Electronic patch panel: Wire once and software handles network changes

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New technology helps administrators make connections outside the central wiring closet with few errors.

Richard B. Rauch and Lisa Kinney

Today's fast-changing network environments en courage system administrators to welcome technological breakthroughs. Organizations constantly evaluate new network technology that promises increased scalability and flexibility. The monitoring and maintenance of a growing network environment while saving time-and money-is an area of particular focus for system managers.

It's always a challenge to monitor, control, and maintain the appropriate connections in changing network environments. Many system managers would prefer to build an entirely new wiring closet from scratch rather than waste expensive resources tracking down and tracing an existing closet.

Within the central wiring closet, mechanical fiber-optic patch panels are often used to physically connect and route each fiber to the appropriate network connection. The network administrator must manually route the connections to the network's hubs, routers, switches, and computers.

Wrestling with fiber-optic connections may become a task of the past. A new technology that gives network administrators electronic control of fiber-optic connections can solve many issues inherent with mechanical fiber-optic patch panels.

Manual fiber-optic patch panels require a significant amount of time to reconfigure network connections. Each time a fiber-optic cable requires a change, the network administrator must go to the patch panel and manually switch cables. The manual patch panel requires the administrator to physically remove the fiber-optic cable and reconnect it within the patch panel. This need to physically handle the cabling opens up the network to possible failures due to potential errors in the reconnecting process.

The need to go to the wiring closet to induct each fiber cable modification is a time-consuming process. Once in the closet, network administrators must trace the fiber-optic cables to identify the appropriate cable connection. The procedure of identifying and controlling the fiber-optic cable connections is often tedious. The easier it is to make changes in a growing network with frequent component additions and constant changes, the higher the integrity of the network.

In a manual patch-panel environment, errors in locating the correct fiber cable connection can occur. Incorrect labeling of fiber-optic cables or the absence of labeling can cause confusion about how the current network is connected. In this state of disarray, it is hard to avoid inappropriate connections that may cause network failure. Th 0010lwspr04f2

Figure 1. The integration of electronic fiber-optic patch panels into Gigabit Ethernet and Fibre Channel networks can extend signal transmission distances up to 10 km.

Manual patch panels also attenuate the fiber-optic signal as it goes through the panel. As the signal weakens, the potential for the network to experience problems increases. If the connection between two cables is not properly aligned, signal losses can occur, which reduce network integrity. Mechanical misalignment of the fiber cables within the panel can also increase the attenuation of the signal. The repeated plugging and unplugging of cables can increase mechanical misalignment and subsequent signal losses.

A new technology, the electronic fiber-optic patch panel offers a "wire-once" solution that gives network administrators simple electronic control of fiber-optic connections remotely from anywhere on the network (see Photo). Unlike the manual patch panel, the electronic fiber-optic patch panel regenerates the signal when it propagates the panel, alleviating errors and/or failures caused by weakened fiber-optic signals. The integration of this technology into Gigabit Ethernet and Fibre Channel networks (see Figure 1) offers multiple benefits:

  • Reduces the time required to reconfigure network connections.
  • Helps to eliminate cabling errors.
  • Allows the system administrator to store and recall preset network configurations.
  • Restores signal levels to increase system performance and reliability.
  • Enhances network security.

Electronic patch panels with operational control software enable remote operation of the unit from any point on the network. Once a fiber cable is connected into the patch panel, it does not need to be physically handled anymore to accommodate network changes. Port connections can be labeled within the software to identify the fiber-optic connections. Changes to the port connections can be initiated from a computer anywhere on the network, eliminating the guesswork as to which fiber-optic cable goes to which port connection. This capability keeps the network administrator and other technicians out of the wiring closet, saves time, and can eliminate the frustration in manually tracing connections.

The patch-panel control software enables network connections to be easily and efficiently switched, routed, and shared. Network administrators can remotely operate and control the patch-panel configurations, monitor network status, automate processes, and set security parameters using the software. With all ports labeled on-screen, connections are quickly and easily identified, allowing the rerouting to be done almost effortlessly.Th 0010lwspr04f1

Figure 2. Using the patch panel's control software, the network administrator can issue custom names to the individual port connections for easier recognition and maintenance.

User-defined presets can give the administrator who frequently reroutes and redistributes fiber-optic connections additional system flexibility. The network administrator can make port changes from the patch panel's front panel or remotely via control software. The network administrator can also issue custom names to the individual port connections for easier recognition and maintenance. Labeling such as engineering lab, main conference room, and John Doe takes the guesswork out of tracing particular cable connections when rerouting and reconfiguring network connections (see Figure 2).

Use of an electronic fiber-optic patch panel also increases the distance capability of each fiber-optic connection by regenerating the optical signal through the patch panel. System performance and reliability are improved due to reduced cable and interconnection losses. Standard Gigabit Ethernet and Fibre Channel optical connections can be extended up to 10 km.

If a cable breaks or is physically removed from the electronic fiber-optic patch panel, a system alert notification is displayed on the network administrator's computer or sent via e-mail. The administrator is alerted immediately as to which port connection has been disrupted and can fix the problem promptly. This capability also provides added security. If a cable is being compromised by wire tapping, the administrator is alerted to the problem.

Automation software, in association with an electronic fiber-optic patch panel, gives administrators the ability to remotely and automatically initiate changes to their network. Again, this capability eliminates the need to access the wiring closet when modifications to fiber connections need to be implemented. These changes can be made through the software anywhere on the network.

For example, testing network devices during off-peak hours can improve the efficiency of the network. By utilizing automation software, components can be removed from the network and connected to network analyzers at predetermined times. The automation software can switch to the appropriate device and execute the testing application software through the use of the electronic fiber-optic patch panel.Th 1711lwe009

Electronic fiber-optic patch panels can allow simple remote control of fiber connections from anywhere on the network.

Automation software can also provide system alert notifications to inform the administrator of network faults or changing configurations. The necessary personnel are promptly advised when network applications are completed or events fail. Like the control software, the automation software can monitor connections between network nodes and devices. If a connection fails, the software can initiate a backup connection, maintaining the network integrity. It can also create a log of events, results, and corrective action taken for tracking and historical use.

In the event that a fiber-optic cable has been manually disconnected from the patch panel or the connection terminated for any reason, the administrator can be notified by the built-in security feature. Once the security detection is made, the system administrator is alerted via pager, e-mail, PCS digital phone, or network alerts. Network administrators have the ability to lock out the panel controls, heightening the safeguard level of the network. The monitoring feature offered by the software adds another level of security to network environments.

The use of manual fiber-optic patch panels is widespread within today's network environments. Manual is not the way of the future, however. Electronic fiber-optic patch panels offer more benefits. The electronic patch panel provides a "wire-once" network solution, allowing administrators to remotely maintain networks, stay out of the wiring closet, and focus more on network management. With an automated framework to centrally manage network environments, administrators can utilize a proactive process to network management.

An electronic fiber-optic patch panel also increases the distance capability of each fiber-optic connection by regenerating the optical signal through the patch panel. This capability reduces cable and interconnection losses for increased performance and system reliability.

Richard B. Rauch is president and CEO of APCON Inc. (Portland, OR), and Lisa Kinney is a product marketing manager. For more information, visit the company's Website at www.apcon.com.

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