Ethernet Cable Lingo
Written Don Schultz, trueCABLE Technical Sales Representative & Wire Expert
Often people who install Ethernet cable use terms they expect others that are “in the know” to understand. What about the average human? Typically the lingo is nothing more than liberal use of acronyms. This happens frequently with closely knit communities (the military is another example). Once you understand what the terms mean, then you will have a much better idea of what these folks are talking about.
This article will cover the physical cabling lingo and not get into the general networking lingo.
- Cat. Short for category, this acronym means the kind of Ethernet cable specification. This term is not used by itself, but is usually expressed with an identifier such as 5e, 6 or 6A. The different numbers mean how the cable is constructed on the inside and what speed it will support. Common usage would look like Cat5e. Learn more about the different types of category cable specifications in this article, Evolution of Category Cables: Cat5e vs Cat6.
- Shielded. This term is often misused and not well understood. I myself, often refer to any number of cable types as shielded in a generic way. Although nowadays, I catch myself and give the correct term. What it all comes down to is where the shielding is at. A great example is the trueCABLE Cat6A Shielded Riser cable. In this case, the technically correct way is F/UTP. The term F/UTP means an overall foil shield but the individual pairs are not shielded. Now if the cable in question had those individually shielded pair we would call it F/FTP. How confusing is that?!
- UTP. We cannot talk about shielded cable without talking about unshielded. UTP means unshielded twisted pair. When used by itself, UTP means no additional shielding is inside the cable. When used in the context of a “/” in front of it, it will mean the individual conductor pairs are unshielded. F/UTP as an example. Read my article Shielded vs Unshielded Cable for more details.
- Terminate. All Ethernet cable must be terminated at both ends, at least if you want a cable that works at all. To terminate is the process of pressing the individual wire conductors into metal prongs so there is an electrical connection. This action is usually accomplished with a tool such as an “RJ45 connector termination/crimp tool” or a “punch down (impact) tool.” These tools are used when termination is to a patch panel or keystone jack (if the keystone jack is not tool-less). Termination is not technically the same as crimping.
- Crimp. Many times an installer will refer to their RJ45 termination/crimp tool as a “crimp tool”. This is only half correct. During the process of termination with this kind of tool, a crimp is typically (but not always) applied to the cable jacket at the rear of the RJ45 connector. This holds the cable in place so the wire conductors are not easily pulled out, because that would totally ruin your termination!
- RJ45. Take a look at your nearest Ethernet cable that is actually in use and plugged into something. See that thingy attached to the end of the cable? That is an RJ45 connector and is sometimes referred to as a “plug”. That RJ45 connector allows you to do something useful with the cable, like plug it into your computer’s NIC.
- NIC. Another acronym, that stands for Network Interface Card. This often not seen, but critical piece of computer technology, is what allows you to access a network and possibly the Internet if you paid your last cable Internet bill. NICs usually, but not always, have an RJ45 jack on them.
- Usually, but not always. This is the cabling installer’s way of communicating that this is all quite complicated and there are many possible variations. It is also a neat way for them not to be cornered into a single answer, for a question that could go down multiple paths. This term is not really specific to this topic, but what the heck.
- Punch down. This might give the visual of installers making downward punching motions with their fists. This is somewhat correct, actually. The installer will use an impact tool, or punch down tool, to terminate an Ethernet cable into a patch panel or tool-needed keystone jack. When this tool is in use it makes banging noises. This is because the tool uses kinetic energy from a spring inside which seats the individual wire conductor into a terminal, requiring minimal force from the installer.
- Patch panel. The idea behind the patch panel is for cabling to terminate to a central place. The patch panel is used in conjunction with Ethernet patch cables to connect a network switch. The central location allows your IT department to keep a locked door on the expensive network switches and other gear. A patch panel provides flexibility. These things come in a couple of varieties. There is the keystone kind, and the terminal kind. An impact tool is required for the terminal kind, where the keystone kind might not require tools to terminate the conductors. That whole tool-less thing, again.
- Patch cable. This is a shorter, more flexible Ethernet cable that already has RJ45 connectors on both ends. It is used to connect a patch panel to a switch or your computer to a keystone jack in the wall (look by your leg). Of course it can be used for more, but these are two prime examples. The reason patch cable can tolerate repeated bending is due to stranded copper conductors. Technical note: Patch cables should not be used for long distance runs to other locations (known as drops). That is for structured cabling.
- Structured cabling. This cable is designed for permanent installation and is less tolerant of repeated flexing due to its solid copper conductors. Bend a piece of solid metal often enough and it will break. Structure cable literally runs through walls, outside, in the ceiling, etc. It is run to your network jack (again, look by your leg) and is known as a drop. Drops are also made to the patch panel. Basically, a drop is wherever the structure cable ends up.
- Keystone. When this term is used, it means keystone jack. This is the spot where you plug in that patch cable. Keystone jacks are another way of terminating structure cabling, and come in tool-needed and tool-less varieties.
- ...and tool-less. I also have a bridge to sell you, wink. There is nothing truly tool-less. This term means less tools are needed, usually a dedicated single-use type.
- LAN. LAN means Local Area Network, and includes all wired or Wi-Fi devices at your site inside your own little private network. Inside this network you typically find a cable modem, router, maybe a switch, smart phone, smart TV’s, printers, computers, Ethernet LAN cables, and more. The LAN, if it is working properly, assigns each device an address so that there is no confusion as to who is to get what data. These are called internal IP addresses so you don’t get junior’s children’s programming while trying to binge watch your favorite show. Your cable modem and router know something you might not...your Public IP address, which brings us to...
- WAN. WAN means Wide Area Network. This (usually, but not always) means the Internet. The Internet is a much bigger network. On this network, your cable modem and router know about your Public IP address. That is a unique address like your house address. It would not be good if those recipes you looked up ended up in Siberia, now would it? Well, unless you live in Siberia in which case all is good.
Just how does this LAN and WAN stuff not get confused? That’s what the router is for. Ok, for a “in a nutshell” example. Bear with me. It is actually far more complicated, but this should help:
- You work in a really big company with an old style mail room.
- The mail room delivers mail to you from inside AND outside the company.
- The mail that comes from the outside of the company (that the US Postal Service delivered) to your mailroom first is handled by and routed to you by your mailroom.
- The mail that comes from inside the company, that does not come through the US Postal Service, is handled by and routed to you by the mailroom.
In this scenario, the US Postal Service is the Internet. Your mail room is the router. You are the computer. Make sense now?
So there you have it folks. Now, the language of Ethernet cable installers has been deciphered and you can follow along. Better yet, now you have the ability to say:
“Hey...stop drinking excessive amounts of coffee and do your drops and punchdowns like you should so I can connect my NIC to the LAN to get work done!”
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