Cable still critical

On August 1, 1981, Video Killed the Radio Star, by the Buggles, was the first video broadcast on MTV. It seems an appropriate anthem for network managers who are rolling out wireless networks in greater numbers than ever. The trend to wireless begs a question: Will wireless kill the cable industry?

The use of wireless networks in the enterprise is at an all time high, according to Lisa Pierce, vice-president with Forrester Research. Currently, 56 per cent of North American enterprises have installed wireless LANs, 11 per cent use wireless hotspots and 30 per cent use wireless 2.5/3G services, according to a recent Forrester Research report, Forrester’s Business Technographics May 2005 North American Network and Telecommunications Benchmark Study.

However, just as video did not kill the radio star, wireless will not kill the wired network, say industry experts. As many radio stations evolved (think formats like talk radio) in the face of the video onslaught, wired evolution is making the wired network more important than ever to the enterprise. In short, less cable is being pulled, but enterprises are not abandoning wires.

Although wireless networks are popular in verticals such as health care and manufacturing — sectors where people are not at stations all day — networks within enterprises are generally wired to the desk of stationary employees or power users, says Ina Sebastian, an associate analyst with JupiterResearch. While wireless networks are moving into “carpeted environments” or offices, where they are seen as productivity tools for employees and as more cost-effective alternatives to wired networks, the wired network will survive the wireless wave.

It is a fallacy to believe that wireless implementation means wires disappear, especially if an enterprise has Internet connectivity, says Tracy Fleming, national IP telephony practice leader, with Markham, Ont.-based Avaya Canada. Data has to get to the building and Internet data is generally brought in through large pipes. Even when companies opt for wireless Internet feeds, data is picked up by a receptor and travels along wires to the network. In addition, access points required to set up wireless network grid coverage (similar to mobile phone coverage) to reduce dead spots are hard wired to the network.

So wired or wireless, cable is being pulled.

Wires: the root of most problems

When it comes to the wired network, “a solid layer one foundation reduces up to 80 per cent of network problems,” says Fleming. Although Avaya exited the cable business a year ago, the company assesses the network cable infrastructure before implementing IP telephony solutions. Data is designed to be forgiving, he says. It will often transmit over cables that are not installed correctly. However, voice is another matter.

“Voice is like a magnifying glass on layer one. Small problems become big ones. For instance, voice compounds issues with cables that are improperly terminated,” Fleming says. Unfortunately, network managers are often hardware-centric. They focus on hubs, switches, routers and IP issues, not layer one problems. Often they do not even think of cables.

As an example, Fleming cites a company that had intermittent network problems each spring and summer. Come the fall, the problems would disappear. The network managers lost a great deal of hair and sleep trying to solve the problems. “Intermittent network problems are the most difficult to troubleshoot,” he says. Finally, the company called in the equivalent of a network CSI (crime scene investigation) to examine every inch of the network.

The audit included all cable termination points and the routes that cables took through the building. It took the team several days to find the problem. The root of the intermittent problems lay in a crawl space where cables had been pulled over the power transformer feeding the building air conditioning unit. The first hot spring day, and all through the summer, air conditioners ran — and drove network managers crazy.

“This was nothing more than a bad installation decision,” says Fleming. To avoid such problems, companies need to use certified installers who know cable and who know the consequences of a bad installations or poor terminations. “Simple mistakes can cause IT a year of tears,” he says.

Faster speeds, power too

While not every enterprise requires carrier-class reliability, resiliency and latency, the availability of Gig-E (one Gigabyte over Ethernet) and its faster sibling, 10 Gigabit Ethernet, has speed- and bandwidth-challenged network managers salivating. In addition, the promise of Power over Ethernet (PoE) will reduce the number of cables in a building and make cables more versatile and necessary than ever, says Mike Barnick, senior manager, solutions marketing with SYSTIMAX Solutions in Norcross, Ga.

