A new era ahead for cable management software

A revised standard, committed vendors, and improved products characterize the current CMS scene

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A revised standard, committed vendors, and improved products characterize the current CMS scene.

Certainly the dominant type of software in the cabling industry is, and always has been, cable management software (CMS). A simple definition of CMS would be software used to document the physical components of a cabling plant and to show the interconnection of those components. This definition clearly indicates that CMS is used by and benefits the manager, user, or owner of the cable plant; if the contractor who installs or upgrades the plant gets involved with CMS, it has probably only been to sell it as an add-on product to the physical installation.

Today, just about everything about this scenario, right down to the definition of cable management software, is changing. For example, recent product introductions:

  • Link the management of the physical infrastructure with corporate financial considerations, leading to comprehensive information-technology asset management.
  • Merge physical-layer management into higher-level network management, formerly the preserve of network management software (NMS).
  • Blur the distinction between software-only management solutions and combination hardware-software systems that have formerly been strictly proprietary.

In addition to such changes in products and technology, a wave of mergers, acquisitions, and re-launches has swept this sector of the cabling industry, leading to a list of major players that is better capitalized and more business-savvy than ever before.

For instance, the Crimp software product first launched by Cablesoft in the U.K. in the mid-1980s has evolved into Crimp Enterprise Server 5.0, introduced in 1999 by a renamed iTRACS Corp. that has relocated to the U.S. and is now headquartered in Tempe, AZ. Another international entrant, Physical Networks, has recently transferred its headquarters from Paris to Philadelphia, PA. Long-time software maker The Angeles Group has been acquired by Veramark, and the IMAP product line has been added to Greenlee Textron's growing family of cabling-industry companies.

Let's take a closer look at some of the components of this rich CMS mix:

  • The Angeles Group (TAG), a long-time player in the U.S. cabling industry, publishes Cable-Master CMS as part of its larger suite of software products-the Quantum Series 8 telemanagement system. "Both cable management and facility management are strong in our product mix," says TAG general manager Dick Elzinga. "We have eight software products, which are integrated together. Half are billing-related, and half facilities-related. The billing-related components are for cost management; the facilities-related components are for plant maintenance and cable management, and are linked to AutoCAD."
  • IMAP Textron, which distributed a demonstration CD-ROM of version 2.0 of its docIT software in last month's Cabling Installation & Maintenance, produces a CMS system that interfaces with the popular business-graphics software package, Visio.
  • iTRACS Corp. has recently launched its Crimp Enterprise Server 5.0 package. iTRACS founder Pete Pela emphasizes that his company's product is not just cable management software; rather, it ushers in an intelligent structured cabling system (SCS). "All intelligent SCSs have both hardware and software components," he says. "You can't do it only through software; that's impossible." Since the iTRACS system has both active and passive components, it competes with proprietary products such as PatchView from RiT Technologies (Mahwah, NJ) and the recently launched iPatch system from Avaya (Holmdel, NJ).
  • Physical Networks publishes Cabling Systems Manager (CSM), a software product that is, according to Cabling Installation & Maintenance associate editor Michelle Abrams, "designed to help corporations better plan, manage and service their physical network, communication and cabling infrastructure" (see "Physical Networks headquarters comes to U.S.," April 2001, page 56). Physical Networks COO Wayne H. Monk adds that CSM will appeal to contractors: "More contractors will provide network-managed services to their clients in the future, and our CSM will be an enabler for them to provide these services."

Some questions to ask

These products, as well as at least a dozen other, similar ones (see vendor box, pg. 42), may represent a substantial investment and offer many features that could be outside the range of the typical cable-plant manager's experience. So, let's list a few questions you may want to ask vendors before making a purchasing decision.

  • Is the system compliant with TIA/EIA-606-A?

The TIA/EIA-606 administrative standard of the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA-Arlington, VA) is undergoing its first revision since it was issued in 1993. As iTRACS' Pela points out, the TIA standard is about organizing and documenting the cable plant, and not about administering it. But asking the question will give your vendor the opportunity to explain how his or her product is organized and how it supports standards-compliant documentation requirements.

