Document your network cabling

Picture these scenarios: A quick and simple network change turns into disaster when instead of disconnecting the correct cable, you actually disconnect the cable to a critical server. A security audit requires you to document the physical path location of cables carrying sensitive information and who has access to those cables. But your documentation of cable location and the identity of all the endpoints to which they are connected is out of date.

The trouble here is that documentation was up to date immediately after the network's initial installation, years ago. Numerous changes have since taken place. Because updating documentation is a time-consuming, error-prone process, it was not always performed.

Incompatible records and spreadsheet confusion

Part of the problem is that a complete set of documents includes files with multiple, incompatible formats. Office area blueprints showing the location of wiring closets, patch panels, cable trays and connection jacks are often AutoCAD files. Excel spreadsheets are often used to keep track of which PC connects to which jack, which connects to which patch panel connection, which, in turn, connects to which switch port. There is no way to relate the two files to each other to provide an easy way to see the physical location of a connection point.

Another problem with spreadsheets is the lack of internal consistency checking. When moving multiple PCs to different jacks,

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you might miss entering one of the changes in the spreadsheet. The result could be that your documentation would show two PCs connected to the same jack.

Nor are end-to-end connections obvious in a spreadsheet. If your spreadsheet has a line item for each PC-to-jack connection, each jack-to-patch panel connection, and each patch panel-to-switch port connection, the relationship between a PC and switch port requires locating three different line items.

Tracking cabling with dedicated software

Cable management software packages are designed to address these problems. They integrate information from blueprints with information about connections, maintain internal consistency (preventing errors such as two PCs connected to the same jack), and make both individual and end-to-end connections easy to see.

Such packages include UltiCAM 2000 by Total Wire Software Company Inc. and NetDoc by Brady. This software can import connection information from Excel spreadsheets and maintain internal consistency of the data. Both integrate with Visio to read and update building or office area blueprints. They integrate the two types of data by providing a way for you to add physical connection point locations to the blueprint.

Both products are compatible with the ANSI/TIA/EIA-606A standard. This standard specifies formats and required information for identifying and describing cabling elements such as cable types, telecommunications spaces and endpoint locations.

UltiCAM 2000 allows you to describe a network change and then request a printed work order. The work order describes to a technician the steps to be performed to carry out the change. When the work is done, you specify to UltiCAM that the change is now complete. At that point, the product updates its database to reflect the change.

NetDoc interfaces with Brady's LabelMark software to create labels that then can be printed and attached to cables, wall jacks, and so on. Use of compatible cable management and labeling software ensures that identifiers in the documentation will exactly match the label attached to the object.

Finally, cable management software makes updating documentation a quick and easy process, increasing the likelihood that the task will actually be done. But don't wait for an emergency. The best time to install and begin using cable management software is when the network is first installed. If that time has passed, make the necessary effort now, before an emergency.

About the author: David B. Jacobs has more than 20 years of networking industry experience. He has managed leading-edge software development projects and consulted to Fortune 500 companies as well as software startups.

This was first published in October 2006

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