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Automated infrastructure management untangles cabling

Cable management typically requires cumbersome manual approaches. As the pace of data center operations accelerates, automation must infiltrate the cable infrastructure.

Automated management tools let data center administrators monitor diverse infrastructure, collect relevant data, receive direct alerts and respond to events.

Automation benefits servers, storage and switches, but the underlying physical infrastructure -- the cabling that interconnects it all -- largely remains a cumbersome, manual, error-prone management mess. Automated infrastructure management (AIM) removes the spreadsheets, masking tape and sticky notes from enterprise data center network cabling.

Automation comes to cable management

Automated infrastructure management is a means of monitoring and managing the complex network cabling and other passive physical infrastructure within an enterprise data center. AIM is gaining traction because it brings cabling into a total automation strategy.

AIM tools form and maintain a database to track what is connected and where and how that connection occurs. They replace inefficient Excel spreadsheets, handwritten notebooks, and even ad hoc notes attached to cables or network ports. Authorized cabling changes are automatically documented, aiding in IT architectural planning or audits of physical network security in the data center.

A typical connection between two servers involves multiple cables. One server connects to a patch panel and to a switch port; a switch port may cascade to other switch ports, to a destination patch panel and finally to the server at the other end of the connection. Administrators and network architects need to know all parts of the connection pathway to safely change setups in the network and to troubleshoot problems.

Such challenges also extend to other physical infrastructure: rack space. Administrators seek out available rack space for new equipment or moves. An automated infrastructure management platform provides visualizations of physical rack space availability, available patch panel ports and switch ports, as well as other elements useful for equipment deployment or moves. Rack use details also help inform power utilization and cooling decisions.

Manual versus automated cable management

Cabling is notoriously difficult to document and keep up to date. Cable errors and faults are often time-consuming and tough to remedy. Systems simply cannot see when a cable is attached or what it is attached to. This is why most data centers rely on traditional manual cable management approaches that include color-coding and cable numbering schemes.

If one server talks to another, you can assume there is a connection between them, but the exact cabling points are impossible to determine. Automated infrastructure management adds some form of intelligence to each cable in the network.

Some AIM systems use unique radio frequency identification (RFID) tags on cables to communicate with sensor arrays located in patch panels. Connection point identification (CPID) chips, an alternative to RFID, provide the cable with a unique identifier read by CPID-compatible patch panels. The patch panel intelligence determines the connection status and configuration of each CPID-compliant cable and generates data that the AIM application feeds into its database for alerts and reports, visual representations of cable interconnections and updates.

AIM versus other management technologies

AIM is intended to complement (not replace) other forms of data center management and automation such as data center infrastructure management (DCIM), systems management and configuration management.

Although AIM technologies like CPID chips are currently proprietary, emerging standards like ISO/IEC 18598 specify requirements for AIM systems, while ANSI/TIA-606-B defines AIM as part of the ISO/IEC 14763-2 standard. ISO/IEC 18598 is in development, and ANSI/TIA-606-B has been ratified but only covers cable/port labeling, not AIM as a technology. Internationally accepted AIM standards will help to make products and software interoperable and cooperative with other data center management tools.

Physical cable management could fall under the umbrella of DCIM, but existing DCIM tools and platforms typically do not integrate cable monitoring and management into the common feature set. Look for ways to integrate the information developed within the AIM platform's database with DCIM, service management help desks and other management tools using standard data exchange protocols like SNMP or HTTP.

An AIM platform recognizes when cables are disconnected or changed, for example: data that can be integrated with ticketing systems to trigger rapid troubleshooting, or shared with energy management systems (such as DCIM or other tools) to figure details such as rack power usage, energy efficiency and cooling utilization.

AIM tools and features

Products and vendors in the AIM space include Quareo Physical Layer Management from TE Connectivity, R&MinteliPhy from Reichle & De-Massari Holding AG and MapIT G2 from The Siemon Company. Each vendor provides unique cable tagging, tag detection devices located in patch panels, and monitoring via client-server software.

Look for an automated infrastructure management tool with current, real-time cable maps along with graphical cable displays. For example, cable lines are drawn over visual rack representations to show technicians where a cable connects. Tools should trigger error or security reports when a connection breaks or unexpected changes in connection location occur, such as a cable being reattached to the wrong port. The combination of alerting and visual documentation vastly speeds up inspections and troubleshooting within the physical cabling system.

Additional features can include cable activity logging, wherein the AIM system records all new installations and cable changes. An asset management feature can help the user track how many cables they have in place and the cable layout scheme in the data center as well as space available for change or growth into the future -- assisting capacity planning at the physical cabling layer.

About the author:
Stephen J. Bigelow is a senior technology writer in the Data Center and Virtualization group at TechTarget. He has written more than 15 feature books on computer troubleshooting. Find him on Twitter @Stephen_Bigelow.

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