Cabling upgrade brings law firm up to speed

Business networks everywhere are feeling the effects of "information overload." As data traffic surges with the increase in electronic communications and equipment, many companies find their information pipeline constricted by an outdated cabling infrastructure or equipment. The solution is a network upgrade, but the question on any system designer`s mind is how to plan a system that will sustain its users through future growth in communications technology.

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Fast Ethernet and Enhanced Category 5 can handle the millions of documents this firm generates.

Jacqueline Smith-Coyote / Leviton Telcom

Business networks everywhere are feeling the effects of "information overload." As data traffic surges with the increase in electronic communications and equipment, many companies find their information pipeline constricted by an outdated cabling infrastructure or equipment. The solution is a network upgrade, but the question on any system designer`s mind is how to plan a system that will sustain its users through future growth in communications technology.

This issue was facing Ted Speakman, telecommunications manager for the Perkins Coie llp law group (Seattle, WA). Perkins Coie is considered the largest law firm in the Pacific Northwest, with a network serving more than 1500 users in Seattle, as well as offices in nearby states and in London, Hong Kong, and other remote locales. Electronic communications had brought to the firm`s employees and international offices vital communications capabilities and instant access to critical information--but in three short years, it also nearly brought the firm`s network to its knees. The data traffic from electronic file sharing, downloading, online document filing, and Internet and e-mail use was just too much for the existing network infrastructure: a 10Base-T protocol running over Category 3 unshielded twisted-pair (utp) cabling and connectors.

"It`s when you have a large number of users and applications that you find out how good your system really is," explains Mendol Geiger, corporate development manager of bts Communications (Kent, WA), the voice and data installation company selected by Speakman for the upgrade. "It doesn`t matter how big a pipeline you have if there`s a jam somewhere."

Small data collisions were already starting to take place. "We were starting to have a lot of downtime," recounts Speakman. "And this firm can`t be down, period. This place operates 24 hours a day, and in addition to an extensive domestic user base, it also needs to support [international] business that is several hours ahead of the United States."

Even more sobering, the system was only three years old. For Speakman, the situation proved the importance of thinking long-term when it came to upgrading the network and cabling infrastructure. This time around, he had high expectations for the network`s performance and life expectancy. The system had to provide the largest information pipeline available for voice, video, and data--with as much headroom as possible for the future. It also had to be highly modular so that it would lend itself efficiently to the moves, adds, and changes that accompany ongoing business growth. And it had to comply with the proposed revision of tia/eia-568a, "Commercial Building Telecommunications Cabling Standard," of the Telecommunications Industry Association and the Electronic Industries Alliance (tia/eia--Arlington, VA), to ensure performance and make it easier to administer and expand the system in the future.

Variables to consider

In tailoring the new system to end-user needs, there were many variables to consider. "We decided to implement a Windows NT platform, so we needed faster access to the servers," recalls Speakman. "Also, we had more than 1500 users on-site who needed Internet access from the desktop, as well as e-mail and electronic access to the courts and other law firms for communication, research, filings, and document transfer. And we needed to provide remote access to our other offices and users as well. In addition, more and more network users were getting their own printers. When we multiplied all those needs by all the current users as well as future potential, it added up to a lot of bandwidth. A robust information backbone was vital."

To give Perkins Coie the most bandwidth possible, Speakman and bts decided to implement a 100Base-T Fast Ethernet network protocol running over a fiber-optic backbone and utp horizontal cabling. They selected Leviton Telcom`s fiber-optic distribution products and Enhanced Category 5 utp system, comprising 350-megahertz cabling and Category 5 Power Sum modular connecting hardware tested to 155 megabits per second. Notes Geiger, "We installed what was going to be defined as Enhanced Category 5 in the next generation of standards, even though those standards weren`t out yet."

This configuration provided more than 10 times the bandwidth of the previous system, with a great deal more flexibility and headroom. "We wanted to be ahead of the curve after the upgrade," says Geiger, "and an Enhanced Category 5 cabling system with modular connecting hardware was the most reasonable postponement of obsolescence."

The rewiring project spanned 10 floors in the Washington Mutual Tower, one of downtown Seattle`s premiere high-rise buildings. In all, bts installed more than 350,000 feet of Enhanced Category 5 cabling in the main building. Upgrades also extended to several floors in a satellite office building across the street.

