Why 'multi-everything' is normal for cabling-certification

Today's information technology (IT) discussions are filled with terms like cloud, virtualization, SAN, SaaS and SLA.

From the June, 2013 Issue of Cabling Installation & Maintenance Magazine

Today's contractors must be able to manage multiple environments, media, standards and technologies in order to succeed.

By Jason Wilbur, Fluke Networks

Today's information technology (IT) discussions are filled with terms like cloud, virtualization, SAN, SaaS and SLA. Rarely is the physical layer part of the buzz, but as we know in our industry, all network technologies lead back to that critical, foundational layer and the cabling infrastructure that supports it. Like the technologies around it, Layer 1 of the seven-layer OSI Model is changing. Consultants and network owners who do not embrace this change by addressing the mounting complexities of installation and certification will struggle for profitability and the very survival as a business.

This article explores the state of the cabling industry--where it has been and where it is going--and evaluates what it takes to succeed in the face of an exponentially greater need for cabling contractors to manage multiple environments, media, standards and technologies. This "multi-everything" world is the new normal. What do cabling professionals need to do differently to ensure success and profitability? And what is needed to properly navigate the changing landscape of media, standards and more? Furthermore, how can we as a professional community change the project-management game? This article will explore these possibilities.

Changing environment

The physical setup of data centers as we have known them is changing. The archetypal data center design, including a three-tier network architecture of access, aggregation and core switches, has been common for years. But significant changes are afoot. Standalone storage and servers have been virtualized; that virtualization drives increased density and subsequent demand for better performance within the data center. The three-tier architecture is collapsing into a single-hop network fabric that promises to help deliver dramatically better performance. Organizations are starting to displace proprietary switches with software-defined networks (SDNs) built on commodity hardware and open-source traffic-management software.

In networks' horizontal legs, Ethernet connections are being overlaid by an increasing number of WiFi-connected devices. The era of bring your own device (BYOD) is having a significant impact on networks. With issues including propagation, interference, rogue access, constant evolution and others, WiFi adds strain and complexity to the underlying infrastructure.

Additionally, for the past decade 1-Gbit/sec copper connections have been extremely effective. These cables are common, inexpensive, relatively straightforward to install and repeatedly test, and have been fast enough for most needs. But this era is coming to a close, as the networking industry moves from 1-Gbit/sec copper to 10-Gbit/sec copper and 40- and even 100-Gbit/sec fiber. As more data travels over each connection, each cable is increasingly more critical.

Evolving challenges

The issue of evolving standards further complicates matters. Where Category 5 used to rule, now users have options including Category 5e, 6, 6A or 7 for copper, as well as multiple types of fiber. A broad range of industry standards, measurement and compliance requirements also exist in a virtual alphabet soup that includes such acronyms as TIA, ISO, EF, TCL, CDNEXT, TCLT, ELTCTL and more. Further, for WiFi there's 802.11a, b, g and n--with ac coming soon and ad further on the horizon. Going away is the notion: "Pull this Category 6 and connect it to the server rack; pull this Category 6 and connect it to the switch; pull this Category 5e for the LAN."

At the same time, those responsible for deploying and maintaining this infrastructure--cable installers, project managers, network administrators and others--face limited resources. With time and money as obvious constraints, they need to get more done, faster, and for less. A reality that can go unrecognized in these situations is the twin constraints of manpower and expertise. Fewer trained personnel are available to do certain work--specifically in terms of the ratio of installer to installation--and those who are available may have limited expertise. The divide between project managers and technicians or installers continues to grow. Project managers often have professional certifications and substantial expertise across a range of installation and testing requirements, while techs or installers often have more-limited training, isolated expertise, and in some cases may even be temporary workers.

Amid the environment that includes more-complex cabling projects and limited resources to facilitate those installations, the volume of cable installation and certification is still high. According to surveys, nearly 95 percent of cabling contractors expect to certify the same or a higher volume of links next year as this year. Specifically, 59 percent expect the number of links installed to remain the same, and 34 percent expect the number to increase. Of course testing and certification are key requirements for these installations, for more reasons than just the obvious need to make sure everything works. Generally certification reports are required for payment, to comply with manufacturer warranties, and to facilitate troubleshooting.

With high volumes of work and scarcity of resources, contracting organizations commonly deploy roaming install/test teams and separate service teams. As a practical matter, this approach can separate the personnel with the ability to fix a faulty link from the personnel who will discover those faults during testing. When a fault is found and cannot be fixed immediately, work stalls. A recent survey of installers showed 55 percent of them move their test equipment several times per month--not just from one site to another, but also back again.

