Distributor specifications go beyond-the-standard

At a time when standards-based specifications and real-world applications demand more than ever from copper-based and fiber-optic cabling systems, several distributors offer programs to provide customers assurance that products and systems are equipped to perform in the field

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Detailed product-interoperability data seeks to ensure customer satisfaction.

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At a time when standards-based specifications and real-world applications demand more than ever from copper-based and fiber-optic cabling systems, several distributors offer programs to provide customers assurance that products and systems are equipped to perform in the field. In addition to these technical programs, some distributors also offer services that assist in the purchasing process.

Speaking about the VIP (Verified Independently for Performance) program, Jeff Craig, Graybar's (www.graybar.com) national market manager/ enterprise, says, "We brought it into the market as a way to assure customers that their systems would work. As we participated in the TIA's [Telecommunications Industry Association- www.tiaonline.org] efforts to develop Category 5E and Category 6 specifications, it became evident that some suppliers' channels were not always high-performing. The goal of VIP is to ensure that users get the performance that was specified."

Beyond-standard performance

Those comments echo the sentiments behind the Levels program from Anixter (www.anixter.com), which was put in place before the TIA developed premises-cabling standards and was relaunched in 1997. When it was reintroduced, Levels included product specifications. Since then, it has grown to include full channel specifications.

Both distributors tout "beyond-the-standard" specifications, and both put their inventoried products through extensive testing to determine those products' places in the respective programs. "The Levels program has gestated into a daily process that Anixter carries out," explains Pete Lockhart, who heads the program. "We take ownership of every product in our inventory, and test everything to ensure it will meet our specifications. If it doesn't, we send it back to the manufacturer."

Karl Griffith, Graybar's national manager of reseller markets, offers a similar explanation for VIP. Due to poor performing channel solutions, "We have returned hundreds of thousands of dollars in inventory," he says.

"We take the worst-case TIA model, which includes four connections," says Craig. "Many manufacturers make claims about their products' performance based on more-forgiving two-connector models. With our program, every result is based on the worst case."

Anixter positions Levels as a counterweight to some of the claims that product manufacturers make. "Many are jumping on the 'throughput' bandwagon," says Anixter's Frank LaPlante. "But some of the tests used as the basis for those claims are conducted in conditions that do not resemble the real world. Often, the transmitters used in these tests are so powerful they could send a signal down barbed wire. We use real network-interface cards and off-the-shelf transceivers."

Testing facilities

Though similar in scope and intention, the two specification programs differ in some ways, including the facilities in which tests are conducted. The "I" in VIP stands for "independently," a point Graybar emphasizes in its promotion. Intertek Testing Services/ETL Semko (ITS-www.itsqs.com) runs all tests within VIP. "The two fundamentals are that we use third-party testing, and that the products tested are randomly selected," Griffith says. ITS selects inventory from Graybar's stocking locations, arranges the products-under-test in channel configurations, and tests the channels.

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"Three times a year, ITS/ETL Semko publishes the results of the testing conducted, describing which mix-and-match channel configurations are classified as VIP 1000 and VIP 2000," Griffith says. The results are dynamic, he further explains, particularly with regard to the higher-rated VIP 2000 solutions. Jeff Craig emphasizes that the test setups and the entire program are based on open systems architecture. Channels under test comprise cable and connecting hardware from different manufacturers, as well as manufacturers of end-to-end solutions.

The Anixter Levels Lab is the testing place for cabling systems in that distributor's Levels program. Within the past year, the lab gained Underwriters Laboratories (UL) certification, which Lockhart says indicates repeatability of results. "Once we approached UL, the certification process did not take very long. But all told, it was close to a four-year process for us because we had to make sure we achieved the repeatability UL would require."

The laboratory facilities give Anixter the opportunity to serve customers who desire more-extensive testing, according to Lockhart. "We can carry out full system testing, which is a value-add for customers," he says.

LaPlante recalls the services provided for one customer "who was considering upgrading from a 10-Mbit/sec to a 100-Mbit/sec system. But some runs would exceed the TIA-recommended distances," he says. "We created an exact replica of the system and were able to emulate its performance."

While the system under test did not fully comply with TIA standards because of some link lengths, LaPlante points out that it does represent the real-world scenario that this user faced. And the ability to construct and test a replica system helped this user decide how to move forward.

A fiber future

Both Anixter and Graybar see fiber-optic system testing in the future as well as the here-and-now. Graybar expects to announce its VIP Fiber program later this month or early next month. The program will be based on multimode fiber-optic cable and connectors in premises environments. Like the 1000 and 2000 programs, VIP Fiber will include third-party testing of randomly selected products.

According to Anixter's LaPlante, the challenges that users currently face specifying fiber-optic systems are more examples of real-world scenarios varying from standards-based specifications. He reflects on some recent testing the Levels Lab performed for Corning Cable Systems (www.corning.com/cablesystems).

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"Corning was facing a unique dilemma," he says. "Standard-specified distances for fiber-optic links had been shortened, but Corning had glass technology that could exceed the standard." Through testing at the Levels Lab, Anixter demonstrated that some 62.5/125-micron fiber-optic cable could support Gigabit Ethernet transmission over longer distances than the 220 meters specified in standards.

Other real-world conditions are driving different testing scenarios, according to Lockhart. Among them are heat and humidity in cabling pathways, alien crosstalk, high-density 25-pair connectivity, and data-center environments.

