By Jason Bautista
The technology and networks inside office buildings have always evolved based on need. But progress today is rapidly accelerating because of advances in technology, in addition to end-user expectations for anywhere-anytime network access, even inside buildings. The cutting edge of building technology enables people and machines to connect and communicate in new ways, and more efficiently manages available space and energy.
Offices are also becoming more open and flexible to support the expectations of today’s workforce. Collaboration areas and open floor plans are now the norm. Having an underlying connectivity architecture to support work areas as they evolve over time is important. A universal connectivity grid enables facility management to adjust quickly to new demands with the least amount of disruption to the organization’s workers and the space.
The evolution to connected and efficient offices has introduced many new technologies, systems, and deployment methods to the enterprise. Just as these systems have evolved, so must the cabling infrastructure that supports them. In this article, we’ll look at zone cabling architecture, a new approach that supports current and future applications in smart offices.
The Rise Of IP-based Devices
IP connectivity was once just for local area networks (LANs), but offices today are deploying new IP-based applications. A trend that started a decade ago with IP phones, Wi-Fi access points, and in-building wireless has now blossomed into a range of new applications like smart lighting, security cameras, audiovisual systems, building automation and access control systems, and HVAC control — all of these increasingly IP-based.
This evolution presents an opportunity to change the way such systems are cabled. Traditionally, structured cabling systems for IP traffic flowed out from the buildings’ telecommunications rooms to patch panels, and from there to horizontal cables that connected to Ethernet ports or other IP devices. Each connected device had a custom-length Ethernet cable. At the same time, contractors deployed twisted pair cabling or coax cabling to connect HVAC systems, audiovisual components, and other systems. What resulted was a nest of wires that was difficult to maintain, troubleshoot, and expand.
Zone Cabling For Buildings
As office systems converge around the IP standard, building owners and facility management should consider redesigning cabling systems around IP cable, preferably Cat-6 or Cat-6A Ethernet cable, to support all manner of systems and devices. Zone cabling runs cables from the telecommunications room to consolidation points in the ceiling within areas or zones of a building. For example, there may be a consolidation point in a 40×40-foot zone, and every device or system in that zone is connected at that consolidation point.
By pre-cabling an office space with consolidation points, architects have the flexibility to easily connect any system or device in each zone. The advantages are simplified infrastructure, easier maintenance, and lower costs.
Simplified, flexible infrastructure. A zone infrastructure eliminates thousands of individual cables running from switches in the telecom room, and replaces them with an orderly system of connection points with shorter-run cables to devices in each zone.
Easier maintenance. You are no longer running new cables through walls every time a new application comes along. Instead, the cabling connections exist in each zone. You can plan to have, perhaps, 30 or 48 connections in each consolidation point and then use those as applications evolve.
Lower costs. Installers can use shorter, more manageable, and more economical cables to connect devices and systems more quickly, saving on labor and materials. It is no longer necessary to run every connection all the way from the telecommunications room.
Another trend in smart offices is the growing use of Power over Ethernet (PoE) to power devices. PoE has been used to power hubs in wiring closets in the past, but it is now expanding into Wi-Fi access points and security cameras. By using Cat6 or Cat6A cabling to replace old coaxial or twisted pair cabling, building owners can ensure that the infrastructure supports PoE wherever it is needed. Even newer applications, such as LED lighting, is starting to leverage PoE in some applications.
Keeping Up With Technology Changes
Mobility is the fastest-moving trend in the workplace. Throughput speeds have risen dramatically in the past decade, and now we’re talking about Multi-gigabit speeds on WiFi access points. Enterprises are trying to support these access points with the existing cable plant, but this frequently requires re-cabling. What is needed is adaptability to future technology trends, to put into place a connectivity infrastructure that will support many current and future applications, so you don’t have to go back and re-cable every time a new application comes along.
Like laying out the plumbing and electricity infrastructure in a house, the better a structured cable infrastructure is planned, the easier it is to expand and adapt to new applications. Cable should be where you need it, it should work, and it should minimize the effort of supporting new applications. Zone cabling can deliver that flexibility.
Infrastructure That Supports Change
Today’s office occupants are tech-savvy and digitally demanding. As the modern workplace continually evolves to accommodate changing workforce behaviors and usage patterns, enterprise buildings often struggle to provide easy access to wired and wireless technologies. With tenants and other occupants expecting flexibility in the layout of offices, collaboration spaces, and other common areas, enterprises are left with the cumbersome job of retrofitting old wiring — on demand.
Zone cabling divides floor space into evenly sized areas. By deploying consolidation points in the ceiling of each cell, buildings can provide easy connections to the core network. Now, simply running a Cat 6A cable is all that’s needed to deploy or modify a range of current and future applications. By adopting zone cabling, a building is prepared to tackle current connectivity needs while making itself ready for the challenges of the future.
Bautista is a technical marketing engineer for CommScope, a company that designs, builds, and manages wired and wireless networks for organizations. He supports the design and implementation of automated infrastructure management systems used in service provider and enterprise data centers across the world. During his 16 years in the telecommunications industry, Bautista has held various engineering roles supporting xDSL, ATM/SONET, WAN/LAN transport, WiMAX, Wi-Fi, and point-to-point microwave transport solutions for enterprise and carrier customers.