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Cabling cowboys storm the network

Cabling cowboys storm the network

When a large Australian insurance company installed a structured cabling solution from a reputable vendor, the last thing it expected was trouble. After all, isn't cabling simply the thin blue lead connecting a PC to the LAN, WAN or Internet?

For this unsuspecting organisation, the task of implementing a certified cabling solution across a large site turned sour when the insurance giant unexpectedly suffered critical network downtime and technicians scurried to find the fault.

The problem? The organisation's new patch panels used standard RJ45 jacks, but three of the five pins on the jacks were recessed, effectively preventing all data transmission. For the organisation's network manager, the experience was an eye-opener.

"It was a standard product, we couldn't explain the problem," he explained.

Fortunately, he had the security of a warranty and the supplier came to the party with replacement patch panels. "The company is reputable, we just got a bad batch of patch panels," he said.

According to industry participants, this example illustrates user and vendor predictions that cabling is entering a new era. Once overlooked in importance, cabling solutions are growing in complexity as they rise to meet the heavy demand of increased data transmission speeds across complex network infrastructures.

And just as significantly, it's given rise to a new breed of technical lower-class dubbed the "cabling cowboys".

Fuelled by the promise of lucrative cabling contracts, would-be data networkers extend themselves beyond traditional connectivity jobs and electricians find themselves implementing mission-critical Category 5, unshielded twisted pair (UTP) or fibre networks without fully understanding the technical ramifications.

And as you might expect, the results can be disastrous.

Standards

Colin Grose is the manager of a 22-person Sydney-based cabling and computer-electrical services company, CJ Grose & Company. The worst example of dodgy cabling he has encountered was in the computer room of a major insurance company. "It had a whole heap of IBM patch panels stuffed into a corner and cables flowed over the patch panel. It had a fan blowing over the cables to keep them cool," he recounted.

According to Colin Browitt, Krone's manager of industry development and standards liaison, adherence to standards is one of the industry's biggest challenges. Browitt's work sees him involved with a number of industry standards bodies, including his founding membership of the Australian Standards Committee "IT 17", the group that authorised a now recognised industry standard - AS/NZ3080-1996.

Browitt believes small electrical vendors attempting to make a quick buck will find the regulations needed for cabling industry certification very tough. Not only that, he said it will be difficult for them to keep up with fast-changing protocols and standards, leaving customers out in the cold years later.

He said an example of this concept, known to marketeers as "future-proofing", is when integrators overlook bandwidth growth issues in the face of Fast Ethernet and ATM pushing speeds at 155Mbps. Browitt explained that cabling solutions need to incorporate some "head room" above minimum compliance standards to allow them to cope with future demand.

"We know the cabling cowboys only have products that just pass. Customers may find their system becomes compromised in the future with Gigabit Ethernet and ATM," he said.

Browitt says a raft of changes coming through the standards bodies will also make it increasingly difficult for small industry players to keep up. The Insulated Cable Engineers Association (ICEA) has specified cable parameters above existing Category 5. ISO/IEC International Electrotechnical Commission has also agreed in principle to new standards for Category 6 and 7 specification.

He said Category 5's current bandwidth specification of 100MHz, utilising 100ohms cable for either unshielded twisted pair (UTP) or foil-screen twisted pair (FTP), will rise to a proposed 200MHz for Category 6, while Category 7 will push ahead to 600MHz. In addition, Category 7 may see a new style connector, guaranteed to annoy or confuse users.

"We as an industry are fairly convinced that Category 7 will see a new style connector - we've screwed RJ45 performance to death," he explained. "It could go fibre to the desk beyond Category 6, given that fibre prices are going down all the time."

"At the end of the day," Browitt said "cabling vendors must be standards driven, otherwise you simply won't sell your products".

Browitt also believes vendors will have a tough job trying to sell cabling without a minimum 15-year warranty. And while Krone itself offers a 20-year warranty, he concedes the risk of companies needing it are minimal.

"Once the cabling is installed correctly from the outset, outside of any third-party interference, it should be pretty robust for the period of the warranty," he said.

But importantly, a scenario Browitt said some companies don't realise with their warranty is some vendors will nullify the warranty if you tamper with the parts.

"You can get trapped if you don't read the fine print," he said.

Tender issues

So can the cowboys crack the big time? According to the IT manager at a large Australian insurance company: "It's hard for small guys to break into our work."

Prior to his entry into the organisation, it was normal to use a lot of smaller cabling companies to conduct national roll-outs.

"All my organisation did before was tender a job and somebody threw the cables in. I've seen some shocking jobs," he lamented.

