Broadband

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 I replaced these outdated switches with a new model that uses only a video cable.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.

Related resources

About

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.

40 comments
NZJester
NZJester

If you have to use zip ties, get the type with the push button latch. They can be reused again and again. They might cost more to buy but they will save you lots of money in the long run as long as everyone knows they are reusable.

davidharrelson
davidharrelson

Cisco's UCS does away with 90% of the tradiditonal cabling nightmare by using FCOE and Fabric interconnect switches. We have been very impressed with the overall UCS offering when designing virtual environments for our customers and the huge reduction in cabling is a big added bonus. Dave TTB

dyrigoyen
dyrigoyen

Let not forget cable management should also include the workspace. At work, I have multiple monitors and desktop computer, plus a docking station for a laptop, my IPod, and Blackberry. if I can ever get that under control, life would be simpler

josegm29
josegm29

Other than the dreaded spreadsheet. what software do people use to manager their rack/patch panel/wall socket info?

flash52
flash52

Zip style ties are a pain to remove without damaging the cable especially if you need the cable mounted tight. What we've done here is to zip tie a length of Velcro tape to the rack structure. Then you can add/remove cable when ever without having to cut ties and re string them, just unwrap and re-wrap the Velcro tape. It lasts a long time and if you have to you can still pull the cable through the Velcro with out using excessive force. You can also do the same thing with the pre-cut Velcro straps, the ones with the wider end so you can pass the Velcro through itself. take the end with the hole in it and slide it over the cable management fingers then wrap it around your cables. = fast and neat.

jbetz
jbetz

I take issue with a couple of the suggestions, on practical grounds. It is usually cheaper (even just for materials, not including your time) to use pre-fab patch cables. I'm actually pretty darn great at terminating cables, and when my time is my own, I'll do so. If I'm getting paid for my time, it costs my employer a lot less to pay $1.29 for a 7' cable than to pay for the materials and then pay me to make one. I don't know (and don't care, thanks) if techrepublic has rules against mentioning specific companies, but I buy all of my patch cables from monoprice.com, because they're cheap, they're decent, and I can buy cat5e straight patch cables in any of the following lengths: 0.5 ft, 1 ft, 2 ft, 3 ft, 5 ft, 7ft, 10 ft, 14 ft, 20 ft, 25 ft, 30 ft, 50 ft, 75 ft, or 100 ft. Not enough choices? Do you really need a 22', 3" cable, or can you suffer with a 25'? From the same place, I get rolls of double-sided velcro that can be cut to any length, or pre-made velcro ties. Also cheap, compared to what you pay elsewhere. You CAN have a very neat installation without going broke, if you know what you're doing, know where to shop, and know how to spec out what you'll need. Oh, and if you're willing to spend (horrors) an extra few bucks to have a few things on hand that you'll eventually need anyway, like a couple spare cables. As far as the comments on color coding go, color coding is nice, and makes things a bit clearer, but it's not a replacement for labeling. Color coding your trunks can help if you're up in the ceiling, trying to find things, but mostly it's helpful at the patch panel.

Da Saint
Da Saint

Time doesn't always allow me to custom label the patch cords. But keeping a marker in my pocket guarantees the cable is labeled at both ends. I usually write at the end of the cable, then holding the end, slide the cable down to my elbow and labeling it again. Down the road, I can still ID a cable I'm troubleshooting or moving.

gechurch
gechurch

I was a little surprised to see making your own cables as a recommendation. I can certainly see the advantage from a cable length and hence tidyness perspective, but I would have thought this was far outweighed by the time to make the cable and the risk of doing an inferior job of it. I not great at making my own cables (by any stretch of the imagination!), but I've always found the process to be very fiddly, and I'm nowhere near as confident in the result as I am with a premade cable. I just can't imagine using my own cables in a production environment. Do others feel the same, or am I just a noob without enough RJ45-fu?

