Invest in the management of your cabling records

With time and money invested in planning and implementing a structured cabling system, companies must adopt modern management methods to maintain their infrastructure in order to benefit the most from it.

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With time and money invested in planning and implementing a structured cabling system, companies must adopt modern management methods to maintain their infrastructure in order to benefit the most from it.

Frank Coletto,

Anixter Inc.

Organizations must have a management strategy in place if they are to take advantage of the best technology available. This kind of management is now possible with mature, specialized software applications designed specifically for documenting and managing structured cabling infrastructure. The savings provided by these software systems justify their cost. Companies that have recognized this fact are already benefiting from reduced operational costs and improved service to their users. These same organizations have also reduced downtime and increased productivity, saving time and money.

Over the last few years, increasingly powerful business software applications and the demand for communication between individuals and businesses have increased the importance of an organization`s structured cabling infrastructure. For example, central storage of information (so that it can be shared), electronic mail, storing and retrieving voice mail, and the ability to communicate rapidly across great distances have grown to become necessities in the business world. The cabling system needed to transfer this volume of data at the required speeds is a far cry from the traditional voice cabling of the 1960s, `70s and `80s. To satisfy these growing needs, telecommunications and data communications have merged and become highly complex.

The increase in the technical complexity of structured cabling and the never-ending push for cost reductions have resulted in many changes in the way internal cabling systems are designed, managed and controlled. Many complex cable management tools let users view and manage a complete data network, including wide area network links and remote local area networks. Companies that adopted cable management tools in the early stages of network development are now able to augment their management methods.

Planning a cable management strategy

Most organizations are beyond the stage of asking, Why should we bother to manage our structured cabling? The question asked now is, What systems are available and how should we apply them? When considering how to implement a cable management system and determine its cost, two main issues could help make your strategy successful: standardization and documentation.

Standardization. Use a standard set of cabling components or a standard cabling system throughout your organization to provide significant savings in staff training, inventory levels and speed of response. Complement the cabling system with a standard, consistent numbering system -- one that is concise and easy to understand. If the numbering system is kept up-to-date -- with all components from patch panels to information outlets labeled consistently -- a cable management system can show you what is available, right at your desk.

When deciding on a numbering system, consider how the cabling information is recorded in the documentation system. Some systems may eliminate the need to duplicate data within any labeling, simplifying the individual elements of the numbering.

Documentation. Accurate, comprehensive documentation is the second key to any successful cable management strategy. Functions you should consider are:

- Planning for moves, adds and changes

- Fault analysis and rapid recovery from problems

- Long-term storage of information about the infrastructure for analysis.

In addition, any system should be simple and fun -- or at least not frustrating -- to use. If users avoid the system, the quality of the documentation will deteriorate and eventually become useless.

Financial implications

When considering the costs of implementing a cable management strategy, also compare the alternatives and analyze the costs over various time frames. The cost of doing something compared with the cost of doing nothing can be an important consideration. For example, an organization may have to move to new offices because its cabling system becomes so unmanageable that fixing it is too expensive. In this situation, the costs include not only the move but also the inevitable disruption and lost business.

Implementing a sound cable management strategy, however, can result in the following savings:

- Reduced time required to perform moves, adds and changes. Good records make it possible to plan easily and ensure that the solutions are right the first time.

- Reduced downtime when rectifying faults. Minimizing downtime is directly related to the speed with which faults can be identified and corrected. The financial costs of downtime can vary enormously and are usually significant.

- Extended life of a cabling system. The longer a cabling system can be used, the lower the annual depreciation costs. Good cable management extends the life of a system and can reduce the amount of additional cabling or network electronics needed when capacity is apparently reached.

- Reduced level of expertise needed at remote locations. Standard procedures, numbering systems and documentation methods allow staff to learn quickly how to interpret the information provided. Technicians in remote locations, therefore, need less-specialized skills -- a more cost-effective solution than keeping an underused specialist at each remote location.

The typical cost to implement a computerized cable management system can be relatively low compared to the savings realized. Costs would include a personal computer, software, training and support and, if budgeted separately, the initial data entry (see table).

It is assumed that the initial data entry is completed by the cabling contractor as part of a new installation. An optional price is included for the cost of data entry or audit, if it is outsourced and separately budgeted. It is also assumed that a single user license will be purchased during the first year, optionally supplemented by a second user license in the second year. For a 2000-jack structured cabling scheme with simple two-point administration and sequential numbering, expect the costs to be similar to those in the cost table.

No allowance is made for additional labor to run the system. The time saved by implementing a computerized cable management system will more than outweigh the effort necessary to maintain it.

When to begin

The traditional (and easiest) time to implement new procedures is when an organization moves to new premises. At this point, it is also fairly easy to ensure that the cabling and associated network equipment are well-documented.

Installers can be contracted to provide the documentation in the required format. This process is not always problem-free, however, because the contractor may not always deliver the documentation on the day a handover takes place. As a result, a period of time exists when the organization is making changes and has no system to capture the changed information. Some organizations may never catch up: They start on the slippery slope to cabling anarchy on the day they begin using their new network and cabling systems.

To avoid this situation, always insist that documentation be delivered on the same day that the network and cabling system are handed over. Additionally, ensure that internal systems are in place to maintain documentation accurately as moves, adds and changes begin -- not an easy job and one that should not be underestimated. Often, the first few weeks in a building are confusing and inevitably coincide with the implementation of new systems.

