Network enabling through better cabling

Most people have a tough time assembling a bookshelf from Ikea, let alone installing cable to run a network — which is much more critical to your business. As a result, you shouldn’t attempt to do it yourself unless you know what you’re doing, since an improper install can lead to all sorts of problems with your network.

First, it’s important to understand the different types of cable out there. The Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) has produced standards based on work from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. (IEEE). Category 5 cable, more commonly known at Cat-5, is the most popular type used in a 10/100 Ethernet-based network, and is commonly used for voice and data applications. Category 5e, or enhanced Cat-5, was brought out to support speeds of up to 1,000 megabits per second. The latest standard is Category 6, which supports Gigabit Ethernet, and later this year we’ll see Category 6a (or augmented Cat-6) that will support 10 Gigabit Ethernet.

Essentially, the higher the number, the better the throughput. So what does all this mean for the small business owner? SMBs are probably dealing with, at most, Gigabit Ethernet, since they don’t usually have big data centres, says Brad Masterson, product manager with Fluke Networks Canada. The best thing small business owners can do is ensure they have minimum Cat-5e to support today’s technology, though, he says, some are moving to Cat-6 for added protection.

Make sure the installer understands these standards (there are a number of installers that have been approved by the different cabling manufacturers). Then, make sure the installation is fully tested and certified.

If you’re just moving or adding a cable, you may not want to go through the whole certification process. In this case, there are qualification tools on the market that could help you out. “Certification is always the recommended method on a brand new install,” says Masterson, but it’s also recommended on moves. “But some [SMBs] don’t want to go to the expense, so qualification is the next best thing.”

Look for the best quality cabling and components you can afford, says Richard Smith, Canadian region director for Building Industry Consulting Service International (BICSI). But it can get confusing when sourcing copper cabling, he says, because there are a lot of different manufacturers and a lot of different materials used, and the quality of those materials can affect throughput. Not all Cat-5e cables, for example, can carry the same amount of throughput. The higher-quality cables offer more “headroom,” which is like the shoulder on a highway, giving you a bit of extra room to manoeuvre.

“A lot of folks consider installing cable pretty much idiot-proof,” he says. But, unlike telephone wire, the signal is much more prone to interference from things that never used to bother the service provided by the telephone company. You have to consider the routing of the wire, even how it’s fastened to the wall. You can’t run it beside an electrical wire, for example. And not all terminating devices are of the same quality.

This is where standards come in. “The TIA gives guidance on how to install stuff so that it works safely, doesn’t burn your building down, doesn’t electrocute the person using it,” says Smith.

As a small enterprise, it’s probably not worth the time and effort to install cable yourself, says Vince Londini, research analyst with Info-Tech Research Group. If you have more than 50 PCs, cabling becomes a major issue and it’s something you should consider outsourcing.

While it may not be necessary to go through a full-blown RFP process, it’s still important to have a contract in place. Make sure the contractor labels each cable clearly. It’s generally considered a best practice to have a spare cable for each cable that extends to an end-user workstation. Plan about a square foot of closet space for each 100 square feet of workspace you’re serving.

Also consider cable asset management. You can put up a diagram in the wiring closet and try to track cables that way, or you could turn to a cable asset management software solution that keeps track of what cable goes where.

Make sure the wiring closet is secured with a locked panel. We live in a more litigious environment these days with compliance requirements, says Londini, and wiring closets represent an access point that could give somebody unhindered access to the network.

Most importantly, don’t make the mistake of buying cheap, low-quality components and doing the install on your own just to save money, says Fluke’s Masterson. If cable is installed improperly, the network will pick up noise and cause all sorts of problems, which people tend to blame on bad network gear. The culprit, however, is often poor installation. “Your network,” he says, “is only as good as the cabling your data rides across.”

SMB Extra Home

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Vawn Himmelsbach
Vawn Himmelsbach
Is a Toronto-based journalist and regular contributor to IT World Canada's publications.

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