Creeping Critter
Creeping Critter

Zip ties are annoying especially when you have to cut them all. I simply use twist ties like the ones that are on the bag of a loaf of bread. A lot of computer parts arrive this way. I collect them and use them.

srhaw
srhaw

Zip ties are great for bundling up slack in power cables. Just limit to one cable per bundle.

iworsfold
iworsfold

I agree with what most people are saying about zip ties, but they do have there place when it comes to installing more perminant cabling into the Rack such as WAN connections, PDU power cables est. But one item I feel that is forgotten is to make sure you invest and use rack cable managment. You can colour code and velcro tie all you like, but what you really need is cable managment for it to work. Otherwise you could see yourself using too much velcro ties which again is a bad thing in itself. I guess everything has its place. you just need to know where and how to apply it.

tgreenfield
tgreenfield

Work out what services you are connecting and adopt a reasonable colour code for each of them. That allows you to trace cable more easily, even when they are bundled (with velcro ties). It also reduces the need to completely label the cables. However, you must be disciplined and have a written instruction (or colour coded sheet) for every one to follow.

phil
phil

All the suggestions in the article are all well and good, but it really comes down to enforced discipline so that future staff don't allow a well planned cable plan to get out of control.

bobijub
bobijub

anyone seen a loose zip? i use them often, if there is suitable hole or any other fixing poing nearby. if no suitable hole, than a tight one can fix a loose one if you can imagine. the simplest best way to create ad-hoc cable-management single-points. no problem to relocate cable running through it, if left loose the only danger of it is a "someone-else" who helpfully tightens them.

Shadeburst
Shadeburst

At a 200-user installation we took everything in the server room down once a month just to clean up cables. And to vacuum the pizza crumbs out of the keyboards...

hal
hal

Just saying, but why bother cutting and replacing zip ties just to replace a single cable? Just forget it and lay a new cable. When the server room is updated umpteen years from now with, oh, say, a single fiber-optic strand, you can just trash the whole thing.

richard.artes
richard.artes

Most important thing is have a written policy and stick to it. If you get 5 guys doing 5 different things you soon end up with a complemete mess. We have a policy for the patch room that states what should be done. Anyone doing anything different, and the cables are removed. Then they have to do their work again!

acmp
acmp

I can't say it enough, label that cable! Both ends, label them. REMOVE OLD LABELS. Finding a cable that refers to a server you removed 3 months ago that is still in use renders the label useless and is likely to get the cable removed. And #2, who has time to make up 50 custom LAN cables? then remake them when you change each server? Really, I just use a standard cable of appropriate length where possible, they come in 50cm graduations, this is more than enough flexibility for me, just don't leave them looping down. The spare easily fits into the servers cable management arm. Cheaper, faster and more reliable than making your own.

Alpha_Dog
Alpha_Dog

We do NOT use nylon zip ties on bundles of Cat-5 or higher for a variety of reasons. First, the cable is designed with specific electrical characteristics which are altered when the cable is compressed or pinched. On a short run, you can get away with murder, but if the run is anywhere near the 100M maximum, the cable must be kept as close to the ideal as possible. Second, you may need to add, pull, or replace a cable, and when you do with zip ties the process becomes labor intensive, wasteful, and risky. Risky because when you cut the zip tie, you will tighten it just a bit more before you cut it no matter how you do it. The alternative we use is velcro cable ties. The material comes on a reel with the hook on one side and the loops on the other. It can be used and reused to bundle any diameter of cable because you cut it to length. It also distributes the clamping load of the tie over the width of the tie instead of at a sharp point in the middle.

jbetz
jbetz

It's not really that difficult or expensive to do a bit of basic cable management at the workstation. If links work here, you can see an inexpensive cable anchor here: http://images.cableorganizer.com/adhesive-clips-bases/images/01-adhesive-base_red-cable-tie.jpg A couple of these stuck to the back of the desk, and perhaps one on top, with a bit of velcro tape cable-tied to them, and you can route your cables as you see fit, keep them off the floor, out of the vacuum cleaner, and keep them from going rouge all over your desktop. For under $20, you could get enough to put three anchors per desk, with velcro and cable ties, on 30 desks. If you just want to keep things together, there's also spiral wrapping bands to be had. http://www.monoprice.com/products/subdepartment.asp?c_id=109&cp_id=10520 Again I recommend monoprice.com, because their stuff is cheap and all of it is at least passable.