Meanwhile, Graybar maintains a staff of more than three dozen network system specialists who act as technical liaisons to ensure that customers specify products that work well together. Network system specialists who focus on enterprise networks can help customers with not only cabling infrastructure, but also with the networking electronics that can affect cabling-system choices.

Purchasing programs

In addition to the efforts these distributors have taken to help users make product selections, they also offer programs to assist with purchases. Anixter reports that its online service called E-Anixter is getting good reviews from users. "People are looking at it as another way to help make business decisions," LaPlante says. "It provides access to inventory and order processing."

Graybar offers leasing services to resellers through Graybar Financial Services. According to Griffith, the program provides an advantage to resellers because they do not have to expend their own capital. The program allows for leasing of installation labor, products, and maintenance, offering the customer low monthly payments. "It extends resellers' lines of credit," Griffith says. "Capital outlay can be difficult; with GFS, contractors are paid for services performed in 24 hours, and this service is a value-add for resellers."

Graybar is also on its way to completing a logistical network that will allow the company to offer customers in 90% of the United States next-day shipment delivery. Ten of the network's 16 zones are operational, and Graybar estimates that all will be operational in early 2002. A significant benefit to this logistics network, says vice president of marketing Al Eddings, is that time-to-market and procurement costs are improved for everyone in the supply chain.

As networking technologies move forward, driving advances in the networks' passive infrastructures, the installers and users of these systems face increasingly critical decisions. Distributors in the cabling industry continue to develop and refine programs to help their customers make informed decisions, and to improve the purchasing process.

Illustrations by Chris Hipp

Arlyn S. Powell, Jr. is Editor-at-Large and Associate Publisher, and Patrick McLaughlin is Chief Editor of Cabling Installation & Maintenance.

At CSC, "enhance" is key concept

Communications Supply Corp. (CSC; www.gocsc.com) has positioned itself as a leading national distributor within the voice and data communications industry. One of the new breed of voice-and-data distributers-aggressive, nimble, and savvy-CSC is rapidly carving out a significant niche for itself in the cabling industry under the banner of enhance(it).

The enhance(it) program, says CSC President/CEO Steve Riordan, "offers customers a simplified approach to choosing the right standards-based advanced connectivity solution. The program combines manufacturing excellence, documented third-party independent testing, and access to certified installation professionals under a comprehensive assurance program."

Riordan points out that CSC's enhance(it) program is represented by a select group of world-class manufacturers that have engineered advanced connectivity solutions. "We fully support the value-propositions that our partners bring to the market, and view our role as a distributor as an extension of their sales force. We've performed the necessary due-diligence that identifies engineering excellence, 'future-ready' performance, and offer all the documentation that's needed to help our customers make informed decisions about their network investment."

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The enhance(it) campaign focuses on the delivery of accurate, and easy to understand information and documentation for choosing the right advanced connectivity solution. The solutions range from Cat 5E, to Cat 6+, to fiber optics for the horizontal and backbone LANs. As an advocate of these solutions, CSC is focused on education and offers its national series of enhance(it) seminars, conducting 14 sessions over the past year and visited by nearly 1,500 users and contractors. CSC has devoted its 5-page advertising supplement in the May 2001 issue of the BICSI News to explaining its newly re-engineered program, and addresses the future of high-speed networking.

Opening its doors in 1972, CSC has experienced significant growth since 1996. With 2000 organic growth in excess of 50%, accompanied by a 2001 revenue run-rate in excess of half a billion dollars, Riordan says "the growth has been achieved through an internal growth strategy combined with select acquisitions meeting CSC's long-term market growth criteria."

According to Riordan, however, acquisitions are likely to play a smaller role in the company's business strategy. "Acquisitions will be less than 5 to 10% of our overall future growth," he says. "We're focusing on building margin and taking market share. Significant market share growth results when you have a capable, focused and motivated workforce. We are proud about the fact that we have the highest retention rate in the industry and possess an average of 12 years experience per employee. From a customer perspective, we don't have a revolving door. There's comfort in knowing that the account manager you're doing business with today is going to be answering your phone call in three years."

In an industry where gross margin has been under pressure for the last couple of years, both CSC's margin and revenues have been growing-a fact Riordan attributes to three key strategies. "First," he says, "we talk to our customers, we understand their needs, and we solve their problems. This is a relationship business."

A second key CSC strategy is the attention it pays to its core suppliers-the manufacturers it represents. "We maintain very strong vendor relations," Riordan says. "We treat our vendors like our best customers. We consider CSC to be an extension of their organization."

CSC's third key business strategy deals with the creation of national resources and consistent methodology for servicing customers. It now has more than 800 employees, 27 warehouses, 32 sales offices, and more than $80 million in localized inventory throughout the United States. Despite CSC's rapid growth, Riordan claims that the company is decentralized from a customer service perspective. But CSC has the financial and operational controls of a public company, and Riordan claims "when you combine our customer and supplier relationships with our flat, close-to-the-customer infrastructure, you get one of the best performing distributors in any industry."

Riordan is bullish on the industry and CSC. He expects CSC's business to approach $1 billion by the end of 2003. All in all, you get the impression that Steve Riordan is pretty happy to be right where he is.

-Arlyn S. Powell, Jr.

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