As more juice is pumped through cables, cable installers often have to exceed industry standards to eliminate potential problems, says Barnick. For instance, running 10 Gigabit over UTP (unshielded twisted pair) is a “breakthrough” as the same cable that was running voice is now running high-speed data. However, cable is generally pulled in bundles and improperly bundled UTP can lead to “alien cross talk” (or electromagnetic noise that occurs when signal-carrying cables run alongside each other).

The standard calls for cable installers to bundle two cables and test them for alien cross talk, but it is not unusual to see six or more cables pulled in a bundle. If the installer does not exceed standards, the network manager may pay the price Barnick says.

SYSTIMAX, a global company with over 2,000 business partners, installs end-to-end, media agnostic solutions up to 10 Gigabytes. However, the company has not snubbed wireless. Its AirSpeed wireless LAN solution frees users from the network’s umbilical cord, but Barnick is quick to point out that a properly installed wired infrastructure is required for the converged wired and wireless network to function at optimal efficiency.

Road Map required

Before running cables in a new build or building renovation, the IT department should create a technology road map or technology migration path if they want the network they are building, or extending, to work well and not soon face obsolescence.

There are important questions to be asked upfront if an enterprise wants to avoid multiple cable installs, says Barnick. Does the plan for the future call for one gigabyte or 10 gigabytes to the desktop? Can a bandwidth funnel to accommodate growth be built in? Should the company go copper or fibre to be future ready? Few people enjoy pulling new cable through old buildings, says Barnick, but that is what often happens if the network is rolled out without a migration path in place.

Considering the pace of change in the industry, IT departments that build to accommodate today’s standards and applications are looking backwards when they should be looking for “forward compatibility,” he says. “You can’t underestimate applications that will be coming down the pipe.”

Lobby for priorities

Network managers often have to lobby for space priorities with designers and architects “who are driven by square footage cost effectiveness,” Barnick adds. He finds it ironic that a company would save pennies cutting cable corners during a build or renovation, then pay for it later in lost productivity, perhaps even lost customers, when network systems fail due to poorly planned and poorly executed cable installations.

Of course, network managers do not have to demand proprietary lanes for their cables. They can share common pathways, such as those used for heating and air-conditioning, and help facility managers and architects keep costs under control.

X marks the spot

Henry Franc, marketing manager for cabling and power solutions with Bell Canada in Toronto, concurs. Companies that do not take a “logical approach to cabling” pay for it down the road with network problems, he says. When you have XoIP running across your network — where “x” equals more than business-critical data, voice, multimedia applications — you don’t want the business to come to a crashing halt because someone skimped on the price of cable, didn’t meet or exceed standards or failed to fully test the install, including all termination points, he says.

With XoIP, including PoE, companies need to take “a holistic view” of what the network, including cabling infrastructure, means to the business. “X” is so much more than data, voice and multimedia applications. When the power of the centralized network, as well as actual electrical power, can be brought to master clocks, building automation and security, there is no room for turf wars between IT and facilities.

While the pace of change means layer one network components may be commoditized, the building and physical cabling and transport all need to be bundled into workable solution. Specialists from every department have to act like business generalists to create a collaborative plan, and then specialists in each area have to follow the plan. “The rollout of layer one network infrastructure should be left up to the specialist, but they should be working with the big picture in mind,” Franc says.

From the cabling up, companies need to establish a collaborative work environment between facilities and IT, industry experts say. But the question remains: Will history repeat itself? Will the IT and telecom turf wars become IT combating facilities management? While there will be some scrimmages Franc feels companies have “learned a lot” from the voice versus data days. “Everyone is more flexible and working collaboratively based on business priorities.”

When flexibility and collaboration are not there, it is like pulling cable in the dark. And cable pulled in the dark, can lead to network blackouts. Ironically, the last place network managers look to solve problems is cable — leaving users, managers, and IT staff all frustrated and non-productive for reasons that did not have to occur in the first place.

QuickLink: 052644

–Lima is a Toronto-based freelance writer.

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