Alpha_Dog
Alpha_Dog

I don't care about the rules either... we should really be able to bird dog good sources to each other IMHO. Where making our own custom cables is impractical I will be using monoprice and having them drop ship to the customer, but for our in house jobs including prebuilt racks we build our own cables.

nwallette
nwallette

We (well, usually I) custom make all of our cables in the datacenter. I keep a couple spools (HA/heartbeat, DMZ, servers, management interfaces, trunks) of cable, and a stash of ends, then have a little travel kit with a pair of scissors, a quick (one circle and pull) stripper, and a nice ratcheting crimper. The cable type matters. Some have really ornery strands, and I can't stand bonded pairs or the type with the plastic insulator between pairs. Using cable made for infrastructure installation (long wall / ceiling runs) in a rack will make your life miserable. Also, our local supply shop has RJ45 ends with a slit at the business end. It's meant to be used with crimpers that cut the excess length like a punch-down tool, but the blade on those crimpers has never caused anything but problems for me. Nonetheless, the ends are excellent. If you allow the strands to protrude just a little, trim them square with a pair of scissors, then pull it back about 1mm so it's inside the shell before crimping, you'll get a flawless crimp every time. You can see the pairs are in the right order, and you won't have a strand that didn't quite reach long enough. I find it easier to route cables without an end on it, and when you've been making them for a while, it really doesn't take long to strip the jacket, separate the pairs, straighten them, shove 'em through, clip the end, crimp. Done. If your setup has predictable lengths, that's great. But with top-of-the-rack switches, and cable going through management arms on the back of servers, there really is no good place to store excess in a fully-populated rack. Like anything else, once you have enough practice, making custom cables can be plenty quick. It usually takes longer to get the ends in the right place than it does to terminate them.

beechwoodf
beechwoodf

I agree wholeheartedly, keep a sharpie in your pocket.!! they are great for labeling everything and as was suggested in another post , can be used to color code. I always have a bunch with me of the colors I use. Maybe it is because I am an older guy and a sharpie is what we had before the fancy labelingmachines.

Alpha_Dog
Alpha_Dog

Even when you will be using a labeller, the sharpie will help you identify a cable as you run it. This is especially important if you have ever done a pull with multiple cables from multiple locations. As far as labels go, our slickest install was before we bought the expensive labeller and were using a little brother office label maker. We set it on 2 line and labeled the cable designation on the first line and the source, pinout, and endpoint on the second line. It looked something like this: ADH2005221-23a PB2-18=HD-a23 The code at the top tells us who the installation tech was, when it was installed, and allows us to find the cable in the documentation, on the spreadsheet and in level 1 and 2 certification database, and the second line told us that this cable terminated at punch block 2 port 18, was pinned straight through (EIA568b to EIA568b), and went to the help desk cubicle a-23. This became so slick in practice that half the time we don't even need to crack open the book. Today we use the same naming convention on the professional label machines. The brother labels wrap the Cat 5 nicely on the short axis, but will not stay on the cable for any real length of time. We solved this by using a section of clear heat shrink tubing to keep everything in place. Yes it took time, but this was time spent during installation of a new network, not an attempt at a hail-mary fix. It turn out that this was time well spent. Oddly enough, this job is still our showcase because it looks more professional than the newer jobs done with the professional labeller. I still use this method on things like my own house and personal clients where I don't mind spending the extra time.

