Web-based teaching company passes tests

An online provider of high-tech training installs and verifies both copper and fiber cabling.

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An online provider of high-tech training installs and verifies both copper and fiber cabling.

Carol Everett Oliver / Everett Communications
Eric Anderson / Microtest Inc.

Independent learning has evolved drastically from its origins. While many of us may remember self-help courses that were advertised on matchbooks and designed to help us learn to draw or receive a general-education diploma, self-help courses and their media have developed from simple text manuals to compact discs (CDs) and Internet-based training, or "e-learning" as it is often called.

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Raul Dayao, an installer with Compel, performs an autotest on a circuit within KnowledgeNet's fiber-optic cabling plant, using the OMNIFiber attachment to Microtest's OMNIScanner2 testing tool.
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Within the arena of self-help learning, the lack of interaction and need for immediate answers have often kept manuals and CDs from thriving. The evolution of the Internet brought e-learning and interactive training. But when users access courses from a Website, they often must download a player to run the courses if heavy multimedia content is involved. KnowledgeNet, a Scottsdale, AZ-based company focused on e-learning, offers certification in Microsoft, Cisco, and Comptia technology for information-technology (IT) professionals. KnowledgeNet also offers Microsoft Office training for end users, and promises ease of use in its learning programs.

The company offers live and self-paced classes supported by round-the-clock mentoring, hands-on simulations, animated presentations, online chats with other learners, and certification information. "The Web-based category of IT training is the fastest-growing segment in Internet training," according to Tom Graunke, KnowledgeNet's chief executive and founder. "Our approach is to make the interactive training a full simulation so you can experiment with the environment completely. You feel like you're in the real thing, but it's all simulated. Although that might sound easy, it's really difficult to achieve through the Web. Training professionals, especially in the IT world, are getting savvy and starting to ask certain questions. 'Are you a next- generation provider? What kind of interactivity do you offer? ' "

To provide intricate multimedia, KnowledgeNet uses dual-bandwidth applications for rich graphics, animation, and audio capabilities over the Internet. Successfully purveying Internet teaching requires a flexible networking system that can handle complex multimedia and interactive formats. To accomplish these objectives, KnowledgeNet uses a complex internal cabling infrastructure to provide high-speed and high-bandwidth data communications. Ensuring the system's ongoing reliability means testing the entire cabling infrastructure.

"Completing this installation meant providing reliable test results to KnowledgeNet," says Marco Mercado, fiber-optic product manager for Compel (Phoenix), which completed the system installation. Compel used Microtest's (Phoenix) OMNIScanner2 to verify the copper plant and the company's OMNIFiber attachment for all the fiber. Mercado characterized the test equipment as "a one-tester solution for mixed media."

Learning curve

Of course, KnowledgeNet had to specify a fail-safe cabling infrastructure. "We had to consider all factors, including our local-area-network [LAN] applications within our facility, as well as our ability to transmit over our WAN [wide area network] to our collocation facility, which is 17 miles away," says Jeff Witham, senior telecommunications and network engineer. "We selected an AVAYA [formerly Lucent Technologies] Systimax system solution, which encompasses a fiber backbone and Category 5E to the desktop. We specified the type of cable and products, including cable trays and wallplates, but we relied on our installation team at Compel to finalize the layout, perform the installation, and give us the test and certification results."

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Each port, whether in surface-mount boxes like this one or in flush wallplates, was tested to meet appropriate specifications-Category 3 for voice or Category 5E for data.
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Witham adds, "We selected Category 5E because at the time the job was specified, that was the latest cabling technology with approved standards. We are on a switched 100Base-T Ethernet system to our server room and each workstation. We are not taxing our switches or our bandwidth; however, we are currently planning to build a data center in an adjacent lot, and we are looking at fiber-to-the-desktop.

"Before the horizontal cable was terminated to the fiber backbone, Compel tested all the fiber lines," Witham continues. "We wanted to make sure we were getting screaming signals to run Gigabit Ethernet."

Compel's Mercado comments that the OMNIScanner2 tester "made testing easier since we only had to bring one unit to the jobsite for both copper and fiber. By snapping the adapter onto the copper tester, we were able to perform quick and accurate testing without exchanging units."

Compel tested the fiber-optic cabling system for loss at 850 and 1300 nm. "Using the one-button autotest feature, OMNI-Fiber performs length and dual-wavelength attenuation measurements over two fibers, a transmit/receive pair, in one operation," says Eric Anderson, fiber-optic product manager for Microtest. He adds that the tester then "compares the test results against a LAN standard selected by the user for instant pass/fail analysis."

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Marco Mercado, a Compel project manager, tests ports to the Category 5E performance specifications that are preset on his OMNIScanner2.
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Says Mercado, "At KnowledgeNet, we were testing the links at both multimode wavelengths to the TIA/EIA-568A specification. The links met the loss requirement of 0.75 dB per connection, plus 3.75- and 1.5-dB/km cable loss at 850- and 1300-nm wavelengths, respectively. Our tester calculated the limits automatically. It let us know if each link passed, and by how much."

Tom Wolfe, a Compel account manager who was also involved in testing the copper and fiber systems, says, "The user interface clearly indicated when the tester was transmitting, on which fiber, and at what wavelength. I was told when to swap connectors in the case of a bidirectional fiber test. When testing copper, an orange warning light and loud alarm alerted the operator if a hazardous voltage was detected on the line. Fortunately, we never had a test failure."

"There are 640 outlets, which total 1,280 ports of voice and data," adds KnowledgeNet's Witham. "Although currently we are using half of our capacity, we tested and certified all ports for future use."

"Twisted-pair cables require much more extensive testing, since there are more characteristics that affect the cable properties for the efficient operation of the physical layer, especially when transmitting Gigabit Ethernet over copper," says Microtest assistant product manager Steve Randazzo in contrasting copper testing with fiber testing.

One of the OMNIScanner's functions-flash-card storage-was particularly helpful to KnowledgeNet. "With the MultiMediaCard flash storage, we could store more than 10,000 tests, although that was more than we needed at KnowledgeNet," states Mercado.

A major deciding factor in the selection of the test tools was KnowledgeNet's request that all certification reports be downloaded onto their PCs. With Microtest's Scanlink Tools software, each project, including cable type and configuration, was downloaded to KnowledgeNet's server through vendor-provided CDs. This made the documentation easy to read, sort, edit, and export to a spreadsheet and other database-compatible formats. "We know that we have zero defects in our cable infrastructure, which makes it easy for any adds, moves, or changes," says KnowledgeNet's Witham. "If there is a failure, then it would most likely be an end piece such as a phone or laptop. All my moves are executed through the software on our main switch. All I have to do is make a new label for the phone. With the growth that we are experiencing, as well as daily moves and changes, we can't afford to have anything other than zero defects."

Witham concludes, "With the exploding popularity of e-learning, we are looking to expand our Web e-learning internationally, as well as offering audio conferencing. To do this, we had to have a solid cabling infrastructure. With everything in place and certified, we are now assured that we can take our business to the next level, and the next level after that."

Carol Everett Oliver is the principal of Everett Communications (Ashland, MA), a marketing firm specializing in the cabling industry. Eric Anderson, RCDD, is the senior product manager at Microtest Inc. (Phoenix).

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