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When it's appropriate to replace network cabling

The kinds of preventative maintenance you should perform on the cabling infrastructure of the network and when it's time to replace it and/or the switches and hubs that support it.
Written by Ray Geroski, Contributor
Administrators typically perform a wide variety of maintenance tasks, including backing up data, archiving old data, cleaning up shared drives, updating and patching software, and various other chores, all in an effort to keep their networks running smoothly and employees working productively. But what about the infrastructure on which the network resides? What kinds of preventative maintenance should you perform on the basic cabling infrastructure of the network? When do you know it's time to replace it and/or the switches and hubs that support it?
That’s what Titus Ablorh recently asked in our Technical Q&A forums. Ablorh said that his cabling infrastructure is about eight years old and that he’s using CAT5 cabling and 10/100 Nortel Bay switches. He wanted to know when he should consider replacing parts and whether any standard guidelines for infrastructure replacement exist. While there’s not a single clear-cut answer to the question, TechRepublic members offered feedback that provides some excellent input on the subject.
If it ain’t broke…
A typical answer to the question of when to look at updating network cabling and other parts might be to wait until something goes wrong. In one respect, this is a logical response: Why bother replacing something if there’s nothing wrong with it? While this may seem like a logical way to approach the issue, especially from a cost perspective, it overlooks the primary goal of administering a network: keeping everything up and running smoothly with minimal to no interruption of service. To that end, admins must be a little more proactive in determining the status of the network switches and cabling.
But what should you watch for? According to Gleb Yourchenko, a systems analyst at InFocus, an increase in the number of data errors is the first sign that you might have problems with your cabling and should begin looking at replacing cables or hubs/switches. Others, including dburk of Encyrion Technologies, said that performance issues can indicate the need for updates. When cost is a factor, dburk, noted, you might have to replace only the parts that must be fixed when problems occur.
You want to do whatever you can to stay ahead of network issues, so heeding the warning signs of performance issues and data errors is a necessary part of maintaining the infrastructure.
Heading off potential problems
If you want to avoid networking issues altogether, though, you must take proactive steps to anticipate problems before they occur. The obvious solution is to inspect regularly your network cabling and other parts.
“I believe the best solution,” Yourchenko wrote, “is to invite a technician…at least once a year to test the infrastructure.” The technician will have the equipment and the knowledge necessary to spot potential problems, Yourchenko added.
It’s also possible to inspect the jacketing and connectors yourself, said TheChas. “If the jacketing is starting to break down, or the fingers on the connectors are corroding, you should begin to plan for a rebuild.”
While a physical inspection of the cabling and other parts won’t reveal all of the potential trouble spots in the network, it can help you determine which parts should be replaced to prevent hardware-related data errors from occurring.

The money issue
One of the obvious considerations is the allotted budget for IT infrastructure. If every company had an unlimited amount of money to spend on hardware, the easy way to maintain the network would be to regularly replace parts and cabling regardless of their condition. Unfortunately, no company has that luxury, so the condition of network hardware must be balanced against how much a company can spend to fix it. As several members noted, sometimes you just have to replace parts as they begin to malfunction or as performance issues begin to occur. At the very least, you can anticipate and plan for budget needs by conducting regularly scheduled inspections.
Replace when you perform other upgrades
Because infinite variables come into play when examining a network infrastructure—such as budget constraints, environmental variances, and hardware quality differences—it's hard to generalize about the timing for replacements. However, roger_simpson2002 offered a couple of good rules of thumb. First, he suggested that if you’re upgrading your switching backbone, you should go ahead and replace the cabling too. Taking this extra step ensures that all of the equipment is updated. And, from a financial perspective, the cabling can be considered an integral, even necessary, part of the upgrade and can therefore be absorbed when budgeting that item.

Another instance in which you should replace the cabling is when you see signs of physical wear, he said. Other readers echoed this advice. Again, some kind of inspection of the cabling is important, regardless of whether you do it yourself or pay a technician to do it.
Your budget, your call
Although your budget may determine how much you can do to upgrade your network infrastructure and how often you replace cabling and other parts, it will be useful to keep these maintenance tips in mind:

  • Pay attention to data errors as possible signs of cabling issues.
  • Regularly inspect the cabling and other parts for signs of wear.
  • Replace cabling simultaneously with other upgrades.

Some networks may run for a decade or more on the same cabling with no problem; others may have to be updated after a few years. As our members have pointed out, because of the vast differences that can exist from one company network to the next, you often have to make your own call about it. But you should be able to use some of these insights to help you make the decision.

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