Installing an easy-to-manage and aesthetically pleasing rack-based IP Network requires discipline, planning, and even a little bit of artistic flare. When installed as part of a home or small business network that includes AV equipment, proper organization and aesthetics can be especially critical to the user experience and value perception. Having spent most of my professional career in Network Administration, I would like to offer some tips that have saved both time and my sanity over the years.
Photo Courtesy of Middle Atlantic Products
Photo Courtesy of Middle Atlantic Products
What Should I Look for in a Rack?
There are an astounding number of rack options, heights, sizes and styles. When selecting the rack to be used in your installation, here are some things to consider:
AV vs. IT-based installations: Whether you select a traditional IT rack or an AV rack may very well depend upon the equipment being installed. IT racks are designed primarily for use with traditional IT equipment in which the I/O and cabling is on the front of the rack. This can make it easy for troubleshooting and network monitoring, but has drawbacks in terms of aesthetics. AV racks, on the other hand, are typically shallower in depth, while also enabling a cleaner installation by encouraging the use of equipment with rear facing I/O so that cabling is hidden in the back.
Air flow and cooling: Keeping the rack cool is vital to the function and longevity of the equipment installed. Depending on where the rack will be located and the air flow conditions of that location, you may need to augment the rack’s cooling capabilities. Multiple cooling options abound with the only truly limiting factor being the noise level tolerated. Many silent or nearly silent options are available with ducting options to fit any install.
Equipment width: While 19 inches is the traditional standard for rack mounted network hardware, some rack companies make custom sizes for other types of equipment. Be sure to check what size of rack your equipment requires.
Security options: With thousands of dollars of equipment on the line, it is always a good idea to keep security in mind and select a rack that helps meet the customer’s security goals. Locking cabinets and tinted door glass can help keep prying eyes and hands out of the network.
Don’t Overlook Power Management
While power management can sometimes be overlooked, it is an important part of a well-designed rack solution. Try using a rack-mounted power strip to keep the rack clean and more easily manage power cords. IP based power switches are becoming more popular and can be used to remotely monitor power, reboot a machine or power down a system on a schedule. Also consider using battery backup to increase fault tolerance and minimize equipment failures. When planning for power needs, be sure to keep growth in mind so there is capacity for additional devices that wills surely be added.
Ports on the Front or Ports on the Back?
Again, your rack choice may very well depend on the type of equipment being installed. If installing mostly IP networking gear, most of your equipment probably has ports on the front. AV equipment, however, typically has ports on the back. There are a few IP networking vendors (including Luxul) that actually support both types of solutions, so regardless of your customer requirements, you have network equipment options that will meet their needs. Pay attention to front panel colors to keep everything as uniform as possible. Also, don’t overlook the importance of consistency with LED colors. Nothing is cooler than a rack that has the same LED color scheme for all devices. Note that the Luxul AV Series actually allows you to select blue or green LEDs with the flip of a switch.
Label, Label, Label
Investment into a good quality labeler is a must. With any kind of network, labeling the lines, devices and even rack shelves can save you a lot of headaches. Also, assuming there are other contractors coming in behind you, labels will minimize potential conflicts and help indicate where additional devices should be connected to the network.
Color Coded Cabling
Ethernet cable comes in a variety of color and connector options. Using different colors for different jobs (i.e. Internet feed is black, data network is blue, VoIP phones are red) can dramatically decrease trouble shooting time and make additions to the network easier. If possible, plan your install ahead of time so you can pick premade cable lengths in the desired colors. For custom lengths, add a spool of wire that matches the color scheme you have chosen. Also, choose the right cable ends as RJ45 crimp type ends are not all created equal. I like to spend a little more up front and get an end that can support multiple duty cycles.
Keep it Tidy with Cable Management
Proper cable management can turn a nightmare of cables into a simple, clean and more manageable system. A few considerations:
Use Velcro wraps rather than zip ties when bundling cables together as well as mounting them to a rack chassis. This allows you to make changes without having the hassle of cutting and retying zip ties.
Wiring ducts can be used for easy and elegant distribution of cables within the rack. Ducts are usually available in different colors and easy to label panels to keep your data, audio, video and power lines separate.
Patch panels are used to indicate Ethernet locations throughout the home, while providing a central location from which to manage and troubleshoot the wire runs within the home.
While there is no one-size-fits-all recipe for designing and installing a functional, manageable and nice-looking rack-based system, there are a lot of great tools and products available to help you deliver professional looking solutions. With a little planning, the right tools and equipment, and a reasonable eye for aesthetics, your customers will be glad they selected you to do the job.