The six million dollar cable

Physical infrastructure is one of the most vital pieces of the puzzle involved in planning a modern enterprise - but many organisations fail to realise its crucial importance. Piers Ford investigates.

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By  Piers Ford Published  November 24, 2008

Physical infrastructure is one of the most vital pieces of the puzzle involved in planning a modern enterprise - but many organisations fail to realise its crucial importance. Piers Ford investigates.

If you think applications availability is taken for granted by the average end-user these days, spare a thought for the poor old physical infrastructure. It's all around us, but pretty much invisible apart from the final metre which is the lifeline connecting our desktops to the network.

The survival of the business depends upon it. And yet it is routinely ignored - by everybody except, probably, the harassed CIO, charged with maximising ROI and demonstrating streamlined cost of ownership - as the ‘so-what?' element of IT expenditure.

Real estate is the issue, so people are trying to cram as much as they can into smaller spaces and they run into power consumption and heat problems. They aren’t designing future-proof data centres. We come across examples that aren’t even reaching 35-40% of their capacity before falling over.

Even in emerging regions like the Middle East, where construction is ubiquitous and you might be forgiven for assuming that state-of-the-art network infrastructures would be the order of the day, there is evidence that too often, the physical infrastructure takes a back seat to economic considerations.

But we treat it as the poor relation at our peril. Bad infrastructure choices, whether they concern cabling or connectors, have a direct impact on network performance.

And with enterprises of every kind under growing pressure to manage risks better, and to address increasingly complex safety and security compliance issues, the planning, provisioning, management and evolution of the physical layer should be regarded as a key element in any meaningful IT strategy.

"Everyone looks at all this construction and thinks, ‘This is paradise'," says David Hughes, professional services manager at physical infrastructure specialist Panduit in Dubai.

Panduit's current project portfolio includes implementations for Sumitomo Bank in Dubai (a 10Gbps shielded solution), Jordan Telecom in Amman (10 Gbps pre-terminated copper and fibre), Qatar National Olympic Committee in Doha (likewise), Zain Telecom (cat 6 across all KSA branches) and King Saud University (10Gbps pre-terminated copper and fibre).

But Hughes says that for every innovative project in the region, there is an example of substandard installation in an otherwise cutting edge building.

"Most developers are price-driven," he says. "One of the key drivers is the deployment of blade servers in the data centre. Real estate is the issue, so people are trying to cram as much as they can into smaller spaces and they run into power consumption and heat problems. They aren't designing future-proof data centres. We come across examples that aren't even reaching 35-40% of their capacity before falling over because they are under-powered and there is just nowhere near enough cooling."

Panduit endorses the Unified Physical Infrastructure (UPI) vision: a new wave of systems integration and risk management within the physical infrastructure. Rather than a single product or solution, this is a definition of the next generation physical infrastructure.

Market watcher Frost & Sullivan expects UPI to mark a step change in the way infrastructure is regarded by the IT industry and has adopted the term to create a new industry category for analysis.

"IP and convergence are driving complexity in the business environment," says Hughes.

"If you can get everything talking to everything, managed from a single point, you need to look at connectivity as a whole. We're working closely with consultants and, through BICSI [the professional association that supports the information transport systems (ITS) industry], with our competitors to drive this standards-based vision at an end-user level.

"It's about moving away from a commoditised sale and saying to people, ‘you might think the cabling is just a piece of string, but it's more than that.' We have to look at the end-user strategy as a whole, rather than just recommending that they buy some cat 6 cable!" he adds.

Guide to cabling choices

Steve Foster, marketing manager at cabling vendor Seimon, says that selecting the right technology platform for network cabling is a "significant" decision; the costs are generally substantial and cannot be written off as ‘experience'. "On the other hand an informed choice is easy to make by matching your enterprise's needs with the options on offer," he suggests.

"Copper cabling is straightforward, reliable and almost universal," says Foster. "It's flexible and can be laid rapidly, effective for nearly all applications. It comes in several varieties, designated by their performance category rating. The sheer functionality and cost-effectiveness of copper cabling mean it will be the system of choice for a long time to come.

"Optical fibre has its own vital niche for carrying high-capacity applications," he continues. "In many situations fibre provides the ‘vertical' backbone connectivity in buildings by linking the communications and computer rooms to patching bays or cross-connect frames on each floor. Copper then provides the ‘horizontal' connection to each desk, workstation or other application. Fibre is also ideal for inter-building ‘campus' links across much larger sites.

"Finally, for the most demanding current applications, such as Gigabit to the desk, two relatively new breeds of high-performance copper cable - category 6A and category 7 - are a viable alternative to fibre. This enables users to install a system today that will be able to work with their existing 10/100/Mbit/s and Gigabit equipment with the assurance of ‘future-proof' capacity for 10Gigabit/s in the coming years."

Foster says each solution has its own particular plus points and downsides. In the copper cabling domain, for example, categories 5e, 6 and 7 denote increasing performance grades. Fibre is focused mainly on backbone or ‘vertical' cables in buildings, and while some organisations specify fibre all the way to the desk, this is rare on cost grounds.

"With 10Gbit/s standards for both applications and channels ratified, and more on the immediate horizon, 10Gbps copper is growing on many users' radar screens," Foster explains.

"Its future-proof nature offers supreme peace of mind. Although the financial bottom-line is also a major consideration, since cabling costs are only a minor factor in the total cost of deploying 10Gbps networking (estimated at 5%-7%, upgrading the active equipment will put cabling costs in the shadows), putting in 10Gbps-capable copper cabling now to facilitate the deployment of 10Gps hardware at, say, the technology-refresh after next is a very small price to pay now for that additional flexibility and cabling system life in six or eight years time."

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