Make critical considerations before purchasing cabling

Feb. 1, 2011
Best practices for ensuring you get the right cable for your specific needs.

Best practices for ensuring you get the right cable for your specific needs.

By Bob Eskew, ASD

What criteria do you use to purchase Category 6 cabling? Is brand name most important to you? Does it matter to you what brand you are using as long as the cable meets industry standards? Do you trust your installer's recommendations exclusively, or do you base your decision on what features and benefits best meet your needs?

We recently conducted a poll on the social media network LinkedIn. While not scientific, the poll did reveal some preferences for purchasing criteria for Category 6 cabling among the 181 users who responded. For example, approximately 26 percent base their decision largely or solely on the brand name of the cable. The majority of respondents-the other 74 percent-base their decision on whether or not the cable meets industry standards, the cable's benefits and features, or they rely exclusively on their installer's recommendations.

Regardless of what criteria you use as the basis for your decision-making process, you'd be well served to employ some best practices and ask critical questions to make sure you are purchasing the cabling that best suits your needs.

If brand name is everything. Twenty percent of respondents said brand name is everything, while six percent would purchase cable as long as they have heard of the brand. If you fall into either of these categories, consider the following best practices when making your next purchase.

Most organizations that have settled on one brand do so because they want to standardize across their enterprise. To standardize is to simplify, but that does not mean you have to stick to one brand in order to do so. Standardization comes from design, not product brand. A good cabling system designer can design the same system across multiple offices using multiple brands of cabling products if necessary. Fortunately, all structured cabling manufacturers are required to comply with industry standards, which means you are at liberty to choose any brand of cable and components you want as long as they meet the standards of Underwriters Laboratories (UL), Intertek Group (ETL), the National Electrical Code (NEC) and EIA/TIA commercial building wiring standards.

So what accounts for the vast price differences of various brands of cable that meet the same industry standards? One factor that affects price is the distribution channel. In a multi-tiered distribution channel, a manufacturer often hires a manufacturer's rep firm to sell the manufacturer's products in a defined territory for a designated commission. The next stop is a distributor, which then sells the product to a contractor, who in turn marks up the product when selling it to an end user. In contrast, a direct-buy manufacturer sells its products directly to end users, which can significantly reduce the final cost you pay for a product.

The supply chain, through which most cabling products travel before ultimately being used in an enterprise network, can account for price differences among several brands that all meet industry standards.

Another factor that can affect your purchase price is a brand-specific internal company standard. The standard may be in place as required by a 15-year guarantee for "system sales," which are systems developed using only components made by a specific manufacturer. However, these guarantees may not be as critical or as rare as marketing efforts may suggest. And they may end up costing users more money in the long run. Consider this: Out of the 40-plus cabling-system manufacturers, nearly every company provides a warranty of 15 or more years as a standard feature. It pays to compare warranties from multiple vendors and evaluate whether they are an added benefit or just a way to lock you into a 15-year exclusive contract. By accepting the terms of the 15-year guarantee, you may be limiting your future technology options to those developed by your "system sale" manufacturer, instead of taking advantage of new developments from multiple vendors. You also may end up paying a high price for your cabling. Once a manufacturer is "spec'd in," you lose much of your buying power because all forms of competitive bidding are eliminated.

If standard compliance is most important. For many poll respondents (47 percent), compliance with industry standards is the most important purchase criteria. You may be aware that cables must meet the standards of the UL, ETL, NEC and EIA/TIA. But what does it mean if a cable manufacturer claims to exceed the standards? Some manufacturers have developed tests that exhibit a higher Megahertz rating than field tests. While these manufacturers can test cable at a higher Megahertz with a unique internal test, there is no proven way to test or replicate these levels in the field. This means that any possible added benefit from this feature would likely go unused during normal operation.

In addition to marketing cables that exceed industry standards, much effort has also been put into marketing end-to-end solutions, which are systems developed using only components made by a specific manufacturer. These solutions are often paired with the aforementioned 15-year guarantees, which are usually voided if you move to an open system. With an end-to-end solution, you may pay a reasonable price for cable, but beware of additional required components that may have a high markup.

Despite the hard push for end-to-end solutions, manufacturers develop cabling technologies to be used in interoperable, open systems in accordance with the TIA's 568 series of commercial building cabling standards. Those standards were established to encourage interoperability by allowing diverse manufacturers the opportunity to build equipment and components that will interoperate for the benefit of the end user. By building an open system, you can request bids from multiple vendors competing for your business, as well as choose the exact products to suit your needs.

The reality is companies function largely on open systems a majority of the time. Take a look around your own office. Is your network made up of a single brand? Do you have desktops from one manufacturer, servers from another and applications from still another? Why is a cabling system any different? In fact, business intelligence sources today show that several brands of cable are made in a single factory.

If the installer's recommendation matters most. Thirteen percent of respondents trust their installer's recommendations exclusively. Your installer can be a valuable resource of information to help you make decisions regarding your cable purchases. Their expertise and experience can help guide you through the purchase process; however, it is important to identify any possible conflicts of interest before accepting a recommendation.

The most important question to ask is whether or not your installer supports all the standards from Underwriters Laboratories as well as the design and engineering standards of the TIA/EIA cabling standards. It is also a good idea to ask if your installer is recommending a direct-buy cable or a cable from a reseller. Most importantly, ask if your installer receives a price-protection advantage or incentives for selling a particular brand. Some installers have sales quotas they must meet in order to maintain certification with particular brands. Installers may also be awarded rebates or cash incentives to sell a particular brand, which could steer their recommendations toward that brand.

Without level competition among brands, you may end up paying more than you have to for cabling products. The easiest way to level the playing field when requesting quotes from multiple installers is to base your request on specifications, not price or brand. Allow the installers to present you with the best product that meets your specifications at their best price, allowing you to base your final decision on features and benefits that meet your needs.

If it's even beyond features and benefits. Purchasing products that offer only the benefits you want, without any unnecessary features, will help you keep your project on target without sacrificing your technology needs.

Because all manufacturers must adhere to the same cabling-system standards, determine which features will offer you the most valuable benefits. Some features you might want to consider that vary by manufacturer include: labeling systems, color coding, port density, wire management and ease-of-use.

While the poll conducted via LinkedIn was not scientific, the purchasing preferences expressed are in line with what cabling professionals experience in the real world on a daily basis. Choosing a structured cabling system is a task that should not be, and is not, taken lightly. A facility's cabling system is expected to last up to 15 years or even longer, which can be multiple lifespans of the networking equipment the cabling supports. Asking the right questions of cabling manufacturers and cabling-system installers can help ensure you get the performance you need at an appropriate price.

BOB ESKEW is founder and chief executive officer of ASD (Automated Systems Design; He participates in several LinkedIn professional groups.

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