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I’ve just read an amusing series of blog posts about bad wiring . I’ve seen my share of wiring horror in the past. There are some easy ways of minimising wiring problems which seem to never get implemented.
The first thing to do is to have switches near computers. Having 48 port switches in a server room and wires going across the building causes mess and is difficult to manage. A desktop machine doesn’t need a dedicated Gig-E (or even 100baseT) connection to the network backbone. Cheap desktop switches installed on desks allow one cable to go to each group of desks (or two cables if you have separate networks for VOIP and data). If you have a large office area then a fast switch in the corner of the room connecting to desktop switches on the desks is a good way to reduce the cabling requirements. The only potential down-side is that some switches are noisy, the switches with big fans can be easily eliminated by a casual examination, but the ones that make whistling sounds from the PSU need to be tested first. The staff at your local electronics store should be very happy to open one item for inspection and plug it in if you are about to purchase a moderate number (they will usually do so even if you are buying a single item).
A common objection to this is the perceived lack of reliability of desktop switches. One mitigating factor is that if a spare switch is available the people who work in the area can replace a broken switch. Another is that my observation is that misconfiguration on big expensive switches causes significantly more down-time than hardware failures on cheap switches ever could. A cheap switch that needs to be power-cycled once a month will cause little interruption to work, while a big expensive switch (which can only be configured by the “network experts” – not regular sysadmins such as me) can easily cause an hour of down-time for most of an office during peak hours. Finally the reliability of the cables themselves is also an issue, having two cables running to the local switch in every office can allow an easy replacement to fix a problem – it can be done without involving the IT department (who just make sure that both cables are connected to the switch in the server room). If there is exactly one cable running to each PC from the server room and one of the cables fails then someone’s PC will be offline for a while.
In server rooms the typical size of a rack is 42RU (42 Rack Units). If using 1RU servers that means 42 Ethernet cables. A single switch can handle 48 Ethernet ports in a 1RU mount (for the more dense switches), others have 24 ports or less. So a single rack can handle 41 small servers and a switch with 48 ports (two ports to go to the upstream switch and five spare ports). If using 2RU servers a single rack could handle 20 servers and a 24port switch that has two connections to the upstream switch and two spare ports. Also it’s generally desirable to have at least two Ethernet connections to each server (public addresses and private addresses for connecting to databases and management). For 1RU servers you could have two 48 port switches and 40 servers in a rack. For 2RU servers you could have 20 servers and either two 24port switches or one 48port switch that supports VLANs (I prefer two switches – it’s more difficult to mess things up when there are two switches, if one switch fails you can login via the other switch to probe it, and it’s also cheaper). If the majority of Ethernet cables are terminated in the same rack it’s much harder for things to get messed up. Also it’s very important to leave some spare switch ports available as it’s a common occurrence for people to bring laptops into a server room to diagnose problems and you really don’t want them to unplug server A to diagnose a problem with server B…
Switches should go in the middle of the rack. While it may look nicer to have the switch at the top or the bottom, that means that the server which is above or below it will have the cables for all the other switches going past it. Ideally the cables would go in neat cable runs at the side of the rack but in my experience they usually end up just dangling in front. If the patch cables are reasonably short and they only dangle across half the servers things won’t get too ugly (this is harm minimisation in server room design).
The low end of network requirements is usually the home office. My approach to network design for my home office is quite different, I have no switches! I bought a bunch of dual-port Ethernet cards and now every machine that I own has at least two Ethernet ports (and some have as many as four). My main router and gateway has four ports which allows connections from all parts of my house. Then every desktop machine has at least two ports so that I can connect a laptop in any part of the house. This avoids the energy use of switches (I previously used a 24 port switch that drew 45W ), switches of course also make some noise and are an extra point of failure. While switches are more reliable than PCs, as I have to fix any PC that breaks anyway my overall network reliability is increased by not using switches.
For connecting the machines in my home I mostly use bridging (only the Internet gateway acts as a router), I have STP enabled on all machines that have any risk of having their ports cross connected but disable it on some desktop machines with two ports (so that I can plug my EeePC in and quickly start work for small tasks).
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