Corporate objectives, business ops and data center cabling

Questions and answers about the many forms efficiency can take, and how cabling can help achieve them.

Questions and answers about the many forms efficiency can take, and how cabling can help achieve them.

Patrick McLaughlin

Recently I had the opportunity to interview Ken Hall, global data center program manager with Tyco Electronics’ AMP Netconnect business unit (www.ampnetconnect.com). While the primary reason for our conversation was to discuss Tyco’s introduction of the MRJ-21 Ultra Slim cabling system (whose claim to fame is low-density high-speed connectivity in the data center), during the well-rounded discussion Hall provided insight into the practical impact of data center cabling on a user organization’s business objectives.

Q: At a macro level, what are the hottest issues and trends driving demand for cable and connector technology in data centers today?

A: Bandwidth to the consumer is one of the more volatile pieces we see in the market. It’s constantly changing and there’s a tremendous amount of broadband to the consumer. Social networking is growing by leaps and bounds as well as multimedia content. If a picture’s worth a thousand words, what’s a video worth? People don’t use a cell phone just to make a phone call anymore. They send text messages, images, sound and video files. All these things are mainstream today. So network response time becomes a consideration. What’s an acceptable wait time for a consumer? We have zero patience; we expect immediate response. Delivery is critical to an organization.

These types of considerations do affect choices of media and the cabling used. Information storage growth, bandwidth, throughput, network latency are critical as well. We’re constantly trying to ensure we have devices in place that will allow us to get information where we need it when we need it, and back it up.

I look at the fact that we’ve got a tremendous number of Gigabit Ethernet devices now moving to line rate. We’re not oversubscribed to the same degree we were in the past. We’re seeing a tremendous amount of IP-addressable devices that are available, acceptable and being added to the network. We’re seeing the growth of Gigabit applications and subsequently 10-Gbit for backbone.

Each of these is becoming more commonplace, and more critical to how we operate a network. Because of that we’re getting the end user what they want when they want it, and the quality of delivery that is expected today. Part of that is becoming much more efficient. We see in data centers as well as equipment development, much more energy-efficient devices. A building has a certain amount of energy it’s able to pull, and a certain amount of availability and accessibility. The more efficient we can make that space, the more beneficial it will be to the organization and the more applications that can be provided. If we can make it more operationally efficient, we can deliver error-free applications to the end user. Critical to that is the energy efficiency of the data center itself and the equipment that’s in that data center.

Q: How is Tyco Electronics responding to the growing demand for “green,” sustainable, energy-efficient technology in the data center?

A: Tyco Electronics continues to develop interfaces, backplanes, thermal management devices at the board level with technology leaders in data center equipment. We look at it as an overall approach, and look at sectors of the market where energy-efficiency gains can be made. Part of what we look at as an organization is how we deliver that and how we work with key OEMs in that space to get benefits in place and make them more efficient, regardless of the environment they’re in.

For data center network electronics, we’re looking at the need for development of smaller, high-performance interfaces all the way to advancements in high-speed low-cost optical technologies. A lot goes into even a small handheld phone that involves optics to deliver performance at a low cost, and longevity of battery life. In that vein we’re able to deliver more energy-efficient interfaces, enable more energy-efficient applications. That’s been critical to our approach to addressing environmental issues within data centers. We’re active in advancing performance in a way that enhances customer experience. Going back to handheld devices, each app builds on prior advances. Each step becomes more energy efficient, and more efficient in terms of delivery as well as performance to the end customer.

That same thought process carries to larger, higher-performance network equipment and the applications that reside on them. Since we’re able to improve environmental impact inside a “box” for the equipment vendors, we can leverage and enhance that technology and those advancements outside the box and into the data center.

Q: One of your more recent technological introductions is the MRJ-21 Ultra Slim cabling system. Can you give me some detail on how this technology fits into the “green” data center ecosystem initiatives that you’ve described?

