Cable management madness

Your server room cables needn't be a tangled mess. Here are some pointers on how to organize your cables and keep your network running smoothly.

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Cable management has always struck me as a rather odd concept. Having neatly arranged cables is not a requirement for a functional network. At the same time, though, there are a million reasons why good cable management is important.

The main reason is probably that if your cables are neat and orderly, it will make it much easier for you to troubleshoot a cable problem. Consider these other scenarios:

* Quite a few years ago, I was a network administrator for a large insurance company. During my first day on the job, my boss told me that the company frequently liked to give prospective clients a tour of the server room to show off the company's computing muscle. I was told that the server room was as much about show as it was about function and that I should make every effort to conceal cords.

* On another occasion, I helped a friend who owned a consulting company build a network for a client. He insisted that the cords be kept neat and orderly.

Too many "Type A" people loose in server rooms? Not really. Aside from making your server room look good, neatly arranged cords can help keep your network running smoothly. Big bundles of cables can be heavy. If lots of cables are tangled together, the weight of the cables can cause connectors to pull loose or short out. When this happens, you probably won't have a fire, because most computer cables carry only small amounts of electricity. Shorts can, however, cause your network connectivity to fail, slow down or become less reliable.

Tip 1: Use keyboard, video, and mouse multiplexers when possible.
This lets you connect multiple servers to a single monitor, keyboard and mouse. Contrary to popular belief, using multiplexers doesn't reduce the number of required cords. In most cases, it actually increases the number of cords that you will have to use. However, you do get to eliminate a lot of clutter because you will only have one keyboard, monitor and mouse per multiplexer.

The reason I am discussing multiplexers in an article on cord management is because in a strange sort of way, multiplexers can help you better organize your cords. Think about it: Each server will have an equal length keyboard, mouse and monitor cable that runs from the back of the computer to the multiplexer. Since these cables are the same length and are all going to the same place, you can use wire ties to make these three cables behave as one. This in itself reduces clutter.

Tip 2: Reduce the number of cords you use to the bare minimum.
For example, in my server room, I have a keyboard, mouse, video, power and network cable going to each server, and that's it. Although my servers do have sound cards, there is really no reason for me to be playing sound on a server, so I reduced some of the clutter by not using sound cables. I do not use any peripheral cables either. At one time, I had a couple of network printers that connected to a print server with USB cables. However, I replaced those printers with printers that have built-in network cards. This allows me to simply plug the printers into a network jack in my office rather than having to connect an extra device directly to a server.

Network cables are probably the most difficult type of cable to manage because there are so many of them. I see a lot of different techniques used for managing network cables. On my network I have an Ethernet switch that I use just for my servers. This switch is on the same rack as the servers. I then run a network cable from each server to the switch.

My particular rack consists of five shelves, with four servers on each shelf. I use wire ties to attach each network cable to the shelf that its corresponding server sits on. When the cables reach the end of the shelf, I feed them into a plastic conduit that goes to where the Ethernet switch is located. This prevents any more of the cable than is absolutely necessary from being visually exposed.

With this technique, I end up with a bundle of 20 cables at the switch. To help me keep track of which cable does what, I label both ends of each cable using a label maker. The labels look a little unsightly, but they are a necessity for me.

I also have several workstations, some of which use wired connections and others are wireless. I have Ethernet jacks installed throughout the building. The cable from each jack passes through the walls and eventually ends up in a cabinet in my server room. I have a separate Ethernet switch in this cabinet that I use to supply connectivity to each jack. The cabinet also contains a wireless access point that connects to the Ethernet switch. Finally, there is a single cable flowing from this switch to the switch I use for my servers. This allows my workstations to communicate with my servers.

Unfortunately, having a server room means having a lot of cables. There is no getting around that. It is possible, however, to hide many of the cables from view by using conduit and cabinets. And you can make visible cables appear more orderly simply by using wire ties.

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Brien M. Posey, MCSE, is a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional for his work with Windows 2000 Server and IIS. Brien has served as CIO for a nationwide chain of hospitals and was once in charge of IT security for Fort Knox. As a freelance technical writer he has written for Microsoft, CNET, ZDNet, TechTarget, MSD2D, Relevant Technologies and other technology companies. You can visit Brien's personal Web site at www.brienposey.com.
 

This was first published in March 2005

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