Intelligent management goes beyond the physical layer

The tools available to provide insight into connectivity and performance have expanded to accommodate networks’ increasing complexity.

April, 2012 Issue of Cabling Installation & Maintenance Magazine

The tools available to provide insight into connectivity and performance have expanded to accommodate networks’ increasing complexity.

by Patrick McLaughlin

The idea of intelligently managing a network’s physical layer has existed for quite some time. In fact, not just the idea of such management, but also the capability to do so, has been offered to network and structured cabling professionals for well over a decade. In the late 1990s and stretching into the early years of this millennium, the concept typically was referred to as “intelligent patching” because the primary everyday products involved were the patch panel and patch cords. The significant and widely accepted main benefit of these systems was for a network or cabling-system administrator to know when a network port had been accidentally or improperly accessed—plugged in or unplugged.

For the first few years of this capability’s existence, RiT Technologies (www.rittech.com) was the proverbial only game in town. Later, similar capabilities were developed by the company then called Cablesoft and now called iTracs (www.itracs.com). Several cabling-system manufacturers incorporated the iTracs-based capabilities into their product lines and began offering an intelligent-management solution. Similarly, other cabling-system manufacturers partnered with RiT Technologies to incorporate RiT’s technology into their systems and also offer automated or intelligent insight into the connectivity status of network ports.

Initially, many regarded the capabilities as being most relevant to the largest users with tens of thousands of ports to manage, and/or with remote locations that could not easily be managed by personnel. But as the technology evolved its appeal to network administrators in all-size organizations became more apparent.

Simultaneous development

While the technology’s evolution was taking place, a phenomenon more-closely resembling a revolution was happening simultaneously in the form of data center networking. The growing numbers and complexities of data centers have made these environments a significant part of the overall cabling industry. Many of the cabling systems deployed today serve data center networks, which are widely recognized as dynamic environments that can grow or contract (mostly grow), and that transport significant amounts of data at extremely high speeds.

Today these two entities—the ability to intelligently manage network connectivity and the proliferation of data center networks—meet. Intelligent physical layer infrastructure management (IPLIM) has become part of the lexicon, and today some of the most widely recognized cabling-system brands include IPLIM product lines. But in several ways, the offerings go beyond management of the physical layer.

RiT Technologies continues to offer the PatchView hardware system as it has evolved over the years. Recently the company incorporated PatchView into a larger portfolio of data center infrastructure management (DCIM) technologies it calls the RiT CenterMind Solution. According to RiT, the DCIM system “enables data center managers to optimize performance through a real-time consolidated view of data center IT assets, connectivity, power and environmental conditions.”

The company explains that CenterMind differs from other DCIM systems available in that it combines numerous capabilities, thereby eliminating the need to integrate those capabilities. CenterMind “combines environment, power, connectivity and security management,” RiT explains. “In addition, by automating laborious provisioning and network planning, data center managers can increase efficiency, reduce downtime and improve service.”

It includes PatchView as well as CenterMind branded management software, CenterMind G+, which optimizes environment conditions, and CenterMind P+ for power-consumption monitoring and control. RiT’s vice president of product management and business development Ben Carmi stated, “With RiT CenterMind Solution, we are bringing a new level of control, efficiency, agility and security to the mission-critical data center. Already working in many organizations across the world, RiT has incorporated years of experience in control, security and management into the RiT CenterMind Solution.”

Enterprise capabilities

CommScope (www.commscope.com) is another long-term player in the IPLIM space. Its iPatch system is the center of its intelligent-management offerings, and CommScope says the system solves challenges including remote monitoring, and also takes its place in the efficient operation of large-scale enterprises in addition to its benefits for data center networks.

In a recent blog post, CommScope’s vice president of digital marketing and education services James Donovan discussed remote-monitoring capabilities. “Information flow is now second only to cash flow in the success of many organizations,” he said. “To secure the information needed to run the business, network connections in every part of the organization must be constantly monitored and managed.

“When infrastructure MACs [moves, adds, changes] or checks are required at … dispersed sites,” Donovan continued, “delays can occur while waiting for technicians to arrive from other locations. For organizations with many remote offices, technicians’ travel time and expenses, together with the extra delay in solving problems, are costly.

