The woes of wiring a network

At the risk of raising a salacious titter, I’m typing this column mostly one-handed. Actually, I have a perfectly respectable and family-friendly excuse – for the first time in about a decade, I was obliged (by the pressures of a deadline and the spell of severe winter weather) to perform the whole of a network setup myself.

The woes of wiring a network

And I do mean all of it, from soup to nuts, from humping the server across ice-slick pavements, through to sending off letters to ISPs to arrange the shifting of the SDSL connection. The bit that deprived me of the use of my left wrist, however, was the wiring.

I’ve always avoided this chore, mainly because I discovered that no matter how good the tools I bought, and no matter how many stabs I took at the task, I’ve always ended up with completely awful cables that have a life expectancy of around a fortnight (just long enough for people to believe they’re suitable for office use, until a series of errors convinces them otherwise).

Long experience has shown me that there’s no worse reputation-killer than being called in to listen to a litany of weird faults, then having to admit that a nasty, frazzled-looking lead under the desk was the cause, and that it was of my own manufacture.

I discovered that no matter how good the tools I bought, and no matter how many stabs I took at the task, I’ve always ended up with completely awful cables

It was the terrible weather that put my shonky cabling skills into the firing line – my client needed to move premises in short order over Christmas (actually, this year two clients expressed that intention, but one very sensibly gave it up and went sledging, while the other reaped the benefit of my sub-par manual labour).

My cable guys, based near Gloucester, acted out a very good imitation of teeth-sucking Stakhanovite chagrin over the phone, which was given the lie by happy shrieks from a snowball fight taking place in the background. I was as effectively isolated as an Ice Road Trucker in Tuktoyaktuk with an icicle stuck through his radiator.

So hi ho, hi ho, off to work I went. For the benefit of those of you who just get some guy to come and do the job, who then hands you the AT&T standard test results when he’s done, here’s a little reminder of what lies behind each of those modest wallplates.

Every CAT-5 connection has eight wires that are fastened into the RJ-45 socket at the back using punchdown connectors – overlapping metal grippers into which you cram the conductor wire using a specifically designed punchdown tool, frequently referred to as a “Krone tool” after a prominent manufacturer.

Said tool applies the high force over a small area needed to push into the grip, along with a guillotine that whips off the free tail of the wire all in one movement. Cheap tools tend to get some part of this operation wrong, especially the guillotine part, and my particular example (blame the snow again) cost only £4, so you can well imagine why I also took some side-cutters with me.

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