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Engineering & Technology: Through the Consultant’s Eyes

Here are some pointers to keep in mind when selecting and working with a consultant on a structured cabling project.

January 1, 2000  

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Consultants in the field of technology services encounter a broad range of client expectations and perspectives regarding what role a consultant should play in their project. Some clients want to know: “Why should I hire a consultant when I can do it myself?”, while others arrive at an initial meeting with a detailed list of roles, responsibilities and tasks for the consultant to complete.

A consultant’s role on a structured cabling project can be defined in one sentence: “To provide design and planning expertise in the creation of a cabling infrastructure to support current and future needs.” What exactly does this mean and how do we do this, while balancing project budgets and client expectations?

We have to recognize that each and every client has different technical requirements and project challenges. No client should ever accept a “canned” set of specifications and documents as an answer to their IT infrastructure needs. A consultant’s experience can be drawn upon to provide the client with a variety of products and options for any given project. With feedback from the client, this list of options can then be tailored into a custom solution that will meet the client’s requirements. It is this service that separates a professional IT consulting firm that can add true value to a project, from a technical drafting service.

This article will examine the anatomy of a typical construction project, which is often the catalyst for new cabling implementations.

The diagram (Project Work Flow Chart) outlines some of the key activities related to a typical construction project. The activities in the left column detail facilities design and construction tasks, while the column on the right details IT tasks. There are several tasks in each stream, with key points of interaction where information or tasks from one stream affect the deliverables in the other. One role of the consultant is to provide the necessary input into each stream of activities in order to ensure proper coordination between both streams.

A large team of resources, including designers, engineers, contractors and sub-trades typically completes the tasks that are listed under the construction column.

In comparison, in the tasks listed under the IT-managed column, there are several critical tasks that must be completed in a similar time period. More often than not, it is expected that the client’s internal resources, which have other responsibilities beyond the construction project, will complete these tasks. This is when the time and effort required to plan and execute a successful relocation is often underestimated.

Dreaded Words

To any professional, one of the most dreaded beginnings to a question is: “When you get some time, can you . . . ” This gets worse for an IT professional when the question ends with: ” . . . plan the move of everyone in the company . . . or . . . reconfigure my data centre?”

This is usually not due to a lack of ability within the IT department, but rather a function of the number of hours in each day and the number of people available to work on a project. If the company’s IT department is busy running the corporate network day to day, it can often be unreasonable to expect them to have the necessary time to devote to an additional full time project.

Voice and data in today’s corporate environment have become essential services, similar to heat or light. One does not really understand the critical nature of the service until it is gone. You can usually still function on the day after a move without all of your paper files, but try functioning without your phone or email.

Consultants can provide the project management expertise and experience to either assist in managing internal resources or to perform the necessary tasks on behalf of the client. They are able to draw upon past experience to avoid the most common pitfalls and issues that can affect the successful execution of a project.

It is also the consultant’s business to keep up to date with all of the newest standards, practices and products, and provide valuable input into the design process. A major construction project is often the best time to review the relevance of an existing cabling standard. Just because the existing cabling plant is Category 5 UTP throughout, does not mean you should repeat this same standard in a new facility, especially if it has a long-term lease attached to it.

Design Documentation

Once a design concept has been developed, the next logical step is the development of clear and concise design documentation detailing general contract requirements, product specifications and installation practices. This is critical to every project in order to ensure that the agreed upon design concept is successfully implemented in a well-organized, planned installation.

In tender situations, clear documentation will help to minimize pricing variances between bidders. Ambiguities in tender documents eventually results in chaos and grief for all parties involved.

Upon selecting a contractor, the consultant’s focus changes to quality control and field review. Tasks associated with these services typically include:

Review of work progress

Review of installation for compliance to specifications

Working with the construction team to identify any areas of concern that may impact the implementation

Assisting in providing timely answers to contractor queries

Assisting in dealing with site conditions

Review of post-project documentation

An experienced consultant is able to review installations and work with the construction team to address site issues and provide input into the implementation. This input includes dealing with site conditions and finding solutions without compromising the integrity of the cabling plant.

Post-Project “As-Builts”

An often overlooked, but invaluable, component of field review is the post project documentation or “as-builts”. As-builts typically consist of drawings that indicate the location of each numbered cable, backbone riser diagrams and cable test results. This documentation should be reviewed regularly during construction.

As-builts that are not regularly updated as changes are implemented have a greater chance of being inaccurate. If these errors are not discovered until a cut over weekend, the implications can be drastic.

It has been said: “the last 10 per cent of a project takes 80 per cent of the effort.” A more accurate way of looking at this is: “the last 10 per cent of a project can cause a 100 per cent failure”.

If the as-built drawings and cable test results are not accurate for the move or cut over the weekend, this will have a trickle down effect on the success of the project. For example, most of us have all been in a situation where we have cross-connected a new phone line and expected it to show up at a particular workstation. Yet when we went to plug that workstation there was no dial tone. After two hours of troubleshooting and increasing frustration, we usually discovered that we were not completely incompetent, but that the cable was mislabeled or perhaps improperly terminated.

On a larger scale, if a technician on a move is cross-connecting the phone jacks and assigning extensions to each outlet based on a seating arrangement, but the cable numbering is off, the accuracy of the whole cross-connect schedule may be compromised. The time and effort required to troubleshoot this type of issue is typically something that is neither planned for nor available over a move weekend.

Critical Maintenance

Once the move is completed, the cabling plant is installed and the as-builts and test results have been updated and handed over to the client, everything is finished, right? Wrong. Now the IT department is faced with the challenge of continuously maintaining this valuable resource.

A move is a great opportunity to start with a clean slate and a complete, detailed set of records from which to maintain a database. Unfortunately, the proper maintenance of this information often ends up at the bottom of a very long ‘to do list’.
As a result, any future changes that are needed will require manual tracing of existing connections. This results in an unnecessary increase in the time and effort required to make a basic cabling change.

With the ever-changing proposed new cabling standards, maintaining accurate cable test results and documentation is becoming more critical. The final benchmark for several of the proposed standards (e.g. Category 6) is still a moving target. Cabling test results are becoming that much more important in order to ensure compliance to manufacturer warranties and to provide a benchmark to measure installed systems against the new standards. If a baseline of test results is kept for a cabling plant, it is possible to compare these results to the final ratified standards to verify compliance. This can be an invaluable tool to an IT organization in its planning and budgeting processes. A consultant can help to develop specific testing benchmarks — beyond the basic manufacturer’s requirements — to assist in troubleshooting and verification.

Regardless of the size of your project, an experienced and reputable consultant should be able to scale services to match your needs and provide value to your project team. CS

Bart Leung, P. Eng., RCDD, is a Senior Associate with Ehvert Technology Services, Toronto, a full service professional consulting and services firm, and has experience in a variety of consulting fields.

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