Cabling your network using low voltage cables such as Ethernet or fiber optics into a well-defined infrastructure that can handle your organizations needs for the foreseeable future is the very definition of structured cabling.
The result is a reliable network that can easily be modified.
Standards in the Telecommunication industry include the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA). Their standards include all aspects of structured cabling and were designed to address any type of facility, covering everything from the structure of the system to installation specifications, standards and testing criteria.
Do you Need Structured Cabling?
It is not a requisite for every business, but even smaller organizations quickly outgrow the limits of a router. Cabling becomes messy and disorganized, speeds slow down, and the network no longer runs as it should.
The fix isn’t complicated, but it will take a professional to do the job. Your going to need someone who has experience cabling your type of building/campus, a contractor who is certified, and a company who can provide you with an agreeable price point.
When completed, however, you should no longer have visible cables except in the telecommunications closet where the patch panel is located, and the cables are terminated.
This will make it easier to make additions or changes in the future and will organize your company’s network infrastructure for some time to come.
Building Industry Consulting Service International (BICSI)
BICSI, a professional organization for the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) industry, is the main provider of professional credentials for low voltage cabling. (Low voltage, structured, and network cabling will all be used interchangeably throughout this post)
Key credentials include Technician which certifies an installer in both copper and fiber and prepares them to be a project lead.
Another key credential is the Registered Communications Distribution Designer (RCDD). This certifies mastery in both design and implementation of equipment/infrastructure.
The RCDD is even a requisite for Department of Defense contracts.
Check to see if the companies bidding on your project are certified, both by BICSI and by the manufacturers whose products they install.
Inside Plant and Outside Plant
Cabling can either be Inside Plant (known as ISP) or Outside Plant (known as OSP).
BICSI categorizes OSP as any infrastructure installed external to buildings.
OSP cables are underground, direct-buried, or aerial. ISP refers to any cable installed inside of a building, including the patch panel, patch cord, and switch.
Both require different methods of installation.
OSP may require trenching equipment or boring technology, while ISP requires cable pulling and jack installation.
Types of Cables
Ethernet and Fiber Optic cables are the two main types of network cables.
Ethernet cables exist in a twisted pair format. There are two types of these Ethernet cables – Shielded and Unshielded.
Shielded Twisted Pair (STP) Ethernet cables have a grounding cable that cancels out electromagnetic interference and is commonly used in government environments for Secret Internet Protocol Router Networks (SIPRNet). This type of cable is recommended to be used anywhere there is significant electromagnetic interference including anything from motors to powerlines.
Unshielded Twisted Pair (UTP) Ethernet Cables are the more affordable variation because they lack the extra layer of protection. However, they are easier to work with and will save you not only on product costs, but on labor costs as well.
Once you’ve decided whether you want UTP or STP, you need to make the decision of what category cable you want to install. Generally, you are going to be selecting from the latest iterations of either Cat 5e, Cat 6, and Cat 6a.
Cat 5e reduces the noise that existed in the Cat 5 model cables, complying with IEEE standards to limit crosstalk. It can transmit at up to 100 m.
Cat 6 cable is ten times faster than Cat 5e, running at 10 Gbps but limited in its distance to under about 50 m.
Cat 6a is the best of both worlds, delivering the speed of Cat 6 at the distance of Cat 5e.
Fiber Optic cables can be purchased in both single mode and multimode.
Single mode fiber is best when cabling a campus-sized project with multiple buildings. Its reach can be measured in miles while OM4 (the current multimode standard) fiber has a maximum distance of about 400m.
Plenum is the area designed so that air can circulate for HVAC systems. Air must be able to circulate properly for the space to be designated plenum. When a building has a dropped ceiling (meaning there is space between the actual ceiling and the ceiling tiles) or a raised floor, that area is plenum. An area can also be considered plenum even if it isn’t designed to be. If air begins to circulate somewhere that it wasn’t designed to due to aging or poor installation by the HVAC technician.
The worry with plenum spaces is that the circulating air would feed oxygen to any fire that reached that area. Therefore, plenum cable is tested to meet fire safety standard from the National Fire Protection Association. It achieves this standard by using a fireproof coating and has low smoke characteristics so that the cabling doesn’t feed the fire while producing toxic smoke.
