Small businesses just getting started with on-premise equipment often do the obvious thing with their first machine or two. They find an unused room, or a corner, perhaps where the Internet gateway already resides, and set the brand new servers down on a desk, or on a shelf, or sometimes even on the floor. Power and network cables trail out like streamers. The business owner (or person nominated as the IT person) backs away slowly. The door to the new network closet, if there is a door, is left closed, a wooden portal to a dungeon of blinking lights and whirring hard drives.
At least, until something breaks down, or a component needs to be added or removed, or a machine needs to be physically reset. Then the whole thing becomes a nightmare of tangled cables and dust. The lack of tidiness and organization catches up with the poor IT person all at once. He or she is left holding a bundle of unidentifiable power and network cords. Taking an educated guess as to which cable needs to come out in order to safely swap out a component, the worker takes a deep breath, pulls the plug, and hopes everyone’s computers and phones are still working.
Does This Sound Familiar at All?
The truth is, even the smallest on-premise “computer room” deserves to be organized and maintained with the same care given to the largest cloud facilities. Some forethought and planning up front will save hours of frustration (and likely downtime), extend the life of expensive equipment, and keep the network closet from becoming an embarrassment when clients or stakeholders come for a tour of the office.
Therefore, here are a few best practices in planning out a network closet.
1. Future Proof the Space
When deciding which space to dedicate to your server and network equipment, think beyond the needs of the moment. Although a corner of the office might do for a single machine, or even a single rack, imagine the process that will be required to move them if more space should ever be required. A dedicated room is always best if at all possible, both to give the organization room to expand, and to keep the equipment away from regular office operations. Servers can be noisy, after all, and a rack full of them even more so.
2. Opt for a Rack Installation When Possible
Speaking of racks, a rack mount setup is the best option for all but the very smallest deployments, and only if those deployments are sure to remain small. Stacking equipment and appliances on a desk or table instantly introduces heat management issues, as well as making cable management and organization unnecessarily difficult.
Equipment placed on a table is also much more vulnerable to dust that can damage sensitive internal components, to say nothing of the dangers of a spilled cup of coffee or other accidents involving personnel. A rack is an enclosed space designed to protect servers and other tech equipment. It will keep out dust, improve airflow, and generally extend the life of your investment as well as consume less space and allow for better organization.
Tips for choosing your rack:
- Plan out each component that could potentially go in the rack before deciding on its size and configuration.
- Keep in mind drawers and shelves are readily available, allowing non-rack-mount appliances to still take advantage of the organizational and protective benefits of the structure.
- If the rack must be placed in a small, enclosed closet or room, choose one with casters for easy maneuvering in and out of the space. If the rack needs to come out of the room in order for workers to reach the back side of components, it is much easier and safer to roll it out rather than lift or wrestle it. That goes for both the equipment which might fall over, and for personnel who might be fallen upon.
3. Don’t Underestimate Cooling, Battery and Network Needs
Although a deployment of just a couple of machines will not generate enough heat to be concerned with, anything larger will. Keep in mind that the servers themselves aren’t the only devices that will be placed in the server rack. An uninterruptible power supply, a rack-mounted switch, network storage, and dedicated appliances for phones or other specialized systems all take up space, and all generate heat.
Server racks include vents and often fans to disperse heat, but in an enclosed space they may not be enough. Consider a dedicated air conditioning unit, especially if your office A/C is turned off on weekends and holidays. Even a window mounted AC unit from Home Depot is better than nothing!
4. Cable Management is a Necessity
Practice proper cable management from day one. The importance of cable management cannot be emphasized enough. Fail to implement best practices from the beginning, and you could be facing an impossible mess of wires down the road. The ability to quickly and easily unplug devices, without accidentally disconnecting other equipment in the process is paramount to avoiding crashes, downtime and even paid IT support visits.
If using a rack, the best place to start in cable management is with a rack-mounted patch panel. Terminate all wires at the patch panel, and document everything. Number each port if they are not already numbered, and studiously maintain a network topology diagram (minimally an Excel spreadsheet) detailing exactly where each wire leads.
A well-designed and organized network closet is a pleasure to work with and an expeditor for all tech operations in your business. A messy one is a liability, causing more problems than it solves. Follow these best practices and make sure your network closet keeps working for you, not against you!