If a network is only as good as the sum of its parts, then cabling may be the most unsung hero within the network infrastructure. It may not be very sexy technology, but cabling administration is a necessary component of any network installation.
Cabling administration encompasses everything from the cables themselves to cabling facility management software, from overhead cable trays to cabling test equipment. New advances that have impacted cable management include the recent ratification of the Category 6 copper cable standard, tools that aid centralized or remote management of cabling systems, active patch panels, more flexible cable tray systems, and new TIA standards for cable testing and administration.
CABLE FACILITIES MANAGEMENT
One of the biggest challenges for cabling plant administrators is keeping track of moves, adds and changes on the network. The facilities management group at Manulife Financial Corp. uses software from Aperture Technologies Inc. to manage all aspects of the financial services company’s in-house facilities. A cable management module built into the Aperture software enables Manulife to maintain up-to-date drawings of cabling layouts at the company’s multi-building locations in Toronto and Waterloo, Ont.
Fong Hu, facility CAFM (computer-aided facilities management) analyst at Manulife, explained that Aperture is CAD-like software which can provide a two-dimensional, bird’s eye view of cabling plant installations. Using data provided in spreadsheets by Integrated Cable Systems (ICS), Manulife’s cable management service provider, Hu is able to input new data network numbering and cabling information into the Aperture system and generate reports or drawings as required.
“I would receive an e-mail with the spreadsheet, and then I would usually export or do a stack dump into Aperture, so it upgrades all of the tables at the same time. It’s very, very easy to use. It’s very diverse,” Hu said.
“To help out the cable people…whenever (they need) to physically view which panels are powered and where would a cable be running from, we show (wall) monuments and power poles within all of our drawings. We show where the hard current is coming into, and how many stations get power as well. It gives you a better physical count by looking at the drawing with all of that information on it. It’s a lot easier to build from there, and to better design and organize an area to fit in more people comfortably,” Hu said.
Specific elements of the network cabling system, such as patch panels, jacks and cable runs, are identified with specially created icons on the drawings. The reporting tool in the software enables Hu to generate reports that could, for example, tally the number of Category 5 cable outlets in an entire building or one floor of a building.
Although the Aperture software supports ODBC and PeopleSoft data sources, Hu has found it easier and more efficient to manually input information regarding employee moves, adds and changes on the network, due to methodology differences between the facilities management group and the human resources department which could otherwise result in double head counts for employees.
Aperture is just one aspect of Manulife’s overall standards-based approach to facilities management. The company has implemented an integrated system of panels for workstation areas, to standardize office furniture setups for employees based on job grades. Using the Aperture software, proposed office layout drawings can be provided to installers, showing the standard locations of cable and power outlets.
CATEGORY 6 STANDARD
In June, the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) ratified the Category 6 standard for copper cabling. Known as TIA/EIA-568-B.2-1, the Category 6 standard specifies requirements for 100-ohm balanced twisted-pair cables, connecting hardware, patch cords, channels and permanent links, and provides test procedures for performance verification for frequencies up to 250MHz.
In terms of “usable bandwidth,” Category 6 supports positive power sum attenuation to crosstalk (PSACR) margins up to 200MHz, which is double the bandwidth of previous-generation Category 5 and 5e cabling, explained Paul Kish, director of IBDN systems and standards at Nordx/CDT Ltd. in Pointe Claire, Que.
Kish is also vice-chair of the TIA TR-42 engineering committee, which oversees the association’s research and development of copper cabling standards. Nordx/CDT is currently marketing patch panels and GigaBIX cross-connect systems for Category 6 cable-based environments.
As far as cabling management goes, Category 6 cabling is installed and administered in a similar manner to Category 5 and 5e cables. “You can’t see too much difference except if you look closely inside the cable, in terms of the design and structure,” Kish said. “From the outside, it’s about the same size, a little bit bigger, and the conductors are slightly larger. But you terminate them the same way on connecting hardware, and you administer them the same way on patch panels or cross-connecting blocks.”
However, testing requirements for Category 6 cabling have become more stringent, said Brad Masterson, networking product manager for Fluke Electronics Canada LP. Fluke currently has Category 6 cable testers available in its DSP-4300 and OMNIScanner2 product lines.
“The frequency testing component went from 100MHz for Category 5e to 250MHz for Category 6, so you’re testing to two and a half times greater in frequency range,” Masterson said. “At the same time, the measurable limits for an actual test became tighter. For example, for return loss, I believe it’s more than 50 per cent tighter.”
