A switch to in-furniture cabling system

Until recently, one of the most serious drawbacks to a business adopting an open-office design has been managing the horizontal cabling that supports an ever-increasing number of intelligent peripherals at, or accessed from, the workplace

Jun 1st, 2000
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Mark Bassil / Design Resource Group International

SwitchSoft, a growing software developer, embraces a new approach to its own cable management.

Until recently, one of the most serious drawbacks to a business adopting an open-office design has been managing the horizontal cabling that supports an ever-increasing number of intelligent peripherals at, or accessed from, the workplace. Standards such as TIA/EIA-568A and TIA/EIA-569A were promulgated to address more traditional walled-office designs. Neither standard anticipated today's open offices, in which cubicles can be moved and workstations added or changed almost on a whim in response to new business requirements.

Moves, adds, and changes (MACs) are everywhere. The International Facility Management Association (Houston) estimates that 44% of a company's workforce relocates every year. A related study indicates the cost of moving the cabling that supports these relocations can reach $500 per workstation.


The consolidation-point architecture was a key advantage to the MACsys design, according to SwitchSoft's Joseph Ekstrom. Here, SwitchSoft technician David Miles performs interconnections between work-area outlet cabling and the cabling that accesses the telecommunications closet.
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The cabling industry's response to the new workplace is telecommunications systems bulletin TSB-75, Additional Horizontal Cabling Practices for Open Offices, from the Telecommunications Industry Association/Electronic Industries Alliance (TIA/EIA-Arlington, VA). The practices described in TSB-75 focus on the use of multiuser telecommunications outlet assemblies (MUTOAs) and consolidation points (CPs). MUTOAs serve multiple users in a furniture cluster and are placed to allow the bulk of horizontal cabling to remain intact during reconfiguration of furniture clusters. CPs, on the other hand, allow extending the horizontal cabling into individual office workstations.

A clear intent of the bulletin was to encourage innovation among suppliers to simplify and lower the cost of MACs in today's technology-packed offices. When incorporated with appropriate cabling and connecting hardware, CPs and MUTOAs can be impressive time- and money-savers in environments where MACs are a way of life and network reliability is a key concern among information-technology (IT) infrastructure managers.

Now, some system manufacturers have taken the next step, incorporating TSB-75 into the design of modular-office system components.

The SwitchSoft experience

SwitchSoft Systems Inc. (Lindon, UT) is a classic example of today's fast-growing high-technology companies. Established in 1996, it has grown from a three-person startup to a recognized leader in creating virtual private-network-management solutions in its 40,000-sq-ft product-development center in Lindon. Staffing at the product-development center has jumped from three to 110 and continues to grow.

Along with growth and success came the need to replace a hodgepodge of used furniture with an integrated modular office-furniture system that was more worker-friendly to technology-intensive software development. "In many workstations, it is not uncommon to see three computers per employee," says Joseph Ekstrom, SwitchSoft's chief technology officer. "This ratio is exceeded for personnel working on new network development. These individuals may have multiple networks operating in their cubicles, each supported by a structured cabling system." According to Ekstrom, company policy states that employees will have access to as many computers as required to do their jobs.


At SwitchSoft, high computer density is the rule, not the exception. Mike Hendricksen (left) and Larry Knight, each with his own computer, collaborate on software development within one workstation.
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To accommodate this high computer density, SwitchSoft looked for a modular-furniture system that delivered a minimum of four Category 5 connectors at workstation wallplates and could accommodate additional Category 5 cabling density for both voice and data applications when that additional cabling became necessary. "We determined that Cat 5 cabling in a zoned cabling infrastructure will meet our requirements over the next five to six years," Ekstrom says. "Consolidation points and wiring capacity were key design considerations as we shopped for furniture-system vendors. Cost was also a concern, yet we wanted a system that was rugged and attractively designed.

"While steps were taken to construct the new office layout with an eye for the future, prior experience proved that MACs are a fact of life," he continues. "The headaches of handling moves involving four or five network connections per cubicle are not unknown to us. Inevitably, there are instances where cabling is at least 2 inches short."

For these and other reasons, SwitchSoft sought a modular solution that was fully compliant with the standards governing horizontal cabling-including TSB-75. "Reliability was another key requirement," Ekstrom says. "As most employees are involved in software development, an idle network means no work gets done."

Cheri Hansen, SwitchSoft's office manager, led the procurement and evaluation process. "Working closely with our supplier, Office Essentials [Provo, UT], we evaluated modular products offered by several furniture manufacturers," she says. "Early on, it became evident that most furniture systems were designed before the advent of the PC and even today, are equipped with less-than-adequate cable management for the corporate LAN [local-area-network] environment. We culled a list of 10 candidates to five, eventually settling on MACsys, manufactured by Design Resource Group International [DRG-Carlstadt, NJ]." According to Hansen, other than DRG's MACsys, no supplier approached SwitchSoft's cable-management criteria, including storing and managing slack.

MACsys is the result of a partnership between DRG and the Siemon Co. (Watertown, CT). The system takes its name from the MACs it accommodates through its plug-and-play design. It complies with all current horizontal-cabling standards, including TSB-75.

Design characteristics

The design places consolidation points constructed as a series of interconnect brackets within the modular panel framework. While connections are concealed for aesthetic purposes, removing panels allows technicians convenient access to the CPs for reconfigurations. From this point, factory-terminated and factory-tested modular-plug cable assemblies are routed within the system's integral cable pathways to the information outlets. The CPs support various media types, including unshielded twisted-pair (UTP), screened twisted-pair (ScTP), coaxial, and fiber-optic cable.

