Cable manners

Developers and contractors in the Middle East may be cutting corners when it comes to deploying IT infrastructure - specifically cabling - in some of the new mega projects. Eliot Beer looks at some of the issues.

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By  Elliot Beer Published  February 1, 2007

The construction and development boom across the Middle East is promising some of the most striking and impressive projects in the world, as well as top-class facilities for businesses and individuals alike. But IT professionals - both vendors and end users - warn that many projects could be storing up potentially disastrous and expensive problems for the future. The culprits: inferior cabling installations.

While cabling is often regarded as a boring and unimportant part of an IT infrastructure, getting it wrong can cause massive problems for businesses - especially in sites where tenant organisations have little or no control over the cabling infrastructure. Many organisations in the Middle East now have a good understanding of the importance of cabling - often having been burned in the past, but the same is not true of many property developers in the region.

"If we have some quality-conscious people in front of us, we do compete successfully for residential projects," says Laurent Amestoy, regional director of R&M, a Swiss cabling manufacturer. "But if you're dealing with contractors, a lot of the time they will go for the cheapest of the cheap - this is not where we compete."

This is something which is echoed by a number of other vendors active in the region - competing for residential projects is hard for named-brand cable vendors, when they have to go up against generic imports from China and Korea, among other countries.

One reason for the extreme price sensitivity is the organisational structure of many major developments. Master developers hand down projects to other developers, who bring in contractors and consultants, who in turn bring in further subcontractors. In addition, cable installations are often done by mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) contractors, rather than specialist integrators or consultants - this can often mean the contractor has little specialist knowledge of cabling requirements, and is easily led by an integrator.

"The MEP contractor is often on a fixed amount of money for the project - they then often outsource it to a systems integrator. Again, the only way for the MEP contractor to increase his profit is to squeeze the budget for the integrator - and not being experts on cabling, they will just go for the lowest price," says Tomaso Charlemont, business development manager Middle East at Ortronics. "This is where we end up facing absurd situations - the contractors are trying to make savings at the wrong end of the chain."

Recent reports of increased costs for MEP professionals is also likely to exacerbate the situation Charlemont describes. Wherever the pressure comes from, the result is the same - lower quality cabling systems are going into developments.

R&M's Amestoy points out this is not a new phenomenon: "We went through the same thinking in the commercial sector as well at one point. People just thought of cables as a bit of wire, and it was the active equipment at either end that was important. But then they realise that it's the other way round - active equipment is very easy to change, but the cable is fixed. And if you need to change the cable, you'll pay the price - the finance director will be very keen the next time around that the company gets the right cable."

One organisation which is extremely clear about its cabling requirements is the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX) - the high-profile US exchange has been working with the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) on setting up the Dubai Mercantile Exchange (DME). Raj Pillai, IT director at NYMEX, has been heavily involved in developing the IT infrastructure for the DME, and says he too has run into the worrying emphasis on no-name cabling brands.

"Nobody was able to speak for the performance of the generic products, they were recommended on price and availability - they told me the local distributors stocked these products, we'd never had any problems getting hold of the material and so forth," says Pillai. "And with the third party products, they were only offering a one-year warranty. With the Ortronics product (the final choice for DME) they offered a 24-year warranty."

Pillai is crystal clear on the details of the DME's cabling infrastructure, down to the level of how the data centre is organised, the cabinet configurations and so on. He says he expects a cabling system to last up to two decades before being replaced.

"For businesses, I think the horizontal backbone cabling should be good for 15 to 20 years, although some would disagree with me on this," he says. "If it's not done properly, your investment is not going to be recouped over those 15 years - you're talking about revamping the entire building within five or six years. Our building in New York is 13 years old, using Cat 3, Cat 5 and Cat 5e - we've never had a problem with any of the distribution."

As well as the potential problems with generic cabling products, Pillai also expresses his concern about the approach that many contractors in the region take to cabling projects. When the NYMEX IT director approached a number of system integrators, several of them were clearly uninterested, as the project was not big enough (the total IT budget for the DME project was US$21 million, with a cabling budget of US$650,000).

In addition, the quality of some installations in the region is also questionable in Pillai's opinion.

He recounts a visit to one building in Dubai: "We went to a building one of the potential DME contractors had done. I was talking to the building manager at the time - I got hold of his number and gave him a call a couple of weeks later.

"They were having so many cabling issues it was unbelievable; it was a lot to do with the way the cables had been run - they hadn't been properly secured. Half of the cables in the building had been bitten by rats - this is in a 35-storey building."

Faced with this type of situation, there is often little tenant organisations can do, except rip and replace the cabling system - at their own expense, thanks to one-year warranties. Caveat emptor is definitely the watchword in the Middle East market.

CIO cheat sheet

Cat 5, 6, 7 cable

Cable specifications currently on the market range from Category 5e to Category 7 – in theory, the higher the category the better the performance from the cable (and the higher the cost). In reality, performance and price are not so clear-cut; cabling should be sourced by the application, not the spec sheet.

For example, depending on the location of the cable, IT managers may need to deploy a shielded solution if there is a significant amount of electro-magnetic interference (e.g. from power cables). IT managers should also consider how the cable will be used – if it is for a desktop which will never need to use more than 10Mbit of bandwidth, there is no point using Cat 6a cable capable of 10Gbit speeds.

Other factors in categorising a cable include the number of twists in the cable (which help prevent cross-talk and interference), and the gauge of the wire, which affects attenuation among other factors.

“They were having so many cabling issues it was unbelievable; half of the cables in the building had been bitten by rats.”

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