The cabling industry as an example

Each month this year, we have devoted at least one article to the topic of data centers; this month’s article focuses on the keynote address delivered at the most recent Data Center World conference (see page 35).

by Patrick McLaughlin

Each month this year, we have devoted at least one article to the topic of data centers; this month’s article focuses on the keynote address delivered at the most recent Data Center World conference (see page 35). While that article extensively discusses keynoter Christian Belady’s insistence that efficiency metrics are in the long-term future for data center managers, it’s worth noting that Belady also discussed the expected emergence of standardization in the data center industry.

“Standardization will create a plug-and-play environment,” says Belady, a professional engineer and a distinguished technologist on the staff at HP (www.hp.com). Later, he noted that industry consortium The Green Grid (www.thegreengrid.org), in addition to its efforts to quantify efficiency, is trying to achieve some level of interoperability among data center components. In those regards-standardization, plug-and-play deployment, and interoperability-the forward-thinkers in the data center industry could do well to examine the path the cabling industry has followed for nearly two decades.

It could be said that the structured cabling industry was anything but “structured” before users of twisted-pair systems began specifying those products by certain Levels. Initially disruptive and proprietary, Anixter’s (www.anixter.com) Levels program eventually became, almost verbatim, the category system by which twisted-pair systems originally were specified under the auspices of the TIA (www.tiaonline.org).

So was born the set of standards that still paves the way for the development, marketing, specification, and use of structured cabling systems. While data center managers look forward to a day when their systems can interoperate, those in the cabling trade take for granted that Vendor A’s Category 6 patch cord will plug into Vendor B’s Category 6 patch panel for a connection that delivers Category 6 performance. All because the TIA’s TR-42 Engineering Committee has fulfilled the promise to create interoperable twisted-pair cabling specifications.

The framework in place for the creation of cabling standards has already entered the realm of data centers, evidenced by the TIA’s development of its 942 standard specifically related to telecommunications infrastructure for the data center. Sure, I have been critical of the manner in which the TIA’s cabling standards come to fruition, including the political inner workings of some of the groups that ultimately produce those specifications. But at the same time, it is difficult to dispute that these standards have established a performance baseline that cabling-system users can rely upon, particularly to support specific protocols.

With that in mind, the cabling industry could actually serve as an example to leaders in the data center industry in their aspirations to create standardized specifications. As the article on page 35 makes clear, data center managers have significant energy-consumption issues with which to contend, to the point where the U.S. Congress directed the Environmental Protection Agency to study data centers’ power consumption.

Kind of makes alien crosstalk look like child’s play. Nonetheless, the effort to make data centers capable of plug-and-play deployment is somewhere on that industry’s agenda, and to them I submit the TIA cabling standard-creation process as an example of the trappings inherent in such an effort.

One of Belady’s cautionary comments was that standardization ultimately will lead to commoditization among data center equipment. I contend that cabling has not become a commodity market. The engineering and, yes, the marketing staffs of our industry’s suppliers have differentiated their product sets enough that we cannot say a channel is a channel is a channel. Just ask anyone who has tried to buy a Cat 6A system.

We work in a dynamic industry, with years of standards-based performance assurances to count on, coupled with a constantly improving product set. Sure, it can be frustrating to sort through the myriad product choices and wait out the standards-creation process. But I suggest it’s better than the alternative.

And hey, at least we don’t have Congress breathing down our necks.

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