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The iTRACS cable-management system uses ingenious and simple technology to adapt to any manufacturer's patch panel. In the photograph can be seen contacts linking with each modular 8-pin connector. The contacts are mounted on a self-adhesive strip, which is connected via a cable to an iTRACS network monitoring device. Plugging a connector in the patch panel makes contact with the strip and alerts the monitoring device that a network circuit has been activated. (Photo courtesy of iTRACS Corp.)

Physical Networks' Monk adds that many of his customers don't use the TIA/EIA-606 standard, an observation confirmed by other executives interviewed for this article. "The Physical Networks software supports the 606 environment," he says, "but it also supports other naming environments. Over 70% of the users we talk to are not using 606. It would most likely be used with a new building rather than a retrofit or upgrade."

  • What visual capabilities does the package have?

The Angeles Group's Elzinga points out that we live in an increasingly visual age. He says, "We find today that people are managing more from a visual environment, using AutoCAD. Ten years ago, PCs weren't powerful enough to support this application, so at that time, only about 10% of our customers asked for an AutoCAD interface, whereas today about 75% do." Keep in mind that AutoCAD isn't the only graphics interface around; the IMAP Textron product noted above interfaces with Visio.

  • Does the CMS interface with other kinds of software, such as that dedicated to asset management?

Asset management may be a recent catch phrase in this particular sector of the cabling industry, but it is more than just a fad. It represents, according to TAG's Elzinga, "the integration of financial and physical components-active equipment, for instance, has its cost allocated to the department using it. The asset side of the software plays an integral role-it is used to allocate expenses for leaseback, for example, or it keeps track of repair and maintenance costs."

Monk of Physical Networks has a caution to add, however. "Few companies do true asset management," he says. "It requires a big software product that takes years and years to develop. Most products in this market today are low-level, and track only the physical attributes of items. If it's just asset or inventory tracking, to me that's not really asset management."

  • Does the CMS interface with network management software (NMS) packages?

Network management software and systems (NMSs) are used by network managers to monitor a network operating in real time. It can be beneficial if a CMS, documenting the cable plant, can interoperate with software monitoring what is attached to this physical-layer infrastructure.

Monk, however, once again offers a caution. "Network management software," he says, "is a complex area that people often oversimplify. I'd be surprised if many people are using CMS with NMS. We hear lots of questions, but we see very few people really doing it. NMS gives you active network monitoring, so in theory, linking the two gives you more accurate real-time data, both about the active network and the physical infrastructure. But it's extremely complex to do."

  • Does the system provide only passive connectivity information, or does it also have active network-monitoring capabilities?

This question highlights an important distinction between passive, software-only, inventory-type systems and active monitoring capabilities such as those offered by network management software. Software-only systems may be less costly, but they also provide less information about what is happening in an operating network.

Systems with active monitoring capabilities have, until recently, been strictly proprietary. RiT Technologies, for example, offers its PatchView technology, which depends on a 10-pin rather than an 8-pin modular jack; the two extra pins are used for monitoring.

Avaya introduced its iPatch system at this spring's international CEBit show in Germany, a proprietary solution that has reportedly been in the offing for two and a half years. This system depends on a shutter attached to the 8-pin modular connector. When the shutter is raised to plug in the connector, the circuit is monitored as being active.

iTRACS Corp., on the other hand, has introduced a non-proprietary solution to active network monitoring that depends on a self-adhesive strip that can be attached to any manufacturer's patch panel. Each strip, which can service up to 24 ports, is linked to an active network-monitoring device; the strip reports a circuit in service when a standard 8-pin modular plug comes into contact with it.

  • Is the total software suite scalable, so that components can be added incrementally?

