In the world of telecommunications infrastructure, rack mount cable management is a bit like a pit crew’s tool chest in NASCAR racing. NASCAR is about speed, the driver and the cars—so tool chests get very little glory.

It doesn’t seem much different in telecommunications. In many ways, we focus mostly on the speed of our networks. “So, what’s under the hood of your network? Cat 5E? Cat 6? Cat 6A? 10 gig over Ethernet? Fiber to the desktop?”

But try to imagine the mess that a pit crew would have without tool chests. It would probably be similar to a telecommunications room’s “spaghetti mess” that results from either not having or not effectively using cable management hardware.

Like tool boxes, cable rack management may not be flashy, especially when compared to the functionality of the overall network. But there is no network of any size that has been properly constructed or is effectively maintained without it.

Three major cable management manufacturers recently weighed in to talk about the management in general, and each was also invited to share some of its most advanced solutions.

Bigger networks, but no more space

“New buildings are not getting any more space for their telecommunications rooms. But those same new buildings are all getting fuller, denser networks.” said Brian Donowho, product manager with Chatsworth Products Inc. (CPI), Chatsworth, Calif. And not only are there more cables in network infrastructures, many higher-grade cables are thicker than previous lesser-grade cables.

That translates into needing bigger, deeper cable management for bigger, thicker cable bundles.

“There are basically three tiers of vertical management,” said John Apgar, Cooper B-Line, Highland, Ill., Comm/Data product manager.

“The first tier is what I call ‘price point’ management. That is the least expensive on the market and is typically made overseas,” he said. “It is usually made out of plastic finger duct, no bigger than 6 inches wide. The covers are generally unremarkable, and they can be hard to get on and off.

“However, it can be up to 50 percent cheaper than high-end products, but you often get what you pay for in both aesthetics and functionality; it typically doesn’t look very nice, and there can be bend radius issues with it. But even though it is the ‘down and dirty’ low end of the market products, there is still a strong demand for this level of management.”

Apgar said middle of the road products are 4–6 inches with pivoting gates.

“In many cases, they do not provide much space for the cables to pass through, and they are still not as well designed as the top of the line products,” he said.

“The best products available combine aesthetics and good cable support, and are available in varying widths with variable finger lengths which work well with high densities of cable and racks,” Apgar said. “These are the products that you will see in high-end data centers where the racks and cabinets are the centerpiece, surrounded by glass walls for everyone to see. In some cases, this management even has lockable doors to secure the management channel. These high-end products most easily manage fatter, heavier cable. They look good, they work well and they are also the most expensive ones on the market.”

Apgar said the higher end products sell better at his company.

“No one really believes anymore that IT is just a background part of anyone’s business,” he said. “Companies want their IT stuff to look good and work well. And IT managers want to buy the best products to simplify things when it comes to moves, adds and changes; the better products just work better.”

Three good things

Data centers serve as perhaps the best example of how a cable management strategy helps IT directors effectively manage their networks.

“Port costs go down in data centers as densities go up, resulting in significantly higher port densities than we’ve ever seen in the past,” Donowho said. “That makes it more important than ever to effectively support higher cable densities at the rack, and that is driving contractors to make better use of cable management space than ever before.”

Donowho advised customers to look for three things in cable management.

“First, sufficient width and depth. Second, finger support and strength. Third, robust features like cable spools and anchoring devices inside of the manager to help the installer control, route and manage cables in the device,” he said.

“The marketplace has clearly shown that it prefers finger--style managers,” Donowho said, “and the fingers’ length, strength and rigidity a-re all important to make sure that they can support a sufficient number of cables in the management. It is the fingers in vertical management that help transition the cables off of the rack.”

The cable management system also must be able to effectively handle whatever cable a contractor brings to a rack, from the smallest fiber optics to the thickest Category 6A.

“Today’s cable managers must function effectively in a mixed media environment,” said Clark Kromenaker, business development manager for Panduit, Tinley Park, Ill.

“In horizontal cable managers, you want fingers that are flexible in the center for cable insert and stronger on the outside to support cables exiting the manager,” he said. “In the vertical management, cable support and bend radius are most important as the cables transition from the horizontal. And cable retainers that attach to the fingers can improve cable management and appearance.”

Panduit’s NetManager high capacity horizontal cable manager series is designed to manage thicker high-end cables.

“Our engineers re-searched and designed this product for 10 Gig cables,” he said. “It is a deeper manager with fingers for heavier and larger-diameter cables that require a larger bend-radius.”

Another Panduit solution is the PatchRunner vertical management system, which uses vertical and horizontal management with angled patch panels. PatchRunner enables 16 percent more rack space for network equipment in the same footprint as a conventional 7 foot rack, and reduces overall system width by 36 percent.

The cutting edge

The management should also be sufficiently variable and responsive to the unique demands of different installation requirements.

“Right now, the cutting edge of rack management is flexibility for a solution’s specific utility,” Apgar said. “Top line management is flexible enough to handle big bundles as well as able to be accessorized so that, for example, it can segregate power, [telecommunications] copper and fiber optics.”

Not surprisingly, the management system’s flexibility or variability has become an important component of high-end products from all three of these manufacturers.

For example, Cooper B-Line’s RCM+ series (which stands for rack cable management-plus) is a modular system designed for maximum adaptability.

“RCM+ solves most cable management problems that will meet clients’ management needs for the foreseeable future,” Apgar said. “Through its modular design, RCM+ can be configured to meet any structured cabling scenario, with its interchangeable cable retention gates, doors, deeper fingers and optional accessories.”

Another example of flexibility is in CPI’s Evolution cable management series, which has a movable midsection in its double-sided vertical management.

“Unlike traditional vertical management, the movable midsection in the Evolution management is comprised of multiple panels, each of which can be moved forward or backward for a 50/50, 40/60 or 60/40 front/rear split of the interior channel,” Donowho said. “Not all installations require the same space front and back, so the movable midsections reallocate the available manager space to better suit the installation needs.”

Well-designed management also features effective cable placement once in the rack/management system.

“Anchoring cable bundles inside of the management channel is very important, but is widely overlooked,” Donowho said.

Evolution addresses that need with a cable lashing bar built into the cable channel.

“The fingers on a vertical manager only support the front two-thirds of the cable [in a full channel]. But if you were to look down through a manager from the top where the bundles are not effectively anchored, then you would see a lot of unused space at the back of that C-shaped channel. But the cable lashing bar allows for proper anchoring so that the entire channel can be used and the doors can be closed without compromising cable integrity,” he said.

Make well-informed decisions

Like any purchase, contractors ordering rack management should research options to make well-informed decisions. The individual needs of each installation will most certainly come into play. Similarly, cost will also be a factor, but the odds are good that it will not be the sole deciding factor in a dense, upscale installation.

Further, a contractor’s personal preference and familiarity with certain products will likely influence a decision, but all of that could be trumped by a project owner’s directive. Contractors should be well-versed in multiple solutions so that they do not fail to provide clients with the best option simply out of ignorance of the marketplace.

In the end, well-engineered, properly thought through and effectively used management will prevent clients’ networks and IT staff from being encumbered by unmanaged cables in the telecommunications room or data center. The result will help create an organized, efficient and hopefully effective workplace and network that should race along at amazingly high speeds, kind of like the pit crew and cars in a championship NASCAR race.

MUNYAN is a freelance writer in the Kansas City, Kan., area, specializing in business writing and telecommunications. He can be reached at www.russwrites.com.