Untangling the LAN

Tarek Helmy, Regional Director of Nexans Cabling SolutionsWhen troubleshooting a network outage, nothing is more annoying than going through dozens of hardware and software checks only to find that the problem is a bad wire or patch-panel connection.

While network vendors have solutions for Layer 2 to Layer 7, the root cause of most network outages still lies at Layer 1 – the physical layer, where wires and ports are plugged in. Help in dealing with these problems could be found among an array of monitoring, documenting and management tools now available for cable infrastructure.

“Physical infrastructure is a key part of the whole network,” says Tarek Helmy, Regional Director of Nexans Cabling Solutions. He adds that most problems with network connectivity tend to be of a physical nature, especially if cabling infrastructure is not up to date.

“The physical layer must always be managed. Just like every book has a summary, the administrator of a network must always know the positions of the connections. He needs to be aware of availability, to avoid security flaws, and to be able to react in case of failure. Now the type of management depends on the network. Physical layer management is not something new. It specified and well defined in the TIA/EIA 606 standard. The objective is to invest a little of effort in the beginning to save a lot of hassle later.” Says Gautier Humbert, Business Development Manager, Ortronics Legrand.

According to different studies by Frost & Sullivan and Gartner, midsize and large companies – with more than 1,000 workers – move or change around 30% of their employees per year, with an average labor cost to the IT department of around $250 per move. With many cable management system vendors promising savings of around 25% to 30%, businesses with large amounts of turnover or change could save up to $22,000 per year.

A recent study conducted by Sage Research shows that up to 80% of network downtime is attributable to incorrect (patching) changes to the physical layer. This means that sophisticated network fault and performance management tools can be rendered useless once human intervention unintentionally disconnects users from the network.

Companies looking for better ways to track physical connections are starting to turn to products that manage physical connections the way element manager or network management software applications can monitor servers and switches.

Service providers and enterprises are leaning towards physical layer management systems that provide real-time monitoring of physical layer connections. Such systems comprise layer elements that monitor and map all connections in a cross-connect and inter-connect field and immediately detect any inadvertent disconnections.

To get a better hold on the miles of network wiring, companies are turning to Intelligent Infrastructure Management (IIM) solutions that are designed to enhance network effectiveness and ease of use through the power of intelligent. These solutions typically consist of software, a monitoring hardware applicance and specially fitted patch panels and patch cords. “For each network-driven concern, Intelligent Infrastructure Solutions respond with a host of features that relieve workload, increasing vision and knowledge so you have the control you need. To secure the information needed to run a network, connections in every part of the organization must be constantly monitored and managed. IIM presents the opportunity for operational efficiencies, reduced infrastructure materials, reduced maintenance, increased productivity, real-time reports and monitoring,” says Martin Dolan, Senior Technical Consultant, CommScope Middle East.

IIM systems help in planning and detection of MACs and maintenance of accurate records for handling helpdesk tasks. An IIM system utilises sensor technology that allows it to monitor the status and connectivity of every infrastructure port. “Intelligent cabling systems offer highly sensitive security through improved network management control by tracking connections, unauthorised changes in real-time, maintenance of audit logs, and generation of alarms for connectivity changes. With IIM, the company can take full control of all its network assets, keep costs under firm control and implement additions, moves and changes swiftly and with minimal disruption,” says Helmy.

Saket Subramaniam, Regional Sales Director of iTRACS, adds a different perspective: “Intelligent Infrastructure Management (IIM) is a process which automates the updating of patching records, and location of networked assets. It is specifically designed to reduce human error, reduce the time between network change and documentation change, and to improve the reliability of cable and asset documentation.” Some IIM solutions allow for integration with external sources which can help bridge the gap between real-time network management tools and the traditionally passive structured cabling infrastructures that interconnect network devices. “A major advantage of an IIM solution is its ability to be integrated into other Network Management Systems (NMS) such as HP OpenView and IBM Tivoli Netcool, giving overall mapping at both the physical and active plane,” adds Dave Hughes, Technical Manager, Panduit.

Vendors say IIM is a solution to manage the entire network. “Very often, it is incorrectly seen as just a smart cable management software. Even though this is part of its function, it is much more,” says Humbert. Done right, an IIM solution can provide several benefits to the enterprise. “ A professionally-deployed IIM solution automates the change management process, eliminates change management errors (an automated process rather then paper or electronic spreadsheets) for enhanced service availability, and improves fault resolution times,” says Subramaniam. It can also help companies meet compliance requirements. IIM solutions generates history data (the log) that monitors IT policy compliance and violations. By automatically documenting patching changes, or the movement of assets, organizations are better able to track equipment and correct unauthorised changes.

“IIM provides you with a real-time, comprehensive view of your physical network infrastructure. Because it ties into each aspect of your infrastructure, updating you on moves, adds and changes, it acts as a high-level dashboard for your network infrastructure. It reduces move, add and change cycle time and rework through electronic work orders, guided patching, and automated documentation but in addition, because it can alert you when failures occur, isolating each problem to its exact physical location, IIM also acts as a diagnostic tool to help you quickly make repairs,” says Dolan.

Security is another major advantage. “IIM solutions enhance security in data centres and wiring closets because it can differentiate between authorized and unauthorized changes, and instantly respond to changes by running event scripts such as alerts, email or event taking photo clips,” says Helmy.

“Firewall and antiviruses do half of the work, IIM does the other half. It can block unauthorized devices according to physical location, to MAC address, to login, to type of device, or even to software installed,” adds Humbert.

Vendors say there is an increased uptake of IIM solutions in the Middle East market. “We have seen both the enterprise and data centre markets become early adopters of this technology. Network security is a major top of the mind issue for IT professionals and compliance with regulatory requirements such as HIPPA & BASEL II have become a major priority for them. This is where IIM can provide key advantages, with monitored end-to-end connectivity and visibility of network access,” says Hughes.

However, IIM is not for everyone. “The investment for such solution can be considered prohibitive on small networks. But on larger ones, in number of user or physical size, the investment can be recovered in two years. Some key advantages here are the time saving in MACs (Moves, Adds, and Changes) and the asset management. And if we actually take into account the increased efficiency of the organisation, then the ROI is actually much shorter,” says Humbert.

However, let's not forget that most IIM software are also available in a cut-down version that can provide full monitoring, while only missing the ” intelligent” part: the patch cord automatic discovery. This provides a solution that covers most of the needs for a fraction of the cost. And this is the real strength of a good solution: flexibility and upgradability, he adds. A company can purchase a standard cabling system and the “non intelligent” software, and then upgrade later on when the need is established and the budget is available. The only constraint is to ensure that both have the capacity of evolving, he adds.

“Today’s infrastructure deployments are like complicated mazes. Finding your way is never straightforward, and simple questions can become overwhelming. IIM eliminates blind spots, guiding you to your destination on the most efficient route possible—saving you time and money,” says Dolan.

Subrmaniam says an RoI is a poor modeling tool for IIM. “Each organisation is different in terms of cost, the overall importance of issue resolution, and sometimes organizations do not even track the cost associated with moves and unexpected downtime. These factors make it very difficult to show an effective ROI because each organization is so different.”

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