Computer-based cable management systems (CMSs) have been available for at least 10 years — yet people still use them sparingly. Most network managers agree cable management products provide many benefits — but most don't buy them. Why aren't these systems more popular? To help answer this question, it's important to look into some of the problematic or misunderstood applications and uses of cable management today.

Modeling

The designers of cable-management software must construct a coherent but simplified version of a real physical installation inside the software. The suitability of the model they select is the most important factor determining the ultimate success or failure of their software. Ideally, the cable-management designer will create a model that ignores those characteristics of the real world that are irrelevant to the documentation of cabling systems, but captures those aspects of reality crucial to the problem at hand. This is easier said than done.

Poor modeling results in immediate problems in CMSs. A poorly modeled system will offer limited benefits. Of course, this leads to unhappy customers. What's the end result? All cable-management systems become less highly regarded.

People who want to buy cable-management software must evaluate products on the ability to model their specific cabling installation. This evaluation can be complex — not to mention time-consuming. Therefore, few people take the time to do it well. One solution to this problem would be to allow customers to see the product in action, rather than simply showing them different checklists in advertisements. Producing trial copies of the software is also a good idea.

The process

Currently, very few cable-management systems have any physical connection to the cabling systems they document. As such, it is necessary for cable-management users to enter each and every move, add, and change (MAC) in their systems, or the information stored in it will quickly become outdated. Doing this is so critical to the success of a cable-management installation that it is best to design a new MAC process around a newly installed system, rather than try to work the cable management into the existing MAC process. Many customers fail to recognize this when they install their systems. Others manage to create good processes at the start, only to have their foresight undone by staff turnovers and/or organizational changes.

One way to ensure process discipline on an ongoing basis is to outsource responsibilities for both MAC implementation and system updates to a cabling contractor experienced in the use of cable-management systems.

Customers who wish to run their cable management in-house generally must drive the MAC process via work orders. This alters their internal operations. Then, they must integrate information into the cable-management database in a separate process, which is frequently done by different people. Because of this complexity, the necessary updates are frequently left undone. The subtleties in the cable-management system can have a big effect on the overall success or failure of this approach.

Examples of such subtleties include the ability of the cable-management software to:

  • Model real-world equipment in such a way that when the user makes a MAC, the software generates tasks for each activity that technicians must actually perform.
  • Accurately represent the geographic-, equipment-, and cable-naming conventions in use at the site, so the information presented in work orders is meaningful to the technicians doing the work.
  • Quickly modify or cancel/recreate MACs to accurately reflect changes made by the technician performing the work (such as selecting a different riser pair than the one specified by the system).

Economics

Cable management makes a lot of financial sense for large office settings. This is because about 40% to 50% of office personnel move each year as a result of relocations, growth, mergers, and acquisitions. As such, keeping track of the cabling for all of these people in a fairly large office or group of offices becomes a substantial concern. It affects system performance, flexibility, and installation and maintenance costs — not to mention the efficiency and performance of people who might not be able to get on the network.

A company's real-estate management staff may also realize substantial economic benefits from a well-implemented CMS. A staff that doesn't know which cables it's using will have to keep paying to install more cable. It simply can't afford to risk disconnecting operating cables, even though it knows there are more than enough cabling in place. In addition to being quite inefficient, installing more cable overloads mechanical chases, especially telephone and electrical closets.

Ignoring the small-office situations, the big hindrances to the purchase of cabling-management systems are the buyers' fears of the higher initial cost. In many ways, this concern over initial cost is trivial (if the system costs much more to operate over time), but it nonetheless is very strong in the networking world.

Including the initial cable-management work in an installation contract makes the most financial sense; it is much less expensive. Coming into an existing facility and cataloging its cabling system (or cabling infrastructure as many companies do now) is a very large and expensive project, but it can make financial sense for a large, multitenant office facility where flexibility is a concern.