On-site power generation got attention during last year's Y2K mania. But, the real driver for such capability is far more substantial than concerns over the calendar. We want information to flow the same way water does when we open the tap; on demand and uninterrupted.

Power makes information accessible, and we have built a culture around information. If you buy from a Web site, credit card approval takes only seconds. Your pharmacist can look you up in a central database to see your prescription history and lifesaving notes about you. A grocer scans a bar code so the automatic inventory system can order replacements. Company Intranets span the globe so workers can collaborate on projects and share files in real time. And then you have plane fares, bank transactions, stock transactions, e-mail; the list keeps going. As a result, we have today's incredible avalanche of information. That information requires an enormous infrastructure of systems and subsytems, which all depend on power to operate.

Data centers are part of that infrastructure. I've seen some interesting things in visits to data centers. From "command bunkers" inside AOL, operators go to on-site power if a storm is within 10 miles of the facility. An Omaha bank uses fuel cells for primary and secondary power sources; 100% on-site power. A Kansas City data center uses redundant backup generators with alternate fuel sources. Others use flywheels or battery farms. The investment in on-site power is staggering.

Since we rely on the availability of so much information, data centers assign a dollar value to each second of downtime. Typically, that value is at least six figures per client. If you want information available 90% of the time, you don't need on-site power. At 99%, you do. If you want 99.99% availability, you are then at what the data industry calls "2 nines" of reliability. The emerging standard is 5 nines. The fuel-cell-driven bank in Omaha stands at 6 nines.

Today's information age means well-planned on-site power systems are no passing "Y2K fad." They're now integral to our society. Look for more on-site generation insights in this month's cover story "On-Site Power"