Many organizations realize that, to stay in their current location, they must start to manage their cabling. In that situation, you need to audit, organize and document the system, while the cabling staff continues with regular tasks on the active network. Because this can be difficult to accomplish, you may decide to use a third party that specializes in the provision of high-quality documentation services.

Methods and systems

Two methods can be adopted to get a cabling system under control. With the "blitz" method, a team -- normally working after hours -- audits all parts of the building or site and combines the information in a database to get a complete picture of the network. A less aggressive method is to audit and document smaller sections of the system over a longer period of time.

Auditing and documenting the horizontal cabling first makes it possible to identify which of the circuits are live and, hence, which of the patches and jumpers are redundant. Any redundant cables can then be removed. Performed floor by floor, this procedure gets the cabling system back under control and allows the vertical cabling, communications rooms and specialized areas to be audited and documented under less time pressure.

Cable management systems can be broken down into three distinct groups: the traditional paper system, computerized techniques using standard software, and computerized techniques using specialized software applications.

Paper systems. The traditional system of paper-and-pencil management, for the most part, has been replaced by computerized techniques. Paper systems are prone to human error and have no built-in methods of checking to ensure that the entered information is consistent and logical. Accuracy of the system deteriorates over time, and the paper itself will eventually have to be replaced.

Although paper systems are simple to use, they rely on a comprehensive numbering system where every element of the circuit must be completely identified; for example, outlet numbering typically includes floor, zone and often floor box information, as well as the outlet number. This is necessary because cross-referencing is not possible within a paper system.

Standard software applications. For some time now, spreadsheets have been used to document cable systems, generally to replace a proven paper system. However, this method solves only a few of the problems associated with paper systems. It does not provide validity checks and is, therefore, still subject to error. Also it does not allow organizations to reconsider and simplify their numbering systems.

In response to these drawbacks, the first specialized applications for cable management were released in 1987. These early software systems comprised two distinct types: database applications and computer-aided design (CAD) applications. Most of today`s software applications are of the database type.

Database applications record the basic information within a database and cross-reference that information, as necessary. Some applications, such as Cablesoft`s Crimp for Windows, can also display location information on an imported CAD floor plan, which provides the flexibility of using the same application with or without floor plans.

In CAD applications, a building drawing is used as the basis for the documentation. Items on the blueprint have database records attached to them; a parallel database is used to record the circuits that result from established connections. The primary user interface is through the CAD system, and requires specialized skills.

Specialized software systems. A system should be evaluated on the basis of the available product features at the time of the demonstration, the stability of the software company that developed the application and the anticipated payback period associated with the system`s use.

Costs to Implement a Cable Management System

Year 1

PC (first year [of three] depreciation charge) $1000

Software (one concurrent user license) $14,000

Support agreement (one year) $2100

Training (one day for two people) $800

Total $17,900

Options

Data entry (fixed infrastructure for 2000 jacks) $3500

Audit (fixed infrastructure for 2000 jacks) $6000

Year 2

PC (second year [of three] depreciation charge) $1000

Support agreement (one year) $2100

Total $3100

Options

Software (second concurrent user) $7500

Server disk space charge (for use of department server) $1500

Considerations for Prospective Users

To evaluate a cable management software system, talk to those who use it. Although their cabling system and management procedures may differ from yours, they can tell you how easy the system is to learn and use, how often it is enhanced, and how well it is supported. And before making a final decision, you should consider the following:

- Type of system

- Number of users

- Ease of use

- Data import and export

- Working practices

Type of system. First, you should determine which system is most suitable: a database-type system or a CAD-based system. If all the drawings are available, then you will probably base your decision upon whether the cable management must be integrated with any space-planning tool used by the facility management team. If this is the case, the choice will most likely be a CAD-based system.

If the system does not need to be integrated with a space-planning tool, then a database-type application is the obvious choice. Database systems are simpler, faster, more flexible and can be integrated easily into other non-CAD-based systems. They also use less-powerful hardware to achieve the same performance.

Number of users. Several manufacturers claim that their systems can be networked, but this does not necessarily mean they are multiuser systems. You must decide whether you need a multiuser system and whether access to the information will be required over a wide area network link. If this is the case, then you need to consider the speed of data retrieval over a low-bandwidth link.

The method of licensing is also important because it can affect the cost. If the system is to be multiuser, choose one with concurrent-user licensing rather than application-copy licensing.

Ease of use. One factor that determines whether the new system succeeds is ease of use. A good indication of this is the recommended training period; for example, Cablesoft Crimp training is one day. If the recommended training period is more than a week, the system is probably quite complex.

However, do not confuse the length of training by how long it takes to set up the first copy. This setup may involve a significant configuration that does not have to be repeated for subsequent installations.

Data import and export. Many cable management systems have relatively closed databases. This means that instead of being able to import data, an operator must key it in, which significantly increases the cost. Of greater importance, however, is the system`s ability to export data. For example, if you decide sometime in the future to change systems, you should be able to transfer data from one system to another. If your cable management system cannot do this, you will be saddled with what will eventually become an out-of-date system.

Working practices. The system you choose should be flexible enough to configure to existing and planned procedures. Although the system may match today`s procedures, these will inevitably change. Your system should be able to change with them.

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Using Crimp for Windows software from Cablesoft Inc. (Arlington Heights, IL), you can view the level of detail you need while maintaining complete interaction with the database.

Frank Coletto is vice president of structured cabling solutions at Anixter Inc., Skokie, IL. A value-added provider of integrated networking and cabling solutions that support business information and network infrastructure requirements, the company is the distributor of Cablesoft`s Crimp software.

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