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Thu 1 Feb 2007 10:17 AM

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Breaking point

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. NME looks at the issues.

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 and elsewhere 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 manager of Reichle & De Massari (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 R&M compete."

This is something which is echoed by a number of other vendors active in the Middle East - 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, 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 new 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."

While it is easy to point out that named cable vendors will obviously be keen to discourage the use of generic brands, most of the vendors in this article were able to tell stories of ‘rip and replace' projects where their products had been deployed in the stead of third-party systems. And as R&M's Amestoy points out, he will be very pleased on one level to see these cut-price installations fail.

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 comments. "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."

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 $650,000).

"What's happening in the Middle East - I've been flying here every year - is there are issues with the project sizes, Pillai says. "There are so many projects out there, and contractors are not interested in looking at them unless it's worth a certain amount - even some of the contractors for our project."

Gautier Humbert, technical and training manager for the Middle East at Ortronics, says he has seen a change in the way contractors approach cabling installations, even in the recent past: "Only a year ago, MEP contractors wanted a name brand, just so it wouldn't get rejected by the consultants. Now they are willing to take risks. They say ‘just to keep my margin, I'll go with an unknown brand to see if we can get it through'. They do take risks, and we do see products which don't meet the specifications at all - but they still get them through.

"I'd say this was everywhere - even projects which are supposed to be prestigious," states Humbert. "I've seen products go in there which have nothing to do with prestige or quality. The problems are everywhere today."

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."

Another building the NYMEX team looked at was seven years old, but Pillai says it was unable to use its Cat 5e infrastructure even to stream IPTV throughout the building - thanks to the design of the structured cabling system, the infrastructure could not cope.

"The building had intermediate distribution closets every third floor - they discovered this wasn't even good enough for IPTV," says Pillai. "In reality, you probably want one every floor, every 20,000 sq ft. You need intermediate distribution with fibre, then copper horizontal distribution - that's probably the better solution, instead of using copper between two floors to save money. In a city like Dubai, with so many high-rises, you have to plan your data communication, your voice communication in advance - you can't just run cables from everywhere to everywhere else."

Many of the issues Pillai highlights come from poorly-conceived implementations as much as poor cabling products - this is another main issue which cabling vendors raise as significant in the region. Comments include end users not planning enough data ports, or distributing them poorly - although the interest of vendors in putting twice or three times as many access points in could very well be debated. A point which does seem to be a genuine bugbear also appears - lack of space in server or communications rooms.

"Communication room sizing - this is the worst problem we have," says Wael Dalati, business development manager for the Gulf and Middle East at Nexans. "Usually architects are our enemies - they give us the smallest space to work on. You have to fit at least one full 42-inch rack, and often two or three, in a room which barely holds one person. Almost always we have to do some redesign work for the whole building.

"Outlet design, conduits, containment - these are all issues as well," Dalati adds. "Cables are getting bigger; we used to deal with a track-size of 5.5mm - now Cat 6 is 7.1mm, and Cat 7 is 8mm. The more the technology develops, the thicker the cables get. So if the client designs a system with Cat 5e in mind, and later changes and goes with Cat 7, they will fit barely 50%-60% the number of the Cat 7 cables in the same space."

Charlemont and Humbert from Ortronics also cite lack of planning for end use as a major problem in modern cabling deployments. Failure to factor in the additional heat caused by power over Ethernet, for example - an additional 15% to 20% above ambient temperature - may affect high-performance applications, especially when combined with Middle Eastern summer heat. Humbert notes one enterprise which suffered severe performance issues at a certain regular time - the problem was traced to a cabling conduit which received direct sunlight at a particular point in the day.

What can enterprises and IT managers do to tackle the potential minefield of cabling installations? For projects under the direct control of the enterprise, it should be easy to set specific standards for cabling and infrastructure - IT managers can have much more of a say in the decision-making process, as well as the design and implementation itself.

But for organisations looking to move in to developer-controlled sites, the best policy may be to specify requirements to the developer or building management operation, as well as to test any infrastructure already present.

However, many developments will still only carry a one-year warranty - in this case, it is probably very much a case of
caveat emptor

, and an enterprise ensuring it knows exactly the IT environment it will be forced to use, and plans ahead. While the current property boom can make it hard to turn down office space, once more developments become available, potential tenants may be in a stronger position to specify exactly what they require.

"An organisation which finds itself with a sub-standard cabling infrastructure may have to redo the whole network - redoing anything like this costs two to three times more than the original implementation," says Venu Menon, divisional manager at Online Distribution.

On a positive note, Menon adds: "I think a lot of the major developers are now becoming very conscious of what they're putting in - they're looking at end-to-end issues. The consultants have a big role to play here as well - they shouldn't be approving cables which don't meet the standards. And once other issues become involved and decision-making becomes a little influenced - that is where things can start going wrong."

“They were having so many cabling issues it was unbelievable; half of the cables in the building had been bitten by rats.”
“The only way for the MEP contractor to increase his profit is to squeeze the budget for the integrator.”
“There are so many projects out there, and contractors are not interested in looking at them unless it’s worth a certain amount.”

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