These changes in the new copper cabling standard mean it becomes “imperative that (cable installers) do a pristine job when they perform the install, almost to the letter of the standard,” Masterson said. “There’s no room for sloppy work. People who are not experts in installing these systems will have difficulty obtaining a pass for the Category 6 standard because the (error) margins are not there.”
Other considerations for Category 6 cable testing include the necessity for both channel and permanent link testing. The channel consists of the various cords and cables that connect networking equipment to wall outlets and patch panels in workstation areas or telecommunications closets. The permanent link is comprised of the network cabling that links workstation wall outlets to termination points in the telecom room.
In other words, the permanent link is the cabling installed behind office walls, overhead in ceilings or below the floor surface. Permanent link testing is typically performed once the cabling plant has been installed initially, but before user equipment is implemented.
Nordx/CDT’s Kish quoted a statistic that suggests 50 per cent of network administrators associate network problems with the physical layer or cabling-related issues. This makes it of vital importance for administrators to be able to track down problems within the cabling plant, he added.
Kish said some cabling equipment manufacturers have started selling automated systems, which make remote management a feasible option for cable administrators. He explained that these systems include patch panels that detect patch cords connected to various ports on the network and send that information to the central administration system. Automated systems are more expensive to purchase, but they simplify the job of administration by keeping track of cabling, Kish said.
These types of automated or remote cable management systems require the use of active patch panels, which are just beginning to see some interest among customers, according to Jeff Taylor, operations manager for the ICS Data Networks Solutions Group of Cygnal Technologies Corp. in Scarborough, Ont.
“Active patch panels are designed to help you to manage your system remotely,” Taylor said. “They connect to your network, and you can see the whole network with that patch panel, right through your cabling and everything.”
However, Taylor said very few of his company’s customers have asked for active patch panels when purchasing new cabling systems. “You’re talking about a new price level when you start getting into that field,” he said. “Budgets are still a little bit tight right now, and you’re talking about quite a substantial increase for that type of patch panel.”
Products designed for the physical management of cabling are seeing their share of improvements as well. With moves, adds and changes to cabling an ongoing concern for administrators, the physical accessibility and flexibility of cables is of key importance, according to Janet Stanley, product marketing specialist at Wiremold Canada Inc. in Fergus, Ont.
As such, advancements are being made in the design of cable trays, used to support cabling and wires installed overhead or along corridor walls. Some recent trends in the cable tray industry include a move toward more light-duty trays, centre-spine trays and wire-mesh trays, Stanley said.
Centre-spine trays in particular make it easier for cabling to be installed and accessed for changes later, she said. Instead of having to pull cables through the ceiling from one end of an area to the other end, as would be necessary with conventional ladder trays, cable installers and administrators are able to lay cables in from the side when using centre-spine trays, Stanley explained. On either side of the centre spine are wide rungs shaped like J-hooks lying horizontally with the hook facing upward, which support and protect cabling while also making it more accessible for ongoing maintenance.
Many customers are opting for wire-mesh trays because they are slightly less expensive than other trays on the market and they are more flexible in terms of installation, Stanley said. “The wire-mesh tray looks a lot like a shopping cart. It’s wire-rod-welded together like a basket,” she said. “Contractors like it because they can make their own fittings in the field. They don’t need to know ahead of time how many elbows they need and which way they’re turning. They can use wire-cutters and make cuts into this wire-basket tray, and then push the metal together and use couplings to make it turn.”
All the technology in the world won’t deliver effective cabling management unless it’s implemented in conjunction with best practices and methodologies aimed at providing good cabling administration. Earlier this year, the TIA published a new Administration Standard for Commercial Telecommunications Infrastructure. The document (ANSI/TIA/EIA-606-A-2002) contains information and examples on how to administer cabling systems.
“When I think of cable administration, I think of labelling and how to identify what’s connected to what’s in the cabling system,” Kish said. The new TIA administration standard outlines how cabling components should be labelled and how records should be maintained, which can be done either on paper, in spreadsheets or using specialized software, Kish added.
For environments with frequent moves, adds and changes, efficient cabling management can save administrators time, which in turn will save their companies money, Kish said.
Linda Stuart is a Toronto freelance writer who specializes in networking, telecommunications, e-business and IT management reporting. She can be reached at [email protected].