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Data center cable labeling standard 606a ain't all that

At AFCOM, one speaker made the case for using the ANSI 606a standard for labeling cables, but you still need for cable management software, say data center managers.

DALLAS -- At the AFCOM Data Center World conference in Dallas on Tuesday, Todd Fries asked his audience, "How many of you dislike labeling?" A few hands went up.

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The marketing manager for HellermannTyton, a Milwaukee-based cable management company, then asked, "How many of you hate it with a passion?" More hands went up.

It is one of those necessary evils in the data center: labeling all the racks, the systems, and, most tediously, the cables and connections. Data center cable management doesn't just mean organizing copper and fiber into neat-looking trays. It also means knowing where those wires come from and go; knowing how your data center components communicate with one another is central to running a good shop. If one vein or artery gets cut, you should know how the rest of the circulatory system might be affected.

Is 606a the answer?
During his presentation, Fries focused mainly on the labeling standard put out by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) and the Electronic Industries Alliance (EIA), commonly known as ANSI/TIA/EIA 606a. Though geared for the telecommunications industry, Fries said the standard is good for data centers too.

Data center cable management means knowing where copper and fiber wires come from and where they go.

"One guy was talking to me, and he said that during the first part of the presentation, he was wondering why he was in here. 606a is more for telecom. But then he realized that all of this stuff is connected."

Fries added that if an organization observes a labeling system industry standard, it can eliminate confusion for new employees or service technicians who are familiar with it. If, on the other hand, the labeling criteria is custom-built and in-house, new employees will have a steep learning curve.

But not everyone is crazy about the 606a labeling standard. Kevin Koeller, the director of network infrastructure at insurance and financial services company American International Group (AIG), said the idea of having a standard is good, but following 606a can result in labels that are just too long. Fries gave an example of a label for a data center's patch panel: "AJ05-A to AQ03-B Ports 01-24." Koeller said a label like that could be 6 inches long, which might be too long for the label printer to handle or make it difficult for an IT worker to access those cables.

"It will make it crowded," he said. "You still have to get into those tight areas and see those labels."

Cable management automation
At AIG, each label has its own unique number that references a database entry. If you need to find out what the cable or panel does or where it goes, you can easily look it up. Besides, Koeller said, all but the smallest data centers require a cable management software system to keep track of everything.

"You can just have all the information in the database, not on the cable itself," he said. "You're going to end up at the [cable management system] anyway."

But to some extent, even a cable management system is manual. If someone on the IT staff switches a cable around, it needs to be updated in the database. A better way would be to automate the updating of that database, said William DiBella, founder of Connectivity Technologies (ConTech) and president of AFCOM.

ConTech sells radio frequency identification (RFID) tags that you can attach to cables. These tags communicate with software to tell a user where these cables are and what they are connected to. If an IT administrator switches a cable around, the software adjusts its location and connections automatically.

"Documentation is good, but the way to do it is automated," he said. "If everything had an RFID tag on it, everything would be automatic."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Mark Fontecchio, News Writer.

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