In addition, within the modular framework, space is provided for cable-service loops to support future relocation efforts. Keeping these loops inside the furniture system helps alleviate the problem of the 2-inches-too-short cables that SwitchSoft's Ekstrom described.

"This design delivers a solution that virtually futureproofs our open-office configuration with a zoned infrastructure that will support the most demanding of our network requirements," he says.

Installation details

Niels Fugal Sons Co. (Pleasant Grove, UT) carried out the SwitchSoft cabling project. "Finally, the office-furniture industry has devised a modular design with communications infrastructure as a priority," remarks contract manager Gunner Hansen. "From our perspective, dedicated power pathways separated from dedicated voice and data-cable pathways, real faceplates, and flexibility are attractive features of a system that as a whole makes installing a CP-type of infrastructure efficient, easy, and standards-compliant.


Installers can terminate cabling at workstations using readily available faceplates in several design options and without the hassle of working in tight spaces already occupied by power and other cabling.
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"This [modular design]," he continues, "contrasts other designs where all too often, in our experience, installations have been fraught with challenges. Typical problems include special faceplates that may be difficult to procure, the frustration of fitting voice and data cables in small pathways already containing power lines, terminating cables in a tight space, and having to use surface-mounted boxes that require additional labor to secure properly.

"Nonetheless," Hansen says, "while MACsys is well-designed and the Siemon Co. was very helpful in pre-engineering the SwitchSoft job, local engineering input was required to meet the physical requirements of the building and furniture layout. We found the MACsys hardware lent itself well to these last-minute design changes."

Commenting further on the value of local engineering and its necessity in this case, Hansen says, "Instances arose where these cables had to be changed due to the physical layout of the building and the final location of the furniture."

Hansen also makes another installation recommendation for anyone working on a zone-cabling project involving CPs: Set up the workstation framework before installing voice and data cabling to the CP. "Furniture panels should be left off where horizontal cable and electrical cable will be installed," he advises. "Once these are installed and terminated, furniture installers can complete their portion of the job and will not have to be called back to disassemble and reassemble tiles and panels should the need to change cabling arise."

Number the cable runs

Finally, he suggests that cable runs be numbered with their unique supporting hardware-such as room, rack, panel, and port-as opposed to the location of the workstation outlet. "This facilitates future furniture relocations and recognizes the impracticality of identifying cables by workstation locations that may change," he says.

Installers should identify and number each cable to the consolidation point, then identify and tag each horizontal cable between the consolidation point and workstation outlet. Likewise, label the faceplate so it retains its identity back to the panel and port, until a future move may change its physical connection to a new consolidation point. Once cabling is installed, test the system to TIA/EIA-568A standards from the workstation outlet through the consolidation point to the patch panel.

At SwitchSoft Systems, 118 standard-compliant cubicles now stand, occupied or ready for occupancy by software developers, engineering staff, technical support, and administration personnel. An additional 30 hard-walled offices are also outfitted with MACsys furnishings.

"While the plug-and-play capability of the modular furniture system has yet to be put in play, the installation is a showcase for both us and for Office Essentials," says SwitchSoft's Ekstrom. "We designed our new offices with an eye to the future, and when MACs are called for, we're ready and confident that they can be managed quickly, inexpensively, and without disruption to ongoing business."

Mark Bassil is founder and president of Design Resource Group International (Carlstadt, NJ). He can be contacted at drgmacsys@aol.com.

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Telecommunications systems bulletin-75, in brief

Bob Carlson, Siemon Co.
Reconfigurations are a natural business requirement as companies grow and change. While moving furniture and equipment appears to be a simple task, it can create havoc for the structured cabling system. Existing cables can become mixed and damaged; storing and managing slack cable is difficult. When distances are increased, new cabling is required to extend all the way to the telecommunications closet (TC). All of these issues could result in added expense and workplace disruptions.

Telecommunications systems bulletin TSB-75 provides two innovative cabling-installation solutions to help minimize these difficulties in environments characterized by frequent moves, adds, and changes (MACs). These solutions are multi-user telecommunications outlet assemblies (MUTOAs) and consolidation points (CPs). They can add real value when you install structured cabling systems in such environments.

MUTOAs provide a single outlet assembly to serve multiple users in a modular furniture cluster. Patch cords installed through furniture system pathways connect intelligent peripherals such as phones, terminals, personal computers, and printers directly to the MUTOA, which, in turn, has a fixed connection to the horizontal crossconnect (HC) in the TC. Because MUTOAs are hardwired to the HC, their placement and load capacity-the number of functions or workstations supported-require careful consideration early in the design stage. For example, limiting the number of work areas served by a single MUTOA alleviates the need for long lengths of work-area patch-cord cable, while facilitating the location and administration of work-area connections. For this reason, it may be wise to install more MUTOAs than may be needed at the outset if you anticipate growth.

CPs differ from MUTOAs in that they provide interconnection points within the horizontal cabling. A MUTOA is the logical termination of the horizontal cabling (the point to which work-area patch cords connect). A CP extends horizontal cabling to work-area outlets located within individual office spaces. Like the MUTOA, the CP is located in close proximity to the furniture clusters, or in the case of the MACsys configuration described in this article (see page 25), concealed within the cluster panels themselves, allowing the bulk of horizontal cabling to remain intact during MACs. The furniture panels also serve as the cable pathway and provide adequate space for storing and managing cable slack. Short horizontal runs connect the CP to workstation outlets. CPs should be specified to support the maximum number of work areas that can be installed in the space they are intended to serve.

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