The kinds of capabilities described here are pretty substantial, and may require a sizeable capital investment by the customer. It is important, then, to find out if capabilities can be added incrementally and as needed. A modular product, in such circumstances, may be more attractive than a monolithic one.

  • Is there an estimated payback period associated with the product?

Depending on the capabilities of a particular product, the time taken to retire its cost via offsetting time, labor, and personnel cost savings may vary. Pete Pela of iTRACS, for instance, explains that the comprehensive monitoring and tracking his company's system permits has allowed him to model a typical payback period for an intelligent structured cabling system of only 18 months.

  • What future enhancements are planned for the product line?

Given the size of the CMS investment and the importance of a company's cable management software and system to its mission-critical data-processing and telecommunications networks, it is important to determine what upgrades and enhancements your vendor may be planning. Pela of iTRACS, for instance, points out that both his company's product and that of his competitors, RiT Technologies and Avaya, only support the RJ-45-style, 8-pin modular plugs used in copper-wire cabling systems. iTRACS, however, will adapt its technology to fiber-optic technology and plans this quarter to release a product that supports fiber-optic SC, ST, and MT-RJ connectors. In addition, iTRACS plans to support 110-style IDC blocks by the end of the third quarter of 2001.

Arlyn S. Powell is Editor-at-Large and Associate Publisher of Cabling Installation & Maintenance.


Not all software is CMS

In the electrical industry, there has long been a type of software aimed exclusively at contractors-estimating software. Such software has permitted electrical contractors to turn cost estimating-or the takeoff-into a minor art form. A request for quotation (RFQ) can be readily responded to by plugging the materials list generated by a proposed installation into a standard estimating format, and then adding in commodity pricing and labor rates provided by a pricing service.

Bidding standardization and commodity pricing have not yet become commonplace in the low-voltage cabling industry, although there have been several unsuccessful attempts to date to introduce bidding-software packages. But Accubid Systems (Concord, Toronto, Ontario) aims to change this situation.

Around since 1985, providing project-management and estimating software for the electrical industry, Accubid this year introduced Accubid Pro, an estimating software and database package for the voice and data cabling industry.

According to Accubid marketing manager Dan Les, "The Accubid database is designed specifically for the V/D/V contractor and has been expanded to over 23,000 V/D/V parts and 2000 assemblies. It will be improved through the addition of database 'libraries' to organize the items for easy takeoff." Although structurally similar to an electrical database, Accubid's product is laid out in accordance with telecommunications infrastructure standards, and it includes labor factors and material sort codes customized for V/D/V work.

The Accubid Common Assembly Library (CAL) for voice and data contracting includes component assemblies and subsystems for copper and fiber campus backbones, copper and fiber riser backbones, fiber-optic terminations and splices, 110-style termination hardware, patch panels, and a wide variety of Category 3 and Category 5 horizontal copper solutions. The CAL also includes ancillary cabling products such as labeling and fastenings, cable support, cable protection, equipment racking and cabinets, power and grounding equipment, cable trays, wireways and even plywood backing.

Library components can be plugged into templates specific to the low-voltage cabling industry-for example, Campus Backbone, Equipment Room, Administration, Riser Backbone, Horizontal Cabling, and Workstation. "This estimate setup," adds Les, "is specific to V/D/V contractors' takeoffs. There will also be the ability to modify the 'hot lists' in the system to make them specific to a manufacturer's specifications for warrantied installations by certified installers."

Les states that Accubid is planning a number of additional improvements and enhancements to its database and templates. "Also," he says, "a V/D/V specialist is now on staff to answer all V/D/V questions."

Cable management software vendors and their products

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See also the Cabling Installation & Maintenance Buyer's Guide, March 30, 2001, page 210, for these additional vendors of cable management software: ADC, Agilent Technologies, Alcoa Fujikura, American Polywater Corp., Amphenol Fiber Optic Products, Ditel, Fiber Instrument Sales, Fluke Corp., MapFrame Corp., Microtest, Planet Associates, Trompeter Electronics, and Visio Corp.

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