The installation was designed in compliance with the tia/eia-568a standard, which was a challenge when it came to keeping cable runs within the standard`s length limitations. "When wiring multiple floors in a high-rise building, cable lengths have to be calculated very carefully to be sure you keep within tia guidelines," cautions Geiger. "We had to be painstaking with the design and placement of workstations and voice/data equipment rooms." But he says large-scale buildings can also provide an advantage to help offset this challenge: "On the other hand, with many high-rise structures, pulling cable is a little easier because a pathway is usually provided by the vertical risers, core drills, and horizontal cable trays that are built into the structure."

Fiber backbone extended to idf

The upgrade began with the installation of the fiber-optic backbone. bts pulled 8-strand multimode fiber to the main distribution frame (mdf) in each building. From the mdf, fiber was fed to intermediate distribution frames (idfs) on all Perkins Coie office floors in both facilities. Connecting to the building across the street involved dropping the fiber down 40 floors and below five underground parking garages, then underneath 2nd Avenue, and back up to the office floors in the other building. Luckily, there was already conduit underneath the street.

Extending the fiber backbone from the mdf to the idfs offered two advantages. First, it allowed the installer to keep copper cable lengths within tia standards to ensure proper performance. Second, it preserved the end-user`s option to run fiber from the idfs to workstation areas in the future, without having to invest in expensive optoelectronic equipment today. While Speakman knows never to say "never," fiber-to-the-desk is not in the firm`s immediate plans since the enhanced utp system and connectivity hardware provide an extravagant amount of headroom for current and projected needs. "We don`t anticipate using high-speed imaging to the same degree as other applications," notes Speakman. "However, we have peace of mind knowing that if we need the capability, the basic structure is in place."

To facilitate system maintenance and support, the network servers and main crossconnects are located in a large central equipment room. The climate-controlled, glass-enclosed room houses a regiment of free-standing racks that put a multitude of fiber-optic patch panels, switches, routers, monitors, and more than 60 servers within easy reach of Speakman and his staff. From this state-of-the-art facility, the communications staff can access and support every system, monitor data traffic, and make moves, adds, and changes very efficiently.

Climate control for equipment rooms and closets is an important aspect of system performance, but one that is often left out of the building design. Active equipment generates a great deal of heat, and the more equipment there is, the more important it is to ensure that there is an adequate heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning system to keep the room from becoming too warm and causing equipment failure.

idfs simplify maintenance

From the central equipment room, the fiber-optic cable breaks out to each floor with home runs to an idf in a wiring closet. Here, the fiber transitions to Enhanced Category 5 utp crossconnects on a series of patch panels on free-standing racks.

While the new cabling system was able to make use of existing equipment closets, there were some design considerations to work around since the closets were not of an optimal size and layout to accommodate present-day wiring needs. "We run into this all the time," sighs Geiger. "Most building architects don`t make the computer and telecommunications closets large enough to begin with. Then when it`s time to expand, the cable installers run into trouble."

The most common solution to the idf space issue is to load up free-standing equipment racks with large, high-density patch panels and equipment. However, Speakman and bts`s solution was to install Leviton Telcom InfoTap power-sum patch panels with mid-range port counts (24 and 48 ports), custom-length 350-MHz patch cords, and generous wire management.

Horizontal wire managers were placed above and below each panel, and vertical managers were used along the sides of each rack. "This configuration puts the wire managers in closer proximity to the cable and patch cords they need to support," explains Geiger, "which will optimize the cable performance and minimize the congestion that can grow over time. We`ve noticed that often, an installation can look good initially, but after you turn the finished product over to the customer, it`s back to what it looked like before you came in to fix it. So we designed the installation to support real-life long-term maintainability."

The patch-cord lengths were customized to keep too much cable from hanging down and creating congestion, preventing the "spaghetti mess" that makes it difficult for installers to access the ports during moves, adds, and changes. Each idf also contains a QuickPort field-configurable patch panel to cost- effectively handle mixed media, miscellaneous connectors, and provide a platform for future expansion.

Bringing all this network capability to the point-of-use involved wiring more than 1500 workstation outlets located in hard offices, modular offices, conference rooms, and other areas. Each workstation outlet had the same configuration and network access no matter where it was located, because there was no telling where a user might want to plug in. "We applied 100Base-T to every desktop," says Speakman, "because a firm like this handles 2 million to 8 million pieces of paper a year--and once technology brought the clients information in electronic form, with file sharing, Internet, and e-mail, suddenly high-speed data transfer became a necessity."

