Administrators in cash-strapped organizations are often forced to find imaginative solutions to IT problems. In this installment of From the Trenches, we’re going to look at an administrator who has dealt with a number of challenges with fiber-optic network cables. One problem in particular ultimately led him to the Holy Grail of IT thrift: a big-time cost-saver that also improved efficiency.

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You can learn quite a bit by reading about the methods other administrators and engineers use to resolve challenging technology issues. Our hope is that this column will provide you with unique solutions and valuable techniques that can help you become a better IT professional. If you have an experience that would be a good candidate for a future From the Trenches column, please e-mail us. All administrators and their companies remain anonymous in this column so that no sensitive company or network information is revealed.

The fiber-optic problem
Mark Knight is a computer technician for the Lamar County School District in Purvis, Mississippi, where he deals with a range of IT issues from “the server crashed” to “my computer would look better across the room.” He works with a limited budget, so he often has to be creative in coming up with solutions to various problems. And those problems aren’t restricted to dealing with demanding users and finicky hardware. Mark also has to combat red squirrels.

“Through trial and error, we have discovered that the average red squirrel can develop a taste for the grease found inside a fiber-optic cable,” Knight said. “This is a problem for the school district because fiber-optic cables connect several buildings on five of the district’s eight school campuses. On three separate occasions, we’ve had to get fiber respliced when the bushy-tailed rodents gnawed their way through the lines.”

Voracious squirrels aren’t the only cable assailants. Falling trees, a dump truck, and a power saw also have been responsible for severing the fiber-optic cables. But even when a cable isn’t severed, troubleshooting the network on these campuses can be complicated if the continuity of the cable can’t be checked.

“Needless to say, when a wing of a campus has difficulty seeing the network, I’m quick to wonder if bad fiber isn’t the culprit. Our biggest problem is that being a school district, we don’t have the funds necessary to staff a person capable of testing/splicing fiber-optic lines. Also, we can’t justify the $1,000-plus it would cost for a good fiber test kit,” Knight said.

Instead, the school district paid a vendor $100 per visit to come to the affected campus and test the fiber-optic cable lines when a break was suspected. This happened several times when the cable wasn’t the problem.

A dump truck was involved in one instance in which a vendor was paid to check the cable when it hadn’t broken. For several months, the truck would pass under a fiber cable that was beginning to sag. The cables are normally 15 to 20 feet above ground, and although they’re often in covered walkways, some are more exposed.

The truck was barely snagging the sagging cable, and repeated hits had bruised it. Depending on factors like the wind speed and direction, the cable was behaving inconsistently. The vendor was called to determine the cause, but since the cable wasn’t broken, the problem remained unsolved. The school system had to live with the inconsistencies because it couldn’t afford to have the vendor check the cable every time it gave them trouble. Finally, the cable sagged enough for the dump truck to break it as it passed by. The vendor was called in again and this time, the damage was located and repaired.

Child’s toy = fiber-optic testing kit
Then happenstance produced an inexpensive solution to Knight’s testing dilemma. Waiting at the desk of a school principal to let him know he was about to spend some money on a suspected broken cable, Knight noticed a little key chain laser pointer, which had been confiscated from a student, sitting on the principal’s desk.

“It occurred to me that the fiber patch cables we used would slide perfectly into the laser pointer’s opening,” he said. “Snatching the toy off his desk, I slipped back to the server room. With another technician on the other end of the fiber, in a matter of minutes we had determined that indeed one line of the cabling was no longer transmitting any signal.”



Thus, a $5 laser pointer toy is saving Knight a lot of grief—and saving the school system the $1,000 a test kit would have cost. Every time he uses the toy, Knight is saving the school budget $100. Some might say that he’s one squirrelly computer tech, but we won’t take the bait.