Cable management evolves to allow for change, human error

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SPECIAL REPORTS: Installing Networks

Cable management is getting easier, thanks to a new generation of modular products.


Have you ever cut a board into two or three different lengths only to discover that the measurements were off? Truth be told, even highly skilled people can occasionally make a mistake. Wouldn't it be great if a tool could compensate for mistakes or unexpected changes?

Today, we are seeing just such advancements in the area of cable-management technology. Cable-management systems consist of a series of components-cable trays, troughs, off-ramps, and drops-designed to help route and protect the cable. Several manufacturers are developing modular cable-management systems with snap-together, roving components to simplify the cable-management process and minimize the effect of problems caused by mistakes and changes to the cable system's layout.

This change is welcome to the cable-management industry, which today is glutted with a vast array of products. Traditional systems are labor-intensive and costly to install. Moreover, retrofitting the network cable system is a major undertaking. Many products require a host of dedicated components configured by technicians armed with nuts, bolts, screwdrivers, and saws.

Manufacturers recognize the need to move away from these complicated systems. The trend toward simplicity represents a significant advancement in cable-management technology; it shifts the market toward products that speed all aspects of cable system planning, installation, and retrofitting, and eliminates unnecessary equipment. Users save time and money.

A closer look at a few common problems these systems can solve shows why new cable-management technology is a worthwhile investment for any network.

A common scenario where the flexibility of these systems can solve problems is in laying out a central office. The first task is usually to tape out where each bay should be located. Next, all the overhead structures are mounted, including the cable-management system with all of the dedicated drops in the specified positions. At this stage, the troughs have been cut and the dedicated drops installed to match the positions where the bays are indicated by the tape.

If the installer arrives and places a bay just 2 inches or so off from where the tape is, the dedicated drops are all off by 2 inches. The result? Everything has to be pulled out and discarded, and new troughs have to be cut again and reinstalled to match up with the new location of the bays. Unfortunately, this type of scenario is relatively common. A human error results in a significant loss of time, money, and material, not to mention patience.Th 74188

Photo 1. Roving downspouts such as this off-ramp offer engineers the ability to place vertical transitions anywhere on the cable-management system without cutting components to add a dedicated drop.

With a modular cable-management system, this scenario never happens. Instead, all of the horizontal cable management is installed first, then at a later date, moveable or roving drops are put in wherever needed. The moveable drop sits inside the horizontal trough and slides inside the trough to the exact location where the drop is needed. It provides a bend-radius exit for the cable with absolutely no trough cutting, dedicated components, or junctions. The roving drop simplifies the entire installation, since the planner no longer has to worry about exact locations for the drop; instead, adjustments are made at the time of installation. Today, roving drops are critical components in most higher-quality cable-management systems (see Photo 1).Th 74189

Photo 2. Flexible channel articulates around obstacles to protect fiber in the most complex environments.

The protection and management of cable up and around the complex ironworks commonly found in today's central offices is another benefit of the new systems. The real estate inside the central office is valuable, so operators pack in as many terminations, cabinets, and racks as possible. As a result, the ironwork superstructure, the main supporting structure for all power, copper, and fiber, has become very complex, congested, and inflexible, making it extremely difficult to protect and route the fiber.

The new cable-management systems solve this problem by providing articulating components that can thread through and around the complex ironworks, rather than using a series of 45-degree-angle solid channels. The articulating links serve as a flexible, protective channel for cable routing around ductwork and other obstacles often found in the ironworks. These links provide maximum bend-radius protection for the fiber and are totally compatible with solid-channel components in the system (see Photo 2).

With the new management systems, planners do not have to design the network around the cable management. The systems provide both solid-channel and compatible articulating components, so that the management solution can be adjusted to accommodate any obstacle inside the central office.

A critical concern in today's network environment is rapid deployment. With the new cable-management systems, all the componentry quickly snaps together for ease of installation and future retrofits (see Photo 3). These systems steer away from nuts and bolts, which can quickly make the whole system much more complex and any changes time-consuming.Th 74190

Photo 3. Snap-on lids protect routed fiber through the raceway and provide hinges for easy access to upgrade the network.

Unfortunately, many cable-management system manufacturers still use labor-intensive processes such as tongue and groove or bolt and nut systems to connect key junctions to troughs. That requires substantially more time than snap-together systems. It recently took two installers using a drill nearly 15 hours to tighten all the bolts in a 200,000-sq-ft site utilizing a nut-and-bolt cable-management system. That's a big waste of time and money. In today's competitive environment, technicians should be doing more important things with their time.

Even in small installations, the time difference between snap-together components and labor-intensive hardware can quickly add up; in a small 7,000-sq-ft build, as many as 326 junctions could be required. With a hardware-intensive system, installation takes approximately 2 minutes and 40 sec per junction, while a snap-together junction takes as little as 2 sec to lock onto the components-a substantial difference of time when installation is an hourly charge.

Retrofitting is another key issue. If cable-management components snap together and snap apart, retrofitting is a lot easier. Time and money are saved, since technicians are not spending valuable hours tightening bolts.

Complex systems can also make the network more vulnerable to human error. If the installer happens to drop a washer, nut, or a bolt onto a critical network component, the performance of the entire network is threatened. If the dropped hardware lands inside a network rack or a power distribution frame, it can short out the network element. Even on a fiber frame, if the dropped part wedges between a connection, it can hamper signal quality.

Modular components simplify the cable-management process. Common components such as intersections, Ts, and Ls are all made in a modular, snap-together design. The user can simply snap on a drop or trumpet to any transition, while other systems may require multiple coupling kits to perform the same task, increasing the part count and bottom line.

Modular systems help avoid another common problem at the time of installation. With traditional systems, if installers are missing a necessary part, progress stops while they order and wait for the missing piece. With the modular system, however, installers can work around a missing part, since it is easy to make changes at the time of installation.

Today's fiber-optic networks carry huge amounts of critical data. A single hour of downtime can mean thousands of dollars in lost revenue and customer confidence. Each fiber strand is crucial to the overall integrity of the network, and adequately protecting each fiber can be the difference between success and failure in today's competitive environment.

Yet, in spite of its importance, cable management is often the last thing on the planners' minds. After dealing with the critical network components such as transmission or router equipment, optical interconnect hardware, cable selection, installation details, and scheduling, cable management is often given a low priority. That's unfortunate, since the point between distribution frames and fiber racks in the central office is really the Achilles heel of the network-it's here that the cable is most vulnerable to damage.

Network administrators typically spend millions of dollars putting together the racks that manage the cable all the way through the office, then make the fatal mistake of laying the cable up on the ladder rack-where it can sag and be exposed to potential harm-with no protection. It doesn't take an event as big as an earthquake to damage unprotected cable. Something as simple as ongoing office maintenance can present a hazard. Heating and air conditioning repairmen frequently work around the cable to get to the equipment they need to reach. Unprotected fiber stands a good chance of being damaged each time a repairman comes near it.

While the initial purchase price of the new cable-management systems may be higher, it is well worth the investment. The management system pays for itself time and again, not only during the initial system installation, but also long term, allowing users to avoid service disruptions due to human error and by facilitating network changes and expansion.

New cable-management technology offers a range of cable-management and cable-protection options. These systems protect against human error, greatly simplify the entire cable-management pro cess, and provide a quick and easy way for managing change. Cable-management systems play a key role in assuring network reliability.

Patrick Jenkins is product manager, optical products, at Telect Inc. (Liberty Lake, WA). He can be reached at

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