Not exactly a series of tubes

I spent a good chunk of this past Sunday crawling under grubby desks while my library was closed.  But it was for a good cause - how else to actually trace out all our network lines and clean up this mess:

I wonder if this is why Charles Stross likes to include Lovecraftian horrors in his cyber-fiction.

For various reasons, technology at my library has a bit of a haphazard history.  To start things off I am the sum of the technology budget (which is a whole different issue) and the library itself consists of a historic house with two 'modern' additions, none of which were built with any sort of Internet access in mind.  My predecessor did a lot for the technology set up in my library, but computers made up only a small area of her many responsibilities.  The wiring was not all run by the same person, or even all by people who really knew what they were doing, and it shows.  Some of the mess is stuff we are not supposed to touch (such as the yellow cables in the above photo, and the equipment they connect to).  The list of factors goes on.

We are looking at some major reorganization in the Reference and Circulation areas of the library, and this is going to entail moving computers.  Until this past weekend I could not have told you where 95% of these lines connected, and with the looming reorganization this created both a large issue and a great opportunity to call in the cavalry (and by cavalry I mean my step-father who is awesome and damn good at this).  Unfortunately I had not thought to supply him with photos before hand (and he had not asked), so the above mess caught him a little by surprise.

Lesson #1: Always provide your help with reference photos when reorganizing and restructuring.  It gives them a better scope of what to expect and what to bring.

There are a few problems beyond the cable spaghetti that may not be obvious from that photo.  The whole kit and caboodle is rather too close to the wall, I can reach my hand up behind the patch panel, but if I actually want to see the back side I would have to detach it from the frame.  Behind the switches rests a plugged in UPC... that nothing is plugged into.  Our best guess on that is that it was placed there as a spacer so the switches are not shoved up against the wall, either way I will be replacing it with something not powered and more appropriately sized in the near future.  There actually are some labels on the patch panel, but few and with indications of inaccuracies.  Next we find that behind all the wires hanging down from the back of the patch panel is a power strip.  Finally (or at least the last one I'm listing) is the lack of space on this backboard.  The strip of black visible is about how much space we had, and combined with the lack of proper framing for the equipment limited our options for routing the cables.

I knew the physical network had more issues than just all of this, but our intent was essentially triage.  Identification and organization were desperately needed, and nothing could be fixed until we had this first step taken care of.

So after we assessed our situation and acquired some last minute hardware, we dove in.  Step one was to label our patch cables and record everything in a chart so we could put everything back together.  Step two was to disconnect all of the patch cables from the panel with some initial sorting by switch and filling out of our chart.  I may have at one point started slowly singing "Daisy, Daisy" during the disconnecting.  This served two purposes (the disconnecting, not the singing).  First and foremost we needed to disconnect patch cables connecting the patch panel and switches so that we could trace lines - otherwise the connections would have interfered with our test signals.  Secondly, there was no way we were going to be able to untangle the mess patch cables otherwise.  Once this was completed the fun part began - line tracing.

Now here comes the cautionary tale for anyone thinking about redoing (or even creating) a computer lab.  The furniture choices matter.  It is not simply enough to make sure that the computer and its accessories are neatly packaged (and make sure your 'neatly packaged' set up doesn't cause air flow issues or place the power button in prime knee bumping locations).  At some point someone will have to get at the nuts and bolts of the set up, and it probably is in your best interest to make that relatively easy.

We have some in-house built furniture that I at first thought was pretty nifty.  In particular they have electrical outlets and Ethernet jacks built-in for the four partitioned desks of each unit.  Unfortunately, as you might guess from my earlier comments, there are some issues with the placement of the power button on some towers as well as issues with air flow.  The cables are also nicely hidden inside this central shaft and only accessible from the top or from the bottom.  Being a female of average height and really not wanting to risk breaking the furniture by standing on the desks I went through the gap at the bottom that was wide enough to admit my head as well as one arm and shoulder.  These 12 connections took probably as much time if not more than all the rest simply due to the need to wiggle under and back out for each one.

My view of Sunday, only better lit.

I've had to get at some of these wires before, and it is something I avoid when possible.  It is a huge pain and an incredibly undignified process to attempt during operating hours.  For scale purposes the holes that the wires come through are about a foot and a half off the ground, and the top pair of Ethernet ports at finger tip height when lying flat on my back under the desk.  I'm a little embarrassed at quite how messy this is because I could have at least replaced the ridiculously long Ethernet cables with shorter ones long before now.  Well, I have a handful of shorter patch cables now, with the means to make more, now I just need to get to it while computers are not in use (and on a day when I'm not wearing especially nice clothes).

Lesson #2: Accessibility is really important for easy maintenance.

Lesson #3: I probably should arrange more work sessions outside normal operating hours.

At the end of the day the lines were traced and the spaghetti was cleaned up.  It isn't perfect but it is exponentially better than what I was facing before.


Thank the powers that be.  Having this done makes me ridiculously happy and lessens the number of things to stress about.


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