Intelligent patch panels can enhance system performance

Companies that implement Gigabit Ethernet and Fibre Channel networks conventionally wire their buildings with fiber-optic cables, and route these cables to a central wiring closet

Lisa Kinney & Richard B. Rauch, APCON Inc.

Companies that implement Gigabit Ethernet and Fibre Channel networks conventionally wire their buildings with fiber-optic cables, and route these cables to a central wiring closet. Within the wiring closet, mechanical fiber-optic patch panels are often used to physically connect and route each fiber to the appropriate network connection. The network administrator must manually route the fiber connections to the network hubs, routers, switches, and computers.

Many network managers would prefer to build an entirely new wiring closet from scratch rather than commit expensive network resources to tracking down and tracing an existing network closet. Finding a device that would let network administrators more effectively monitor, control, and maintain network connections would alleviate the need to reconfigure the wiring closet. All things considered, this approach would be a more cost-effective, acceptable alternative for some network administrators.

Patch panels' limitations

In a growing network environment, additional network components are being added and changes are constantly being made. To make these changes, network administrators using mechanical fiber-optic patch panels must go to the wiring closet, physically remove the fiber-optic cable, and reconnect it within the patch panel.

Tracing, identifying, and controlling fiber-optic cable connections is often tedious and time-consuming. Physically handling the cables also opens up the network to possible failures due to potential errors in the reconnecting process.

Mechanical misalignment of the fiber cables within a mechanical patch panel attenuates the optical signals as they go through the panel. And repeated plugging and unplugging of the cables can add to the misalignment, resulting in further signal losses. As the signal weakens, the potential for the network to experience problems increases.

A new approach

A new technology-the intelligent fiber-optic patch panel-can solve many of the limitations and problems inherent with mechanical patch panels. This "wire-once" technology eliminates the need for network administrators to physically handle fiber cables to accomplish network changes. Administrators can use operation-control software to easily and efficiently switch, route, and share network connections; and port connections can be custom-named within the software, eliminating the guesswork of tracing particular cable connections.

With all ports labeled on-screen, connections are quickly and easily identified, allowing the rerouting to be done efficiently and correctly. Intelligent fiber-optic patch panels also regenerate the fiber-optic signal, eliminating errors and failures caused by weakened optical signals.

Abilities of automation

Automation software can provide a network administrator with the means to accomplish a number of tasks with the intelligent patch panel. Job scheduling can be automated through user-defined presets, which give users who frequently reroute and redistribute connections a number of pre-settable configurations from which to choose and implement.

Automation software can also provide system-alert notifications to inform the system administrator of network faults or changing configurations. The software monitors connections between network nodes and devices, and if a connection is manually disconnected, breaks, or otherwise fails, the system administrator is alerted via pager, e-mail, digital phone, or network alerts. The administrator will be informed which port connection has been disrupted.

The software can also initiate a backup connection in the event of a failure, maintaining the network integrity. And, it creates a log of events so that corrective action can be taken.

Finally, automation software can give network administrators the ability to lock out the panel controls, heightening the network's security level. And for the ultimate in security, if a cable were being compromised by surreptitious wire-tapping, the administrator would be alerted to the problem.

Use of mechanical fiber-optic patch panels is widespread within today's network environments, but intelligent patch panels are poised to become the wave of the future. The ability to remotely manage, change, and monitor networks keeps network administrators out of the wiring closet and focused on effective network management. Intelligent fiber-optic patch panels add a new dimension of manageability to network environments.

Lisa Kinney is operations manager and Richard B. Rauch is president of APCON Inc. (Portland, OR).

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