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Sat 10 Oct 2009 04:00 AM

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Getting physical

The process of obtaining high efficiencies from data centre structured cabling involves a number of steps and IT managers in the region are well-advised to keep all of them in mind. Sathya Mithra Ashok finds out more.

Getting physical
Many Middle East enterprises continue to look at short term solutions. - Andrew Sedman, technical director MEA for R&M.
Getting physical
Cable media selection should compliment the user’s requirements. - Dave Harney, group product manager at Molex.
Getting physical
Many solutions are out there, but only a few are really applicable to datacentres. - Gautier Humbert, sales manager – Gulf region for structured cabling solutions at Ortronics and Legrand.

The process of obtaining high efficiencies from data centre structured cabling involves a number of steps and IT managers in the region are well-advised to keep all of them in mind. Sathya Mithra Ashok finds out more.

It is a fact of life. Achieving optimal performance from the physical layer is essential not only for ensuring equipment efficiency inside a data centre, but also for the overall health of the organisational network.

However, getting the most out of the physical layer is easier said than done, and the process often starts with the choice of the solution that is to be deployed in a data centre.

"When choosing cabling solutions for the data centre, IT managers should keep in mind requirements, architecture and the media. Requirements include apps that users plan to implement today and those that they would migrate to in five years time. Data centre architecture also greatly impacts cable selection. First, there is network switching (top of rack switching, distributed zone switching or a centralised switch architecture).

Then we need to understand where the cabling pathways run. Requirements and architecture drive the type of media selected and define the best option between field installed versus factory terminated systems," says Dave Harney, group product manager at Molex.

Gautier Humbert, sales manager in the Gulf region for structured cabling solutions at Ortronics and Legrand adds: "There is a common misunderstanding that end-users should always go for the highest performance solution. Actually, the single most important factor to keep in mind is flexibility. Choosing a reliable product is the basis.

Many solutions are out there, but only a few are really applicable to data centres. Once the brands are selected, it comes down to design and to products that allow the data centre to adapt to the changing needs of an organisation. Basically, IT managers have to choose an adapted product, and consider a design that will allow easy modifications in the near future."

Besides looking for pure functionality in a solution, vendors recommend that IT managers look for quality, adaptability of the systems and to choose a company that is more of a partner than a supplier.

"A data centre can be designed in many different ways depending on size and redundancy. But sometimes a single item can make the difference. For example, a pre-terminated solution can save tremendous time in installation and MACs (moves, adds and changes)," warned Humbert.

Apart from the basic guidelines to keep in mind, there is always the perennial question of whether to go for copper or fibre inside the data centre. Nobody denies that there has to be a mix of both solutions for optimal performance inside an organisational data centre. However, not many can agree on how much and what kind of a mix makes for the ideal solution.

"Although fibre is a more future-proof solution with regard to capacity, cost is higher and handling fibre requires more attention to prevent micro-bends and damage. Copper, on the other hand, is of lower cost and is easier to handle. When distances are larger than 100 metres, there is no other alternative than using fibre.

Therefore, copper is probably the best solution to be used in the data centre rack/row, whereas fibre is required in the data centre backbone," stated Aziz Ala'ali, regional director, Middle East and Africa at Extreme Networks.

"Selecting between copper and fibre is a balancing act between applications support, the number or connections you need to support in an area and available budget.

Fibre will be the best cable type in high density environments where the user expects a quick migration from 1Gbps networks to 100Gbps networks.  But as of today, copper network transceivers are less expensive than optical transceivers, and so copper still has a place in most data centres," explained Harney.Andrew Sedman, technical director MEA for R&M says: "Typically from the main distribution area (MDA) to the zone distribution area (ZDA), purely fibre is used due to high traffic demands.

Then from there out to the equipment distribution areas (EDAs) the choice can be made between copper and fibre. Much has been said about using only fibre throughout the data centre as this can reduce the power requirements by up to 40%, but through design (i.e. keeping copper runs relatively short) similar savings can be achieved negating the ‘green philosophy' concept of removing all copper cabling."

As Humbert puts it, all data centres will continue to require a mix of both copper and fibre solutions, and IT managers should keep that in mind when deploying the physical layer in their various data centres.

Stage two

With a solution selected, the next step for the CIO is to ensure the best design for the cable's layout within the data centre.

Humbert says,:"A change in practice recently adopted is to locate the cabling above the cabinets on a wiremesh cable tray instead of inside the raised floor. It facilitates easy changes to the cabling and does not impede airflow. The cables should be fixed as loosely as possible and only with Velcro ties. This avoids damage to the cables and facilitates future changes."