So now when it comes to tendering a big job, the pain of experience dictates it will forever remain in the realm of high-end professionals. The organisation usually tenders its cabling jobs to three known vendors who are entrusted to understand its specific needs: AMP, Siemon and AT&T.

But as this IT manager points out, this process does not always guarantee the choice of solution is easy. A current tender job worth $200,000 produced a price difference of $30,000 from two different vendors offering the same solution from AMP.

In addition, one keen consultant offered a lean solution for $60,000 less than the top price just to get the job, the user reported. Unfortunately for this vendor, they offered a solution from the same source of the bad patch panels and given the user's recent bad experience with the company, it just wasn't in the running.

In the end, a mid-priced quote got the job based on its mix of specifications and price, but the highest pitch was still a temptation.

Documentation

And in stark contrast to the past, the IT manager now requires 15-year warranties and comprehensive documentation for any major corporate sites.

Years of neglect have left a sorry stain to make documentation a real issue for future plans. "Some of our sites are just awful, but you can't tell who did the job," he said.

And the big issue for the cabling cowboys is documentation can be easily overlooked, he said.

Grose concurred: "It's vital, you have to have CAD facilities these days to record your drawings."

Grose's small Sydney-based company of 22 staff produces both hard and soft copies of its cabling plans. "Most customers insist on it," he said, adding that the documentation work load is shared between three people in the organisation.

Grose's company works as a qualified Lucent integrator with its technicians certified under Lucent's training scheme. The benefit of this arrangement is that the company does the work while Lucent carries the 15-year warranty, he said. If the company can't make the repairs, Lucent technicians fill the gap.

The majority of the company's cabling solutions incorporate UTP or Category 5 technology from Lucent and are sourced through local systems integrator Anixter. Grose reports his company installs Krone and Leviton solutions as equally favoured brands. "Our test results come out all the same, we consider them to be of equal quality," he said.

The example is one of many small companies vying for business with the big boys. Grose said the company also has an additional string to its bow in the form of electrical services for computers and air-conditioning systems.

But while this company might work well, it appears there are many that don't. Grose says the biggest issue facing the smaller players in the industry is keeping contractors conscious of quality. Contract work, he says, is done "mostly by people who don't know what it's all about".

And as for companies who employ "cowboys", "if you're not prepared to pay for quality service and a warranty, you are only looking at the short-term".

One of the "big boys" is Kevin Howarth, Computer Sciences Corporation's (CSC) projects manager, who is equally damning when it comes to cowboys playing with complex cabling.

"You generally find when you are setting up a site, someone will say 'we can get this person to do the job', but do they follow Austel regulations? You may have saved $10,000 initially, but you might lose a day's work for each of your 200 users when you encounter problems," he explained.

Howarth said the rise of the cabling cowboys is due, in part, to the last recession when many electrical companies picked up cabling business without really knowing what they were doing. He said it might have looked easy, but without adherence to proper standards it can easily "come back and bite you on the back-side".

As a leading player in the IT services outsourcing market, CSC's cabling work includes complete structured refits to minor modifications. One of Howarth's recent jobs was implementing a centrally managed Category 5 solution throughout 25 levels of AMP's building in Sydney.

Howarth said if integrators adhere to the cabling standards you will have very few problems. "I get people calling me saying they have cabling problems, but it's often the patch lead at either end," he said.

The one-stop shop

Another great cabling myth is perpetrated by vendors claiming to provide complete "end-to-end" cabling solutions.

According to Krone's Browitt: "There are vendors who purport to have all the cabling parts, but usually through a mix of third-party solutions. We are very focussed on connectivity and offer end-to-end cabling solutions with our cabling partners."

One such example from the vendor is a $2 million project at Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) to include standardisation of all its sites with Category 5 cabling for voice and data by the year 2000.

The CSIRO will upgrade about 70 sites nationwide, which in some cases involves 15 to 20 buildings on each site, from a 10-Base2 old- style Ethernet cabling system to Category 5. And woven into the project is a consistent cabling system from Krone.

Once the domain of individual business units, IT now receives a greater corporate focus. Traditionally, the CSIRO operated with a decentralised management structure and each business unit made its own IT decisions. But the impact of such an approach produced an adhoc mixture of technologies with dramatic effects on organisational efficiency.

Browitt raised an important issue to consider with single vendor solutions: "We all know what happens when we get locked into a single vendor solution - you get screwed on price."

So assuming the cowboys can apply themselves enough to gain cabling certification and are bold enough to offer the big warranties clients demand, how can you prevent your organisation from suffering the slack attack?

According to Bruce Yates, marketing and technical manager for FDC: "Steer clear of the one or two-person shows because it'll cost you a lot of money down the track."

