Five tips for getting cable clutter under control

Does your server room look like it's ready for some marinara sauce and a few meatballs? Turn your cable chaos into a manageable system by following a few simple steps.

Nothing is worse than a datacenter filled with a tangled maze of wires. Besides being unsightly, cable clutter can make it difficult to troubleshoot cable-related problems. Here are five of my favorite tips for taming that cable mess.

Credit: Andres in FL

1: Multitask

One of the best ways to get cable clutter under control is to eliminate any cables that are not absolutely necessary. Of course, this is easier said than done. Since you probably can't go through your datacenter and start unplugging cables, the next best option might be to multitask.

Sometimes, you can achieve the functionality of several cables with a single cable. To give you an idea of what I mean, I recently installed an IP-based video surveillance system in my datacenter. The system was designed so that each of the eight cameras required its own power supply (AC adapter). After spending a little bit of time on Amazon, I found a power supply that could provide power to four cameras. Granted, I still had to use a few power supplies, but I cut the total number of power supplies I was using by 75%.

I've also been performing cable multitasking through my KVM switches. Up until a few weeks ago, I was using KVM switches that required a keyboard, video, and mouse connection to every server. I replaced these outdated switches with a new model that uses only a video cable. On the end of the cable that connects to the server is a USB connection for keyboard and mouse input. However, there is no USB connection at the other end of the cable. All keyboard and mouse input is sent through the video adapter and then split out into a USB port at the end of the cable. What previously required three cables is now done through a single cable.

2: Use the shortest cables you can get away with

Another clutter-reducing trick is to make your own network cables. If you use pre-manufactured cables, you're stuck using cables with standardized lengths. This can result in excessive cable in your datacenter. By making your own network cables, you can ensure that the cables are cut to exactly the required length. This can go a long way toward cutting down on cable clutter.

3: Label your cables

I also recommend investing in a good label maker and labeling all the cables in your datacenter, even if the purpose of a cable seems obvious. Having well-labeled cables can make it far easier to troubleshoot cable-related problems.

The reason it's a good idea to label the cables that are used for obvious purposes is that troubleshooting a problem can sometimes run late into the night. I can't speak for anyone else, but I tend to make a lot of stupid mistakes when I start getting tired. I have found that making things as idiot-proof as possible helps prevent dumb mistakes later on.

4: Use zip ties sparingly

I once worked in a place where a number of servers were arranged on a large metal rack (not a traditional server rack). The person who had done the setup used zip ties to secure the various cables to the rack. I have to admit that the person did a good job keeping all the cables nice and neat.

But eventually, one of the computers started having trouble communicating across the network. It turned out that the network cable had been zip tied too tightly and the RJ-45 connector at the end of the cable was being pulled loose. Replacing the cable meant cutting all the zip ties and then replacing them. Because the zip ties bundled cables for multiple machines, this turned out to be a big job.

There is a time and a place for everything, and sometimes zip ties do have a place in the datacenter. However, before you zip-tie a cable, consider the amount of work that will be involved if you ever have to replace the cable.

5: Bundle excess cable

Earlier, I mentioned using custom-made network cables to avoid having excess cable. Sometimes, however, excess cable is unavoidable. For example, the AC adapter for my wireless access point has a three-foot cord, but I need only about a foot of it. When you can't avoid using a cable that is longer than you need, bundle the excess cord. In the case of the power cord for my wireless access point, I used a twist tab around the excess cable.

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Brien Posey is a seven-time Microsoft MVP. He has written thousands of articles and written or contributed to dozens of books on a variety of IT subjects.

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