He adds: "Data centres should be designed such that patch cords are never longer than 3m. A long patch cord is very difficult to manage. So if the connections are too far apart, there should be some patch panels in between. Most important is to always remember that a data centre needs to live; it will require constant MACs. This means that everything must be done in the beginning to facilitate those future changes while limiting disruptions."

"Cable media selection should compliment the user's requirements. Cabling connects high value network, applications and storage devices that facilitate even higher-value data and communications. If the wrong cable type is in place, or the right cable is in the wrong place, it becomes the bottleneck to supporting the user's business requirements.

This is one of the reasons I advocate factory terminated systems. These systems are simple to install, offer predictable performance, come with test reports and can be re-configured and reused. By designing a robust, flexible trunking system and stocking common length cable assemblies the user can manage fast MACs without sacrificing functionality," stated Harney.

Once the project is designed and deployed, the actual task of managing and monitoring the physical layer in a data centre begins. This means ensuring everything from the security and integrity of cabinets, to the maintanence of proper and regular documentation of the structured cabling layout.

"End-users must ensure there is proper documentation of the entire structured cabling layout and utilise some form of physical layer management tool which can monitor the location and activity of all nodes on the network. This can be deployed as a separate software application or most of the functionality to do this may already reside in the switching fabric of the network," said Ala'ali.

"One of the most important and often overlooked items is patch cord management. With the density achieved today, and with the constant increase in diameter of the cords from Cat5e to Cat6 to Cat6a, the traditional "vertical management rings" are just not sufficient. These end up damaging the cords, and impeding changes.

Obtaining optimal performance

1. Ensure security and integrity of the physical layer by securing cabinets and closets to prevent unauthorised access.

2. Proper documention of the original structured cabling layout.

3. Use of a physical layer management solution which can monitor the location and activity of nodes on the network.

4. Patch management must be done rigorously and with dedication.

5. Maintain and enforce proper procedures for the health and safety of the physical layer in the data centre.

So definitely, for the MDA (main distribution area) and HDA (horizontal distribution area), specialised cabling racks with wide vertical cable management are now mandatory. Technicians should keep in mind that temporary solutions very often become permanent, so they must be extremely rigorous in patching," advised Humbert.

The industry strongly recommends the use of a software tool to help monitor the physical layer, with many advocating this as absolutely essential in most organisations. IT managers are also advised to follow some basic best practices to assure the continuous health of their physical layer.

"Plan for change. Think pathways and spaces first. When these are well designed change in the data centre will not be limited by cabling infrastructure. Next consider skills needed to implement cabling changes and determine how available they are and how much you can budget, both in time and financially, to having these skills available when you need them. Finally, think about how you can limit the need for change by designing a flexible infrastructure with capacity beyond day one requirements with an emphasis on the areas where change is most disruptive," suggested Harney.

Correcting the mistakes

Despite the importance of the physical layer in every data centre, IT managers and their teams in the Middle East continue to make several mistakes and omissions in deploying and maintaining them. Key among them is inadequate budget allocation.

"Budget for cabling infrastructure is nearly always a concern and is also probably the leading cause for limited, inflexible designs that work on day one but fall short when changes are required. Most often, the physical layer is not considered as a key component of the IS infrastructure and enough emphasis is not given during the design of the same, especially to address the organisation's continuing requirement of MACs.

The real benefits that arise from the effective management of the physical layer is on a long term operational basis and more often the upfront cost for implementing the system, lead to organisations making compromises," said Molex's Harney.

Adding up

Many of the slip-ups that Middle East enterprises commit with the physical layer in the data centre can be traced to two principal reasons - a general lack of people who have experience in managing data centres, and the mix of nationalities who manage IT infrastructure each of whom bring their own set of best practices, beliefs and education to handling structured cabling.

"This region does not lack in motivated and qualified people, but it does lack experienced people. I frequently see managers who have never been on the field and who have never even seen a data centre running designing them here," said Humbert.

To address this lack proactively, vendors encourage end-user organisations to train their data centre IT personnel regularly. Such training should cover everything from data centre design and international standards, to the implementation of due processes and management. Many industry experts state that a few leading organisations are already sending their personnel for data centre courses and there is every indication that enterprises will soon begin to achieve the necessary efficiency from physical layer investments.

Common mistakes to avoid

1. Choosing short term solutions without considering the rate of growth and allowing for it.

2. Choosing solutions that are not specifically designed for the data centre environment.

3. Considering price as the most important factor when choosing a supplier.

4. Not aportioning a generous budget for choosing and deploying cabling solutions.

5. Aiming for a higher tier data centre than absolutely necessary.

6. Not implementing processes and procedures for monitoring the physical layer and other equipment.

7. Avoiding due documentation and paying inadequate attention to patch management.

8. Not training IT personnel to handle the physical layer in the data centre.

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