FDC is a mid-sized telecommunications, building, cabling and data organisation of 30 people which typically implements cabling solutions from Siemon and Krone. Yates said: "The best quality is going to be in a vendor solution that will give you 15 years' warranty, and it doesn't cost you much more. Never buy it off an electrician."

Beat the cowboys

Yates argues the cowboys simply can't keep up with cabling standards and offer the necessary warranties. "They should stick to what they're good at - electrical - and leave the data to the traditional companies," he said.

FDC boasts a client base that includes national work for Microsoft, Arnott's biscuits, Franklin's warehousing, the Australian Government, CSC and Goodman-Fielders. Yates explained the company is certified to use Lucent, Krone, Siemon and Leviton, working on a range of projects from electrical fitting to industrial telecommunications consulting and cabling solutions.

The company also has separate building and telecommunications divisions.

Yates has seen less than impressive cabling work over the years. In particular, one memorable site was at National Mutual. "They had kilometres of Wang cabling stuffed into the walls and we literally had to cut it out with a chainsaw."

He admitted the majority of small cabling integrators might complete work to Australian standards, but believes their typical short-term focus presents a real danger. "I think they [clients] will be really disappointed with their cabling in a few years," Yates said.

Yates also had some strong opinions on the documentation issue. FDC currently has one employee dedicated to documentation procedures who uses the latest hand-held testers from Fluke. He believes the cowboys do not have access to this type of equipment.

But to be fair, it must be said not every small cabling operator is completely incompetent, at least from the outset.

Andrew Hinchliffe is the owner/director of Hinchliffe Electrical Services, a small Sydney-based electrical and data cabling company with 15 years' experience in the electrical and data industry.

The majority of his work comes from word-of-mouth referrals or network managers who change jobs and bring him along to the new site.

He said he has full Australian Communications Authority authorisation and a base cabling licence with end-orsements for fibre, Category 5, under-ground, aerial and co-axial installations.

But to the outsider, the big differentiator is warranty, or lack of it. Hinchliffe said he used to offer warranties, but does not currently provide them.

While he does have endorsement from Krone, he conceded the ability to offer a full warranty "might be required for new customers".

And unfortunately, he fits Yates' stereotype of "the bloke who got his gear from the electrical shop".

"Most of the products we use are from electrical wholesalers," Hinchliffe admitted. He explained that expensive products from vendors like Krone and Mod-Tap are purchased on a cash account basis and stocked in places like the electrical retailer TLE.

The problem with the smaller players in the cabling industry, Howitt claims, is pricing is often the biggest issue, not necessarily the standard of work. In addition, "guys doing Category 5 cabling don't know what they are doing". He cited one example where a cabling solution he installed was tampered with some time after the job was completed. "We were blamed for completely buggering up their network because the network manager had brought in his mate.

"I think there needs to be a bit more regulation for who's doing these sorts of things," he continued. "If you're doing pure data cabling there's no regulating authority to watch over that sort of work."

And compounding the problem are the clients themselves who don't understand cabling enough to ask for Category 5 testing, he claims.

The route ahead

It appears customers also need the education because there is currently no inspection procedure. Throughout his career, Hinchliffe said: "I've never seen an Austel inspector."

So what's the real solution? According to Hinchliffe, it lies in an industry-based organisation that can offer an industry code of ethics and raise public awareness. "If they brought in licensing regulations it might eliminate the cowboys," he mused. "Litigation will become more common as people get sued for shoddy work."

According to Bruce Yates, cabling integrators can begin with some simple practical steps. This includes keeping cables away from interference sources such as light fittings and lift motor rooms, not bunching all your cables together and using adequate shielding.

Perhaps the most obvious signpost to watch is the FUD factor (fear, uncertainty and doubt). Yates is one industry figure unmoved by terms such as "future proof". Who knows what the future is?

Whatever the solution, Hinchliffe conceded it will take time to implement - at least more time than it takes for the cowboys to take another shot at a high-tech corporate network. "I think, unfortunately, the short-term future looks rosy for people like that," he said.

Seven steps for tendering a cabling job

1. Limit the number of supplier and cabling companies you offer the tender to2. Make sure you see at least two or three reference sites from companies submitting a tender - everybody's cabling standard differs3. Be aware of pricing issues to prevent being ripped off4. Warranties, standards and accreditation are a must5. Check the vendor's standard of hand-over documentation. This should include product manuals and test results to ensure your cabling meets the specifications6. Make sure the company offers a minimum of 15 years warranty7. Check to see if the company is quality assured. While this may not always be critical, it's part of checking its solutions work in practiceSource: IT manager at a large Australian insurance company


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