Riser cable is used in non-plenum areas. Fire standards are not as strict. It is used to provide the same services and deliver data the same as plenum cable, it just lacks the fireproofing. This makes riser cable less expensive than plenum and is often used wherever possible to save on cost for a given project.
Now you need to decide the magnitude of the project. Do you need one data port at each outlet location? Two has become more standard as the cost of pulling an additional cable is often offset by the usefulness of an additional port on the network. Some locations require four data ports.
If your building/campus is large either in terms of floorspace, height, or both, your project may be costlier. This makes sense as you must pull more cable for each outlet and need more jacks.
The other factor is your Intermediate Distribution Facilities (IDFs). Every project will have a single Main Distribution Facility (MDF) but can have multiple IDFs if the project is a larger footprint. Each IDF essentially intermediates the connection between the MDF and the jack. If the cable pull is too long, exceeding the 295’ distance limitation from the jack to the MDF, an IDF will need to be incorporated into the project design components.
Make sure that all your cables are properly tested with industry recognized test equipment. When terminated you want to be sure that every cable run is properly functioning, and all connections are working properly. Request documentation of the testing to incorporate as part of your cable plant records.
This leads to the importance of having proper documentation. Always have an as-built that corresponds to the work being done so in the case of a network move, add, or change you have the plans readily accessible. The last piece of key documentation is the acceptance of the work being done per building code by the inspector. Be sure that your inspection acceptance and the associated closed out permit are provided to you by the contractor upon completion.
Plan and account for future growth. Your company may require many more connections than presently required if you anticipate adding additional staff at a later date and it will be less expensive to cable initially if you allocate for growth than to continually add to your network on an ongoing basis.
Additionally, make sure that you have full coverage from your wireless access points. These should be planned out in advance, in some cases you may benefit from a wireless survey ahead of time.
Warranties should be a consideration on a case by case basis. As a minimum your contractor should provide you with a one (1) year warranty.
In the cases of new construction and stand-alone facilities that the owner will maintain for 10+ years you could benefit from a manufacturer’s provided warranty. Industry recognized partners such as Commscope, Corning, Leviton, Ortronics and Siemon provided extended material performance warranties with terms of 15-25 years.
Be sure the contractor supplying the cable connectivity have the longevity and required manufacturer training to support these warranties.
You can also compare warranties between vendors if that is crucial to your decision-making process.
A structured cabling system should last you quite a long time, except for the moves, adds, and changes required by your expanding organization.
Power over Ethernet
With the advent of Power over Ethernet, some services that typically required both an electrical connection and a network (or low voltage) connection now require only an Ethernet cable for both networking and power.
This adds to the flexibility of your network. Access points can be placed away from electrical outlets as can other devices. This includes access control, lighting, cameras (CCTV), phones (VoIP), intercoms, and Point of Sale (PoS) devices.
The additional benefits of this ‘flexible’ network is that it is cheaper, requiring less labor and less cost in terms of materials.
Many facilities and campuses require constant and complete security coverage. This is made easier by PoE CCTV. Systems are completely customizable depending on the needs of your organization. You will have the option to login remotely from a browser or smart phone.
Lastly, video records are searchable based on time and location.
These options can all save a business time and money, from insurance or reduction in activities detrimental to the business.
CCTV functions on PoE.
Another great option for organizations is Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). This solution allows calls to be made over the Internet, often for free or at a very low cost.
This can save a company or government entity quite a bit of money as phone bills can be a large cost driver. It should be a consideration for a call center or other businesses with a significant number of users.
Connectivity will increase among your employees and there is the option of connecting to the system via mobile phone so that you don’t miss any important calls.
As VoIP works over PoE, once again you only need one cable rather than two to power and connect your phone system, saving you money.
There are many choices when selecting a structured cabling system for your network infrastructure. The key is to plan and to be sure to cover all the future needs of your organization. Consider all PoE options that your business may need.
Finally, make sure you select the proper company to cable your project. This often means checking the reputation of a business in the industry, getting references, and comparing quotes. Price is important but should not be the only factor to consider as a reputable contractor has invested in continuing education on industry standards, will have significant buying power with vendors, and the quality of work has been clearly established based on their current customer base.
Your selection of a structured cabling company should be made early in the design process of your facility, campus or office. Consider that your network needs should not only meet the immediate needs but also strive to “future proof” wherever possible.