What exactly is a patch panel? The world of computer networking is filled with a bevy of terms and technologies that can seem rather dense to an outsider. Patch panels are still an important component of physical network connections.
If you’ve been curious as to what exactly a patch panel is, you’re in the right place. This guide will cover some of the terminology, why these devices are in use, and how exactly they are used. They might not be applicable in your home, but they are certainly in use in more places than you think.
Patch Panel: Explained
So, what is a patch panel? A patch panel is a piece of network hardware that is used for consolidating hard-wired connections into a central location. You’ll typically use these in conjunction with other network devices, as it doesn’t really handle any of the requisite routing and switching of a physical connection.
Where Is a Patch Panel Located?
You’ll typically find patch panels located in network closets and other centralized locations in a business. This provides an easily accessible location to manage cabling and provides the ability to easily label things.
These devices are best utilized in areas where you have other central networking equipment, like your routers and switches. Cabling can be sent out of the patch panel to other network hardware to actually facilitate the process of shaping network traffic.
What Is a Patch Panel Used for?
So, what would you use patch panels for? Think of a large enterprise office with multiple floors, computers, and employees. Generally speaking, wireless internet connections aren’t viable in larger business campuses.
As such, you’ll have miles of Ethernet cabling running between every piece of equipment and computer in use at a campus. This can create a massive snarl of untidy cabling if not properly managed.
Examples of Usage
Patch panels see usage in larger business campuses, as previously mentioned, as well as professional recording studios. Given the express purpose of patch panels, it allows for handy ways to add or remove cabling without compromising the overall integrity of a network setup.
Network engineers and architects in a larger business campus would likely opt to use one to provide a central location for all cabling to be grouped and labeled. Ideally, this allows for robust cable organization, which is when you have hundreds to thousands of devices in use at the same location.
A Deep Dive into Patch Panel Usage
The actual usage of patch panels is a little deeper than you might think. Really, the actual usage of patch panels comes down to a matter of cost. However, the answer is a bit more complicated than just numbers.
How it Works
The first thing to keep in mind with patch panels is cabling. Cabling is the lifeblood of any computer network, and without it, the network simply doesn’t exist. This extends to wired and wireless networks, where the cabling is paramount to actually establishing the function of a network.
Now, patch panels are usable with both the more common copper and more fragile fiber cabling. Cabling is expensive and can prove to be very costly to replace. Dedicated panels allow a centralized location to consolidate said cabling, while keeping it out of harm’s way.
Moving cables can actually provide a means to damage or work harden cables. Keeping the aforementioned cost in mind means you want to minimize the chances of that crucial cabling receiving any sort of unnecessary wear and tear. You can feed the longer lengths of cable to a patch panel.
Shorter lengths of cable, which are more readily and cheaper to replace can be used to actually connect to equipment like routers and switches. This helps keep the integrity of your cabling but also allows for more flexible network configurations and equipment replacement as needed.
Why Use a Patch Panel Over a Switch?
So, wouldn’t a switch do the same thing? Well, ostensibly, yes, it could serve a similar function. You’ll ideally be labeling cables feeding directly into an enterprise-grade switch. However, it circles back to cost yet again. You don’t want to fidget around and handle those longer lengths of expensive cabling.
As previously mentioned, this can lead to wear and tear that will lead to expensive repercussions later down the line. Now, patch panels don’t actually handle any sort of switching or routing. They aren’t shaping the flow of network traffic or allocating bandwidth to workstations.
Instead, patch panels just serve as a junction point of sorts, one that helps gather connections and transmit them to another location. You’ll likely be labeling the cables entering and exiting patch panels in the first place.
A switch does actually shape the flow of traffic. It handles the allocation of network resources to devices on a network as intended. The different sorts of cabling can lead to different issues that don’t really benefit directly feeding it into a switch that might get replaced in the near future.
Why Are Patch Panels Important?
Without sounding like a broken record, patch panels are a crucial element of any network closet due to cabling. All copper cables aren’t created equal, and they have different use cases. You’ll have standard elements like twisted pair cabling that serves as a more general-purpose length of wiring for use.
However, there is also wiring, like the solid core wiring used for running connections into ceilings. Solid core cabling is fragile and prone to breakages when exceeding bend radiuses. As such, it takes a simple mistake to render an expensive riser cable inoperable.
Fiber cabling is prone to the same issues, as you’ve got millions of strands of plastic or glass acting as a transmission medium for light-based data transfer. When a bend radius is exceeded for fiber cabling, the fibers themselves can tear, meaning an expensive cable now needs to be replaced.
This is what makes patch panels so important to integrate into a network closet. You have the means to protect the viability and integrity of more expensive specialty cabling while ensuring the network stays connected.
It can be a time-consuming process to properly install and set up cabling for these devices, but it saves countless man-hours when it’s time to actually replace more crucial pieces of network equipment. You don’t want to risk damaging a whole floor’s worth of wiring to replace a router. As such, patch panels are key.
Patch panels serve an integral function in any modern network closet. You might not see them in common usage with smaller offices or homes, but any larger enterprise is going to typically have at least one per floor.
Larger businesses live and die by the integrity and availability of their networks. As such, it is certainly an incentive for network architects and engineers to utilize means like patch panels. These panels allow for centralized cabling locations while also reducing the potential for damage to network wiring.
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