If there’s a universal truth to data centers, it’s this: There’s going to be a boatload of cables that need to be labeled and identified. And, there’s a real-world cost to incorrect data center labeling. Mislabeling doesn’t just make operating costs go up, it can lead to an outage if the wrong cable is unplugged. Keeping legible, durable, and easy-to-manage labels on key data center components is critical, not to mention, it will save time and money.

Here are three best practices that can help improve your approach to data center labeling.

1. Create a label that makes it easy for the next field tech. 

As an owner of a low-voltage/datacom design/build company in Texas for 10 years, I know that contractors are looking for the most efficient way to label cable. There are two popular label practices I see in the field that are a real barrier to efficiency: self-laminating tape and flag labels.

When it comes to self-laminating tape, one of the biggest challenges is trying to get that label to adhere to the cable with the printable area in the upright position so that the next field tech can see it clearly. However, because of their design, these labels can only be seen from a certain angle.

So, what happens if the label isn’t positioned correctly? The next tech is left to fiddle, twist, or bend that cable around to get a good view. This is a huge liability risk for data centers. Every twist and bend increases the likelihood of disconnecting or damaging the cable, which could lead to costly down time.

Another issue with self-laminating tape is its industry-standard length limitations for various outside diameters (ODs) of wire or cable. For a single install, it’s likely a tech will need multiple SKUs of various sizes to account for the different cable ODs within the data center since the self-laminating tape only comes in specific sizes.  This not only creates a headache for asset management, but also costs more than a solution that can accommodate labels for multiple cable sizes.

When looking for an alternative to self-laminating tape, consider customizable length cable wrap label instead. Customizable length cable wrap labels utilize a continuous tape, cut to length based upon the cable OD templates embedded in a mobile printer. This addresses many of the challenges of self-laminating tape.

When it comes to flag labels, they are most often utilized for smaller cables, like fiber. The major downsides to these labels are their time-intensive installation process and the long-term usability.

Have you ever noticed that if you don’t get a flag label perfectly lined up during the install, you’re left with exposed adhesive along the edge? That adhesive is now likely to get stuck to something nearby — the cable, the board, another flag label — making it less effective for clear labeling in the future.

These labels tend to be less legible due to bleed through from the reverse side of the flag. Plus, flag labels tend to be more susceptible to elements found in the data center, like wind produced by fans and heat produced by the equipment.

A better alternative to flag labels is a heat shrink sleeve and the leave it “loose tube” method. This approach makes it easier for a future tech to identify a cable due its legibility and durability. The other benefit to utilizing the loose-tube approach is maintenance. If there’s a re-termination of a fiber, you have the option to pull back the label, make the necessary adjustments, and move it back into position when work is completed.

2. Do the work to lay a solid foundation.

Data centers are massive spaces with rows upon rows of equipment and racks. A single cable can cross-connect to a multitude of locations, making all documentation important. The best labeling in the world can only go so far if there’s not a solid foundation of cable management documentation.

Mapping and documentation up front during the initial labeling and installation process is key to an efficient maintenance process. When done correctly, you can go directly to the location of the issue and identify a solution quickly.

The other side of this process is maintaining the mapping documentation. Ideally, these documents are updated with any moves, adds, or changes to make the next issue easy to address. Letting documentation maintenance slide can lead to a big mess to clean up later.

3. Know what works. But … keep an eye out for new innovations.

Knowing when to integrate new tech or procedures into your standard processes can be a key competitive differentiator. For example, an emerging trend that can help with cable management mapping and documentation is the barcode.

Integrating a barcode, such as micro QR codes, into your labels allows you to store critical information like the cross-connect process of specific cables. With the point of a smartphone, it’s easy to access the label information in a simple, organized way. If edits are needed to the information stored in the QR code, it can be updated via the cable management software (CMS). This is hugely beneficial to both the datacom and low-voltage industries and is currently underutilized.

Straightforward tactics for smoother operations

Ensuring easy-to-read, lasting, and efficient labeling solutions in the data center is pretty straightforward, but it’s a critical task that cannot be overlooked. Utilizing the best tools for the job while considering the larger cable management strategy can help your data center run more smoothly. Implementing these relatively simple practices can help avoid frustrating — and costly — headaches.