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Back to layer one

Managing a network’s physical layer is a task that requires technical expertise and precision. With investments made to last the long haul, getting the basics right makes a fundamental difference for a well-managed data centre.layer

As enterprise IT thrives, and hype surrounds the likes of cloud, Big Data and mobility, it can be easy to forget the importance the infrastructure that powers it. What’s more, it can be even easier to overlook the most principle aspect of networking – the physical layer. An innately complex and specialist subject matter, PLM requires dedicated and skilled individuals, and careful management from Chief Information Officers.

Renjan George, Managing Director, DVCOM Technology, gives an overview of the main hurdles in dealing with layer one. “One of the biggest challenges is the staggering costs and even higher requirement of time and resources,” he says. “These costs and time requirements tend to increase further as the physical layer becomes more complex. Environmental changes are another notable challenge while managing the physical layer, especially in extreme weather conditions.”

Although IT decision-makers will have varying habits and rituals regarding their own organisational skills, they cannot always keep track of those within their team. Network Managers or staff working in network operations centres can have their own way of running things, which – in spite of their undeniable technical expertise – can cause problems for a data centre over time.

“In many current installations, the physical infrastructure is managed with ‘on-board tools’ such as excel spreadsheets and visio graphics,” Shibu Vahid, Head of Technical Operations, R&M Middle East, Turkey and Africa, says. “Sometimes, even paper, pencil and post-it notes are used. Unfortunately this approach is flawed as 50 percent of all documented data becomes inaccurate after a time span of five years. Documentation is very important and keeping correct information there after moves, ads or changes is very crucial for data centre health. At the same this, carrying out these tasks manually is extremely labour-intensive and prone to errors.”

The heavy investment in the physical layer is not one that should be taken lightly, with the long shelf-life of equipment, and the challenges of replacing it taken into account. Networking experts are always wary of the need to ensure that layer one investment stands the test of time. “Although the physical infrastructure represents just three to five percent of the total network investment, it is the crucial backbone on which the entire network runs,” says Vahid. “Unlike active equipment which is subject to four to five year refresh cycles, the cable infrastructure itself is much more complex to replace and will typically stay for 20 to 25 years. So one of the main criteria during evaluation of layer one solutions should be quality for longevity.”

George thinks that comprehensive evaluation of infrastructure is the best means of deciding on layer one options. “The best approach is to have a deep understanding of the organisation’s existing IT infrastructure, their core business requirements and the width of operations,” he says. “This will enable the integrators to develop a strategy and identify the best possible options for layer one. Evaluation of all available options is not feasible, however most of the time IT goes for the best and most cost-effective solution.”

Smart product lifecycle management can give the NOC power to maintain uptime, security, and create efficiency in their data centre networks. It can also provide circuit mapping, alarming, and reporting and crisis management. A relatively new investment on the block is remote monitoring, whose greatest advantage is being able to quickly eliminate threats and protect the enterprise’s IT infrastructure.

George believes that remote monitoring is imperative in a 21st Century physical layer. “Modern data centres require advanced physical layer monitoring tools where the traditional methods won’t work most of the time,” he says. “Most of the reported connectivity issues are essentially from the physical layer, which points out the importance of advanced diagnosis tools for physical layer and ability to remotely monitor the same.”

Vahid is keen to highlight an alarming statistic that shows the importance of going beyond manual network monitoring tools. “While the cost of cabling only accounts for four to five percent of the total expense of the data centre, Gartner reports have shown that 65 percent of system outages are related to cabling and patching mistakes cause of 28 percent of downtime in data centres,” he says. “With such high risk, it becomes essential to quickly pinpoint issues. Since cabling deployments tend to scale and grow in complexity over time, the complexity of a manual approach quickly escalates. This promotes the need for remote monitoring capabilities.”

He goes on to say how Automated Infrastructure Management (AIM) allows for faster access to data on the physical layer. “AIM provides a real-time physical connectivity monitoring, automatic and updated documentation for cabling infrastructure, along with the automated alerts on any unsolicited changes,” he says. “In an AIM system, the entire infrastructure is represented in a consistent database. Inquiries into resources such as server ports, space in cabinets as well as about energy requirements and cooling capacity are quick and easy to answer precisely with this database.”
Managed connectivity solutions are another option that is well worth considering in driving efficiency. Sunil Paul, Co-Founder and COO, Finesse, believes the benefits are widespread. “Managed connectivity solutions can bring in faster service response, greater asset utilisation, better network security, quick service restoration, quality control, better SLAs, and is great for mapping and monitoring physical layer connectivity changes,” he says. “They also help to document and report network reconfigurations, Identify and alarm unauthorised network access, Improve switch port and track a variety of network assets in real time.”

George is also a supporter of its benefits, “Managed connectivity can reduce the operating cost and time to nearly half by bridging the gap between the network and the physical layer,” he says. “This enables the network managers to transform the physical layer into a managed asset by providing them with a real-time status on all elements of the physical layer.”

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