from starvation. Each plays a vital role that cannot be replaced by the others alone.

Omit ATP, and the body struggles to power the fastest efforts; omit capacitor-supported storage, and the business struggles to protect the most intense operations (e.g. processing a sale) from loss or corruption in the event of a device malfunction or accidental unplugging.

Omit sugar, and the body puts too much stress on ATP in the event of a larger effort and it may not hold enough energy; omit a UPS, and the business places too much stress on capacitors in the event of a surge or power cut. They may fail to do enough work to protect valuable hardware or save those important documents.

Omit fat, and the body cannot cope with a severe starvation incident; omit external backup, and the business could suffer severe damage from hardware breakage or even collapse under a cyber-attack-induced data-famine.

No layer is replaceable without leaving a gap in your security and risks open.

Twin Systems is a holistic IT services and solutions company equipped to handle all manners of IT tasks and challenges. If you don’t feel confident your company is fully protected from power incidents, cyber attacks, or other security concerns, we can provide the advice, products, and services you need to feel as risk-free as possible.

Learn more about our security products and services with the links below or get in touch for a free consultation on your business equipment, resilience, and security needs.