Updating cabling-management practices deemed critical

We have reached the stage in the development of information-technology (IT) systems where pretty much everything we can think of is automated and handled by computers. Or have we?

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Pete Pela, Cablesoft

We have reached the stage in the development of information-technology (IT) systems where pretty much everything we can think of is automated and handled by computers. Or have we?

In the first three years after a company installs a complex network, the system will almost certainly change, and there is a good chance it will also be upgraded. Consequently, in a short time, what was originally installed bears little resemblance to the network used day in, day out. This situation poses the question: Does this company have any idea of what network and cabling components it has in place?

Sure, the network manager may have a good idea of what's what. The IT director may know the big pieces of equipment and the actual cost of the system. The systems folks may even have some documentation explaining what's working. But is there a comprehensive, central, dynamic picture of what is where and how it all works together? I'm afraid that the answer in most companies is "No!"

Often, the problem lies on the business side of things. The departments that implement and control these systems are hopelessly divided. Sometimes, they don't even share the same budget, let alone the same philosophy.

It is easy to spend millions of dollars putting in place a sophisticated, state-of-the-art communications network. It is also easy to forget the miles and miles of cables that connect hundreds of pieces of equipment. However, it is difficult to believe that the departments that service these mission-critical systems often still work from paper and hand-updated drawings.

This situation is equivalent to building a space shuttle, then planning its route using a pencil on the back of a used envelope. Sure, it can be done, but is it smart?

Don't be fooled into thinking the situation might not be that bad, just because companies say they keep track of their cabling and networking systems on their computers. Such a tracking system is typically a small jungle of files, often spreadsheet-based, listing components that have been used for years as well as components that are no longer used. Are these accurate records? Probably not. Do they provide a complete record? Highly unlikely. Rather than a comprehensive, computer-based tracking system, this so-called jungle of files is just a digitized version of that same envelope with a pencil-scribbled list of components.

Unfortunately, such archaic recordkeeping represents the state of affairs in many companies today. The crucial tool here, as in any business plan, is to understand that sorting out this mess has nothing to do with elegance and simplifying for its own sake. It is a hard-nosed business issue: When something goes wrong-and at some point it will-sorting it out will cost much more if a computerized cable-management system (CMS) is not installed. In other words, prevention is the best cure. It's as simple as that.

What can we, as industry representatives, do to help? The crucial first step is to explain to upper management the benefits of a CMS and how useful and inexpensive it is in the long run. Explaining the catastrophic effects-both financial and organizational-that the absence of such a system might have usually makes people sit up and listen. That is, if it isn't already too late.

Until upper management understands the importance of systems that manage installed networking assets, progress will be slow. The first blows in this battle have already been struck, but until we practice what we preach and start to use the technology we install, the pencil and envelope will continue to rule.

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Pete Pela is president and CEO of Cablesoft (Tempe, AZ).

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