A: The MRJ-21 was designed and developed around the turn of the century, with respect to enabling more throughput, more active ports and a smaller footprint. Years back we’d gotten involved with the fiber connector “wars” as they were called, with respect to getting a smaller package and deliver more ports in the same footprint, which helps from an economic standpoint, space and technical-performance standpoints.

A similar thought came into play with copper electronics. We introduced the MRJ-21 interface, which in effect is six ports over copper in a single connector, but because of the spacing and packaging of it, we’re able to double the density on a line card for equipment vendors. That effectively creates a much more efficient line card. Those that have employed it have reduced power consumption by about 25 percent per port. They’re able to get that level of efficiency on the equipment because of the interface.

By itself that sounds great, but we’re adding greater cable mass to a device. So we looked at some effects with two applications: direct-attach to OEM equipment as well as cabinet-row cabling, thinking about management within a data center.

On the direct-attach side, equipment vendors that have the MRJ-21 interface directly on their equipment are able to deliver more energy-efficient equipment, which is great. But we’re also able to provide more space on their devices than they’d traditionally be able to do with RJ-45. What MRJ-21 Ultra Slim does is take that same interface and with a much smaller cable diameter, enable even more manageable efficiency. We can get the power-saving benefits on the equipment itself, and through a smaller cable, which is roughly the size of a single Category 6A cable, we can deliver six ports in a very small footprint. It makes cable management much more efficient and the cable mass and pathways, as well as across the face of line cards, is dramatically reduced.

In cabinets with network electronics, managers face everything involved with air movement. How do you keep equipment cool and manage airflow, whether it’s front-to-back or side-to-side? You can’t afford to block pathways and typically we’re putting a lot more cable into that space than we need to. This allows you to take advantage of equipment power saving, and supplement it with a lower-profile cable. So more ports, greater energy benefits and less cable than you’d have with half the number of ports.

Q: If I could ask you to make the case from a slightly different standpoint, if I’m the CIO or COO of a Fortune 500 company, why should I care about the introduction of this MRJ-21 Ultra Slim technology? What’s in it for me from a business standpoint?

A: Typically a C-level officer would not get overly involved in the selection of cabling. However, the energy and operational benefits tied to the equipment and ongoing data center efficiency, makes it something of interest. Your concern is efficiency, uptime, ongoing operational issues, and cost. At a C-level position, I’m concerned about the costs of operations and what am I getting out of it? Wasting ports? Providing marginal performance? In this scenario I get a stronger impact with network electronics and energy consumption. There are also speed and deployment benefits coming from a pluggable copper network.

Decisions on network electronics are made at a C level. So where we would not normally see a cabling decision made there, certainly the decisions about the network are part of an overall strategy that is mapped to organizational objectives. What are they trying to get out of the data center? Where are their needs derived and how do they support their ongoing business?

This product by itself might be a minor consideration in the overall decision and thought process, however the impact on the technologies deployed, thermal management and power consumption are there. So it’s a foundational piece and something that will benefit a C-level officer in terms of getting the most efficient operation out of their data center.

Q: The introduction of MRJ-21 Ultra Slim may give the appearance that you’re beginning to place emphasis on the business benefits of a technology in addition to emphasizing the technology itself. Are there certain factors driving this kind of focus, or at least the inclusion of business-level considerations in decision-making about technology?

A: Consider that the data center is the heart of an organization. It’s not just used for information processing, but is the tool for a company to reach its business objectives. Trends are continuing to emerge and grow. Years ago we used to talk about convergence but today it’s truly here. We have applications and electronics more directly tied to overall business objectives.

The more efficient you can make that space, the more it adds to an environmental stewardship argument, it helps an organization reach its objectives. It’s not just cabling for the sake of cabling, it’s cabling with a purpose. It gives us the ability to deliver content when needed, as needed for the application that the business is designed to provide.

We’re focusing on what the overall business is; someone needs to justify spending a single dollar on cabling. So it can’t just be for the sake of putting an extra cable in “just in case.” This is a way to derive additional benefits and we’re providing value back to the company.

Patrick McLaughlin is our chief editor.

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