FTAdmin
FTAdmin

I do agree that making cables is labor intensive. However, when found in a position of making them, the proper crimping tool can make all the difference in speed and quality. I've used crimping tools that require direct squeezing pressure to complete the crimp. These usually don't crimp all that well and quickly cause hand fatigue. They tend to have a 'soft' feel to the crimp, so you keep wondering if you squeezed hard enough. The tools I prefer have some kind of lever or ratchet system, so that minimum squeezing is necessary. They also have a definitive stopping point, so that you know the crimp is complete. I've had far better results come from these tools than from the direct squeeze ones. Of course you get what you pay for too. When planning on making many cables, don't skimp on tool quality. I find that it is not at all helpful to buy a cheap tool, only to waste that tool's worth (and then some) in bad cables.

JCitizen
JCitizen

they aren't the variety with wire in the middle, I've seen shorts caused by such wire ties. Crosstalk, big time too!!

Alpha_Dog
Alpha_Dog

Where you aren't in a rack such as a wall or panel, Panduit is your friend.

Alpha_Dog
Alpha_Dog

I hesitate to call it color coding, but I guess it is in a sense. We use blue for general use data, yellow for intra server (including HA heartbeat), red for mission critical and grey for VoIP. The rest of identification happens with labels.

jda
jda

Only noobs try to colour code their cables - you end up never having the right colour at the right length unless you spend a fortune on cables or start using inappropriate lengths. Use a labeller and stick to beige cables in a variety of lengths as advised above. Colour coding is superficially attractive but is just another management variable which can easily be avoided.

maclovin
maclovin

Wait....you allowed food in the server room?

f.rutten
f.rutten

Yes, I have been using velcro cable ties for years. Does the work perfectly. I hate zip ties

beechwoodf
beechwoodf

Its not extra time to do a good job. I do this my ssslf and down the road it makes for easy troubleshooting.

pjkettlejr
pjkettlejr

I have found that in cases where you can't use heat shrink tubing, such as adding to existing bundles, clear electrical tape works just as well. It's hard to find in some area, so stock up on it when you can. Also, in a pinch 3M clear, stretchy wrapping tape will work.

nwallette
nwallette

Just don't forget the heatshrink before terminating. DOH!

JCitizen
JCitizen

is definitely a fine art. Practice makes perfect. Tool quality is a big issue, just as you say. There is a reason some techs make big money traveling around the country doing nothing but pulling wire and/or terminating them.

gechurch
gechurch

I disagree with both your conclusion, and your reasoning. Colour coding is far more than superficial. Firstly, it gives you a nice top-level view of a cabinet. At a glance I can see that a cabinet (for example) houses phone and data connections, has three uplinks and two critical servers. Secondly, you know immediately the purpose of any individual cable. Of course you need a label too, but knowing that this cable is blue so it is a general network cable can be very handy (and a good sanity test). It also makes incorrect labels jump out at you. If you decide grey is for VoIP but you find a yellow cable labelled as a VoIP connection warning-bells will start sounding in your head and you know to check very carefully and not to make assumptions about what that cable does. I also disagree with the cost argument. It's not like you have to keep 30 different lengths of ten different colours. Alpha_Dog's system below sounds good to me and is only four colours. And considering how common it is to cable within a cabinet you should have a lot of the shorter length cables on hand. Cables are cheap, labour is expensive, and mistakes are even more expensive.

halibut
halibut

Colour Coding may be slightly more expensive and a little more administrative overhead for keeping stock levels up but it helps dramatically for troubleshooting. I use a different method than services but more to what type of network traffic is going over it. It is not for being attractive but for finding that trunk cable instead of tracing labelling quickly. I still like to have the cables labelled too but sometimes those other admins want to get in and out quickly when there is an issue and the same coloured cables become a blur.

Alpha_Dog
Alpha_Dog

That has happened more than once... forgot the hood and the heat shrink on a 50 foot run. Now for the quandry... do we shove it from the other end or reterminate? Of course you reterminate, but the mind wonders if you can get away with the other. Another gotcha... don't put the label right behind the hood. You may need to pull the hood back and the heat shrink will stop that pretty effectively.

JCitizen
JCitizen

Every controls maintenance tech knows you have to have color coding on wiring. I can't imagine trying to do a complicated network structure without it. The overhead is well worth it in reduced downtime trying to chase problems.

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