The outlet configuration consisted of a QuickPort flush-mount field-configurable wallplate with four connectors: two Category 3 connectors for voice and modem service and two Category 5 Power Sum connectors for data. This configuration supports the use of computers, printers, fax machines, phones, Internet, e-mail, and other equipment and services.

Even the firm`s mock courtroom and law library have the same outlet configuration with high-speed network access. In the library study carrels, employees might bring their laptop computers to access online documents or remain in touch by e-mail while doing research. And while staging a trial in the mock courtroom, attorneys can use their laptops to access information on-the-fly--for example, to search online documents and databases or look up past judgments--just as they can in many actual courtrooms today.

To prevent user error from causing downtime, bts color-coded and labeled each outlet`s connectors, ensuring that end-users don`t plug in the wrong type of equipment and possibly short out the phone or the card in the private branch-exchange system.

Keeping pace with change

When the network upgrade was completed, bts verified the entire system, and through Leviton`s installer certification program was able to give the end-user a lifetime warranty on parts and performance. The fiber portions were tested with an optical time-domain reflectometer, and each utp channel from jack to patch panel was tested to 155 MHz with a WireScope 155 cable analyzer from Scope Communications (Marlboro, MA). All tests were performed according to the expanded parameters in the proposed tia/eia-568a standard revision, and documentation on every trace was given to Speakman so that if a problem should arise, he has a baseline from which to compare data and better evaluate the situation.

The Fast Ethernet system has been running smoothly since the upgrade, and the only cabling activity these days is the ongoing maintenance that is typical of any system as end-users relocate. "The system is constantly changing," notes Speakman. "But it`s not an issue now because it was designed for change. Even as the upgrade was being implemented, two technicians could have been here constantly to handle the ongoing moves, adds, and changes." Not only is maintenance easier, but the end-users are satisfied. Says Speakman, "By using the highest-speed utp cable and connecting hardware, we have the infrastructure in place to handle anything."

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Perkins Coie llp Law Group (Seattle, WA) implemented an Enhanced Category 5 cabling system in its headquarters on 10 floors of the Washington Mutual Tower. Keeping cable runs within industry-standard minimum lengths was a challenge when pulling cable between floors of the high-rise building.

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The equipment room is the heart of the Perkins Coie structured cabling system, designed to support data traffic through high-speed patch panels and 60 servers. bts Comm-unications` Aaron Wilson monitors the system.

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Perkins Coie employees, such as Carol Ann MacKay, paralegal, and Ted Speakman, telecommunications manager, can directly access the firm`s network from their laptop PCs via high-speed data and modem connections located in every potential user location, including each study carrel of the law library. A typical outlet (inset) includes Category 3 terminations for phone and modem use, with two Category 5 Power Sum terminations for data.

Temporary workgroup wiring

In the midst of the network upgrade, another wiring challenge presented itself when Perkins Coie took on the merger of American aerospace industry giants Boeing and McDonnell Douglas. To handle the merger`s legal documents, a separate workgroup was formed. This group required a dedicated network that was robust and fast enough to handle the electronic transfer, printing, and storage of a staggering amount of information: 13 million documents in six months!

To build a network that could handle this amount of data, bts implemented the same type of cabling system that was being installed in Perkins Coie`s main offices. Office space for the merger was located in the same building but on a different floor, so bts had to extend the network down 10 floors to support the specialized workgroup. bts ran fiber to an idf in the designated space, then used Enhanced Category 5 cabling and Category 5 Power Sum connecting hardware for the horizontal layer.

In total, there were 30 workstations, each with high-speed data connections to support the computers and high-speed printers being used 24 hours a day. When the merger was completed, the temporary workgroup area was reconfigured as a normal office space--a classic example of temporary workgroups that form to work on one project and then disband when the project is done, leaving a space reconfiguration in their wake. "This probably won`t be the only time we have to do something like this," notes Speakman. "So it`s nice to know we have the infrastructure to handle it when a situation like this arises."

Jacqueline Smith-Coyote is a technical writer at Leviton Telcom (Bothell, WA).

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