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4 ideas for network cable management best practices

When organizing cable clutter, network engineers should follow some common best practices, including the use of cable labels, cable ties and proper documentation.

Any successful cabling project starts with knowing the requirements for the cable needed. The speeds required,...

the distances covered, the need for power -- all these factors will determine where to plug in and place Cat5, Cat6, Cat8 or any other cables.

The specs on different types of cables will guide everything from the maximum distance of the cable run, the radius of the cable bend, the patch panel specs, and several other criteria. These considerations should help avoid major mistakes, like draping network cables across electrical transformers and elevator motors, for example.

But, beyond the specs, network engineers should keep in mind a few other cabling best practices in order to live with the cabling once it's pulled. When wrangling wires to prevent cable spaghetti, consider these four network cable management ideas.

1. Corral the cables

In a data center situation, keep cables out of the foot traffic path and the workspaces behind racked equipment. Use cable trays overhead or under a raised floor. Use cable supports and organizers on the backs of the racks.

At the equipment end, whether it's a server or switch, leave a little slack in your patch cables so you can easily plug and unplug from equipment. The same advice pertains to patch panels.

Outside data centers, cables can be hidden in closets, walls and drop ceilings and secured with cable ties, such as metal cable ties, plastic zip ties or Velcro straps. This tidiness keeps the cables from getting snagged on other infrastructure and makes it less likely a cable run will get lost in the physical environment and be hard to find if repairs are needed.

Capturing cabling chaos on Twitter is a popular pastime among network pros.

2. Watch the weight

Bundles of network cables can be quite heavy. If the cables are not lying on the floor, always provide adequate support, which can double as cable organizers in some cases.

When upgrading old cables, weight can be a pressing concern. Newer specs, like Cat6A, that support Power over Ethernet can be significantly heavier than the older cables they replace. This can be a problem with overhead raceways in a data center and with cable supports in data centers, in wiring closets or over raised ceilings.

3. Differentiate with colors and labels

Every cable has two ends, and you need to be sure you're handling the same cable at both ends. To make this easy, both ends should have cable labels with a number or alphanumeric code that embeds information about the run, such as from what closet the cable originates.

Cable codes don't have to be unique overall. They should just be unique with respect to the places where the run ends, such as in a closet or within the data center.

Getting more specific than a closet identifier in a cable labeling code is often not helpful. Some network managers want to embed a switch, panel or rack number -- even a patch panel socket or switch port number -- but all of that could change. The wiring closet in which a cable ends rarely does change.

Color coding is another way to easily identify a cable during troubleshooting or moves, adds and changes. Cables for data connections can be one color, storage network connections can be another color, and keyboard video mouse connections a third color.

The drawback to color coding is patch cable reuse is more limited. To avoid that, color coding can be done with colored tape near the cable ends instead of the cable itself. You can even pair labeling and color coding by printing the cable code on a colored label.

Proper cable management can seem like an art form.

4. Document, document, document

It's hard to manage cable if you don't know where it is.

In places where cables run out of sight, make sure maps or diagrams show where cables have been placed. That includes cables running under a raised floor since they can be hard to get at or see under full racks of equipment. Maps and diagrams are also hugely important whenever a cable is running through a buried conduit between buildings.

This was last published in November 2021

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