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Patching with Intelligence

15 September 2005

As FMs become increasingly responsible for service interconnections within a building, an IIM system offers reductions in operational and maintenance costs, and new efficiencies in both maintaining records and undertaking actual patching work with minimal risk, as Nigel Miller explains

TODAY'S COMPUTER NETWORKS have come a long way from the data network of old, where the Local Area Network (LAN) or its predecessors were used purely for the sharing and movement of information between computers. Today, even in the least technical companies, it is likely that the LAN is being used to communicate at least voice, and maybe much more. The LAN or the 'IP Network' is fast becoming the medium to connect a whole range of 'IP ready' services and is emerging as what we consider the '4th Utility'.

Considerable savings can be made in the fitout of building services where a joined-up approach is taken. A recent exercise undertaken by the Converged Building Technology Group proved that capital cost savings of 25 per cent can be achieved on services fit-out of a new building and life cycle costs can be reduced by an even larger margin. The approach where BMS, CCTV, access, audio visual, infotainment and potentially fire systems are all connected over a common IT based cabling system radically changes the project management of building fit-out and introduces significant changes in the management and operation of the building. Added to this is the potential for some of the services to be wireless.

To cope with this increase in requirements, structured cabling systems have improved exponentially in performance over the last few years, with copper cabling now commonly offering dedicated 1Gb/s capability with 10Gb/s potential often being installed to each outlet or user! This represents a huge move from the 10Mb/s 'backbone' systems of old where bandwidth was shared between hundreds of people.

Physically managing and patching these services to the desk or to the device (be that a camera or a door access controller), has to date remained a human exercise. With such a vast range of services and possible parties interested in the system, the physical management of the system is falling to the FM Department at a time when the potential for and consequences of a mistake are greater than ever. Whilst the IT department becomes more focussed on the network management and delivering applications, the FM Department is more likely to become involved or responsible for physically routing these services around the estate. And it is here that 'Intelligent Patching', or Intelligent Infrastructure Management (IIM) to use its accurate name, comes into its own, helping to maximise efficiency, minimise the potential for error and reducing costs. IIM enables the professional management of diverse services by removing the margin for mistakes when repatching activity is carried out. It is a fact that over 80 per cent of network failures are caused by human error and the pressure to avoid or recover from service interruption quickly has never been more intense.

What IIM does
In essence, IIM provides live 'sensing' of the patching of services to outlets and holds this information on a database. Any necessary changes are requested using a computer graphical input (based remotely from the patching rack). The system then evaluates available resources or routes and issues the instruction as an electronic work order to a device or screen at the patch panel end to guide the operative through the necessary patching.

Instructions are provided on a screen and/or by way of LED's on the patch panel to indicate what should be unplugged or plugged in. Any unauthorised changes to the patching can sound an alarm and will send a message to the patching controller or the network manager.

The IIM system's capabilities provide a whole range of benefits to the user:range of benefits to the user:

Cost Reduction
 Faster, more efficient patching of services
 Reduced staff deployed on re-patching or related research activities
 Reduced patching costs, especially where the patch rack is remote
 Far better utilisation of network switch channels

Improved Network Availability
 Fewer services disconnected in error
 Faster fault diagnosis and resolution of physical network problems
 Increased security

Intangible Benefits
 Better asset tracking
 Improved security
 Improved moves and changes planning
 Real time records of patching schedules and connections
 Production of statistical information more easily

The ability to provide real-time, up-to-date information maximises the value of physical network assets by tracking the location, availability and use of ports. An IIM system saves time. Few companies have up-to-date records of their patching schedules and manually sourcing this information is very timeconsuming as well as costly. IIM can trace connections and services provided to rooms, devices and people quickly, even in very large systems, and identify for example where a patch cord connector has been disconnected in error or where there is clutter in the system. With this up-to-the-minute information, administrators can verify the availability of their voice, data and other service interconnections on the network and take any corrective action.

Valuable time is also saved when changes need to be made to the patching of services to an area. Patch schedules are readily available so technicians can monitor planned changes and receive guidance through the process of adding and altering connections.

For organisations with a high number of moves and changes, network switch channel utilisation is typically 70 per cent if no process exists to confirm usage or changes to port connections. Utilisation increases to close to 100 per cent where IIM is installed, immediately saving a company up to 30 per cent on its active switch costs, which can be considerable! Accurate information on the utilisation levels of this equipment, therefore, make it work as hard as it can for the business and only when capacity is reached, is additional equipment purchased.

Improved security is another key advantage and IIM software can flag unscheduled changes or rogue equipment attached to the network. It can also, importantly, identify problems with the network system in real-time so they can be dealt with more quickly and user or service downtime can be minimised.

Typically installing an IIM system is carried out when the structured cabling system is being replaced. This usually happens as part of a major refurbishment or when a company moves to new premises. In such cases, costs tend to add between 30-50 per cent of the structured cabling costs depending on whether Cat 5e or Cat 6 cabling is to be installed and the cabling manufacturer selected. Once installed, training and maintenance are also required to ensure optimum results. The benefits of IIM in the right environment, however, will quickly outweigh the costs with a return on investment sometimes being as short as six months.

However, IIM is not an appropriate solution for every business and the best return on investment exists for companies that experience a high number of moves and changes within their networks, where patching is physically difficult such as in a campus environment/remote locations or where security and efficiency is key to success - in the financial sector for example.

There is one factor that can prevent the delivery of all these benefits and that is the design. It is crucial that all the needs of the business are fully understood by the IT consultant so that the IT infrastructure can be designed to incorporate all immediate and future connectivity requirements. The patching software will also be customised to suit the requirements of the business.

In short, Intelligent Infrastructure Management introduces new efficiencies in both maintaining records and undertaking actual patching work. It is a powerful tool that reduces operational and maintenance costs and provides a competitive advantage because companies can ensure employees are not affected by unnecessary downtime and a shortage of services.

For the facilities teams who are increasingly becoming responsible for the plethora of service interconnections within a building, an IIM system will provide tools to ensure professional management of interconnections can be accomplished with minimal risk.

IIM at Wellcome Trust
One organisation that has embraced IIM is The Wellcome Trust. At its new head office, the Trust is using IIM to manage the distribution of services throughout the building and to enable it to easily patch a variety of services to required locations. The Trust is connecting data, IP Telephony, information screens and wireless services via the LAN and IIM provides immediate information regarding service routing and interconnections.

Although IIM systems are typically used to manage the churn of people requiring connection across large office environments, at the Trust’s Genome Campus in Hinxton its use is unique, as the churn is not people but servers.

The Genome Campus is home to the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, which has sequenced one third of the human genome and is now engaged in post genomic research. At the campus, Sanger’s IT department has increased the level of control of its facility by installing an IIM system in order to manage thousands of servers and a vast 350TB of storage.

The Trust has invested heavily in its campus and the latest £95m development involved the creation of four, new, carefully-planned data halls with replicated blown fibre links from each server back to two independent wiring centres. The design is highly resilient, secure and has a capacity to ultimately handle in excess of 3,500 servers via 14,000 fibre cables routing to the wiring centres. In addition blown fibre links can be added or upgraded in the future as requirements or standards change without disruption to the building fabric.

The uninterrupted flow of information between servers carrying out massive processing tasks is of paramount importance, as a failure in the interconnection between servers could set an individual piece of research back months.

IIM enables the trust to monitor activities relating to its server connectivity, ensuring old servers can be disconnected and new servers can be brought online and patched-in efficiently and without risk.

● Nigel Miller is director at hurleypalmerflatt

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