Surveys conducted by Fluke Networks of its customers showed that 91 percent of U.S.-based installers, 90 percent of Asian-based installers and 97 percent of European-based installers report at least one problem occurring within the most recent 30-day period. More than half of the installers from the U.S. and Europe reported seven or more problems over the time period. More than half of the installers in Asia reported 10 or more problems within 30 days.

It is important to remember that while many of those problems are issues with the cable or installation itself, they are just as likely to be errors in process. The potential for process errors is significant, and when it comes to certification these errors can include incorrect test limits, misconfigurations or parameters, test data spread across multiple testers, mismatched results, incomplete testing or reporting and more. The mobility of test instruments (from one worksite to another and often back again) can be a significant contributing factor to many of these process errors.

And of course these problems for installers add up in the form of lost productivity. The survey data shows that on average, a 1,000-link project in the U.S. includes 45 hours spent resolving cable-infrastructure issues. In Asia an average of 61 hours is spent resolving cable-related issues per 1,000-link project. And in Europe the average is 26 hours per 1,000-link project.

Crossover point?

The opposing forces of increasingly complexity and thinly stretched expertise appear to be on a collision course. The implication is that if something does not change, then some other factor has to give. Continued-increasing complexity without commensurately increasing resources will result in a steady increase in either time or cost per installation. Either it will take longer to test and certify links--thereby slowing growth until volume, complexity and resources reach an unsteady equilibrium--or the cost will begin to rise, allowing additional expertise and resources to catch up to the growth in volume and complexity.

Clearly, better efficiency and agility are needed, including among the tools used for certification. Tools that can assume a larger role in the installation process will have a greater impact on the installation contractor's business. Over the past decade, the nature of that efficiency and impact has evolved. For the past 10 years or so speed (coupled with accuracy and reliability) has been an extremely valuable asset that a certification tool can deliver to a user. But the evolution of the industry as described in this article provides a new opportunity to wring time, cost, complexity and errors out of the rest of the certification process.

The certification process can be divided into six steps. Here, I describe those six steps as they realistically exist for many of today's complex projects.

  1. Planning--Typically left to the project manager. Today most installers manage the testing and certification of multiple jobs simultaneously, each with multiple teams, test tools and requirements. This complexity can lead to costly errors.
  2. Setup--Ensuring the requirements are known and the tool is correctly configured. Multiple media types and varying standards are just some of the complexities affecting setup. Often frontline technicians either need to wait for a particular expert to set up the tool, or risk making errors that require rework.
  3. Testing--It can always be faster, but current testers' speed is such that the ability to gain a significant advantage in this part of the process is limited. Greater gains can be had elsewhere.
  4. Troubleshooting--Varying technician skill-level, or the very lack of familiarity with certain installation types or standards, often mean project delays until the required expertise is available.
  5. Reporting--The bane of the installation in many ways. It is increasingly complex, with multiple testers, teams, standards and test regimes involved. Generating the correct reports is a time-consuming process when all goes correctly. But this is also the point at which errors and oversights from earlier in the process become apparent, causing delays.
  6. System acceptance--A growing challenge for customers. Installers who are quite familiar with cabling can be overwhelmed by the increasing complexity. End-user customers, especially those not as familiar with cabling, easily can be overwhelmed by multiple complex reports, varying test regimes and more factors.

Certification's future

One possible answer to today's demanding requirements is to add more expert project managers to the process. They could apply the insight, training and oversight needed to eliminate errors and improve efficiency. This option, however, is not economically feasible in many circumstances. In those cases, another solution is a testing tool that can help take on that role, managing the test process as well as the test itself.

A test solution with these capabilities is more agile, has the ability to address all six steps in the certification process, and can manage multiple testing scenarios. To solve the multiple challenges that exist in today's certification environment, a tool will need to be built from the ground up for the "multi" environment. If it is built that way, it can help project managers and technicians meet the evolving challenges associated with cable certification. ::

Editor's Note: This article is derived from the white paper entitled "The New Normal: Multi-Everything--The State of the Cabling Certification Industry." That paper was written in support of Fluke Networks' launch of its Versiv family of copper and fiber-optic certification tools. The unedited white paper is available at www.flukenetworks.com.

Jason Wilbur is vice president and general manager of Fluke Networks' data-communications installer business unit (www.flukenetworks.com).

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