“We believe intelligent infrastructure management can solve these problems by providing remote monitoring and management of the network connectivity. It avoids time-consuming manual methods of checking the integrity and security of the network physical layer. Instead, you can have complete, up-to-the-minute connectivity maps for your whole organization, together with automated alerts, one-button tracing of connections and many other features.”

Separately, CommScope produced a document explaining the benefits of combining its Systimax iPatch Intelligence Infrastructure Solution with Cisco’s (www.cisco.com) EnergyWise solution. EnergyWise enables measurement, monitoring and management of network infrastructure’s power consumption and devices attached to the network. CommScope said the combination “provides unprecedented ability to apply energy-management policies based on real-time location of devices. By optimizing Cisco EnergyWise capabilities, CommScope’s iPatch solution can become an invaluable tool for energy management.

“When combining CommScope’s iPatch solution and Cisco EnergyWise technology, IT and building facilities operations personnel can understand, optimize and help control power across an entire corporate infrastructure,” CommScope continued.

“The combination of iPatch and Cisco EnergyWise can be used to optimize energy consumption by defining when power should be supplied to devices in certain locations, or when they are not in use and can be powered down.”

Software solutions

Many of the developments that continue to take place in the realm of IPLIM are software-based. Approximately one year ago Panduit (www.panduit.com) put forth the most recent release of its Physical Infrastructure Manager (PIM) software platform. The system “provides an end-to-end physical to logical view of the data center and extended enterprise to drive optimization of network performance, operational efficiency and capacity management,” Panduit explained.

The latest release “extends the current intelligent physical layer management capabilities into a process-driven automation solution for tracking the allocation and utilization of critical IT assets within the data center and throughout the enterprise,” Panduit said. “This platform lays the foundation for effective DCIM through accurate and timely documentation of these physical assets, improved visibility into asset MACs, and integration with applicable management systems.”

At the time of the release, the company explained that the software upgrade was the first in what would be a three-phase approach to helping users solve DCIM problems. Phase two is to add functionality critical to automating on- and off-network asset tracking, allocation and utilization to support the optimization of space, power and cooling resource. Then phase three would also incorporate predictive analytics to help users automate capacity planning within data centers.

A software platform known as Infrastructure Configuration Manager (ICM) is part of TE Connectivity’s (www.teconnectivity.com) intelligent management portfolio. ICM is used in both TE Connectivity’s AMPtrac ninth-wire system (the iTracs-style IPLIM system) and its Quareo connection point identification technology. Kam Patel, product management director for emerging technologies at TE Enterprise Networks, commented that the software’s ability to work with either system “allows customers to choose the appropriate platform to meet their specific application and business needs. ICM is ideal for customers needing to manage complex networks, allowing simultaneous access to a wide range of departments, including help desk, planning, network administration, supervision and technicians.”

When introducing ICM, TE Connectivity explained, “When used with AMPtrac and Quareo, this state-of-the-art software system allows immediate response to changes in connectivity and automatically records the connections of the physical layer cabling system and its devices with accurate documentation. TE managed connectivity solutions, enabled by ICM, help customers eliminate time-consuming manual work-order processes, easily identify and locate specific ports, auto-discover IP assets, and trace data center circuits from the switch through the crossconnect to the server. The system also helps maximize network investment by identifying under-utilized assets and improving security through real-time monitoring and programmable alerts.”

The Quareo Connection Point Identification (CPID) technology offered by TE Connectivity incorporates an integrated circuit into a standard form-factor connector, “allowing for something that is very akin to a MAC-like ID—placed right on the A and A-prime ends of the cable,” the company explained. “This provides full accountability for each connection point within the network.”

The company offered the following example: “In a 10G copper link, if someone inadvertently deploys a 1-Gig-rated patch cord, today’s network administrator can spend countless hours trying to troubleshoot the root cause of that problem. Because of CPID technology, the network administrator can be informed instantly of that 1-Gig link being deployed in that channel, allowing appropriate measures to be taken immediately and more cost-effectively. Quareo can reduce a six-hour troubleshooting hunt down to three minutes, because it will show exactly what’s changed.”

As the evolution of networks continues in enterprises of all sizes as well as in data centers, the development of intelligent management capabilities progresses beyond the physical layer and deeper into network connectivity.

Patrick McLaughlin is our chief editor.

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