Becoming part of the open-office solution

Despite new products and practices that provide more graceful integration of telecommunications cabling and office furniture, many companies are spending increasingly more on cabling.

Mar 1st, 2000
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Tom W. Swihart

Despite new products and practices that provide more graceful integration of telecommunications cabling and office furniture, many companies are spending increasingly more on cabling. With the typical expense of cabling estimated at $500 or more per workspace per move, companies with high churn rates often spend more for cabling than for furniture over a three-year period. A growing awareness of this imbalance has led to several alternatives to the practice of installing homerun cabling within furniture panels.

In mid-1996, the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA-Arlington, VA) issued telecommunications systems bulletin TSB-75, "Additional Horizontal Cabling Practices for Open Offices." Since that time, consolidation points and multiuser telecommunications outlet assemblies (MUTOAs) have been allowed as standards-compliant alternatives to homerun cabling in the horizontal links supplying open-office spaces.

The major office-furniture manufacturers have also been looking for solutions. Several have developed products intended to be installed as "technology spines," which contain all the necessary power and telecommunications cabling equipment, with perpendicular wing walls left empty. Each worker is located in a cubicle that makes up one cell of the larger rectangular cluster-much like a large ice-cube tray. If higher density is needed, the perpendicular walls can be slid down the spine to accommodate an additional office or two, reducing the size of each cube while leaving the cabling systems undisturbed.

Neither of these solutions has gained broad marketplace acceptance. Many telecommunications professionals are not comfortable with consolidation points and MUTOAs; at higher network operating speeds, they insist on the proven reliability of homerun cabling.

The technology spines have some unforeseen negative consequences. Many of the high-churn environments where implementation of these solutions might seem logical are also the same places where teaming and progressive "outside-of-the-box" thinking have become essential strategic practices. It's hard to get workers to think outside of these boxes when they are stuck working in them.

In many cases, the spines are intentionally cabled with additional capacity when they are first installed. After the cabling contractors finish testing the system, they leave the site and seldom, if ever, return. The moves, adds, and changes (MACs) that had been so much a part of their business with many thriving telecommunications organizations are no longer required when the furniture layouts are changed.

Additional solutions are available that allow more flexibility at reduced cost. Some of them are already supported in the standards and more of them should be.

One solution is to install a single run of multistrand fiber to a fanout box in the furniture area, with individual runs of 2-strand fiber continuing to individual users. Fiber network interface cards provide high-speed data connections that require significantly less space in the building pathways. This solution also reduces or eliminates many of the potential problems with higher-speed networks running over copper cables.

Another alternative is to connect backbone cabling to active devices in mini telecom closets within the work area. With the installation of remote hubs or switches in the work area, one backbone cable can potentially replace up to 24 or more 4-pair horizontal cables snaking through building pathways to a traditional telecommunications closet up to 90 meters away. This arrangement makes future moves easier and less expensive. In many buildings, this 24:1 reduction in cable count represents huge reductions in cabling costs. Working with office-furniture suppliers, cabling contractors can determine where best to place these mini telecom closets within the work area without compromising long-term network reliability.

MUTOAs and consolidation points may be the best solution for some high-churn companies. With some cooperation, it is possible to reduce the ongoing cost of MACs while permitting companies to create more flexible office spaces.

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Tom W. Swihart, RCDD, is an independent electrical-engineering consultant to Herman Miller Inc. and other office-furniture makers. He can be contacted at tswihart@sirus.com.

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