A Shop-Vac, a labyrinth, and coax cable: It's MacGyver time!

A company asks the IT department to get a remote warehouse wired -- all through a ragtag underground conduit system

Your assignment: Lay fiber between an office and a warehouse standing 350 feet apart. You have a Shop-Vac, a ball of kite string, and a baggie. Do you accept this challenge?

It may sound like the plot from an episode of "MacGyver," but these were the exact elements a colleague and I had on a hand for a networking job back in the day. Somehow, we made it all work, I'm glad to report.

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As the networking world has grown, the ability to transmit data on local networks has also increased. But when I started in IT over 20 years ago, most of our systems were 10Base2 (coax). We were able to make them work because we didn't have the proliferation of devices that required network connectivity that we do today.

The company I worked for was growing rapidly, and its tech needs grew along with it. I survived the joy of crawling through attic spaces and shoving Cat5 through small openings above suspended ceilings in most of our locations. Of course, this running of new wire required new network cards that we tried to couple with PC upgrades. The Cat5 upgrades permitted us to increase the office footprint and attach more devices to the network.

Things were going smoothly, and our department was known for its ability to get the job done. But we ran into a challenge when the company decided to purchase a new facility in a New England state. Moving office locations is a headache for the IT department even in a best-case scenario. But too often owners don't find it necessary to consult an IT person about a new location until after the deal has been struck. Such was the case here.

You gotta tear it down to build it up

Luckily, our business needed railroad access, and before we could move into the building a rail spur had to be laid. The requirements for this modification to an existing railroad would be time-consuming, which gave us a much larger-than-expected window, making all of us in the IT department very happy.

It was a good thing, too, because there was a lot of work to be done. When we first inspected the new location, it had been vacant for five or six years. Before that, several tenants had occupied the space and adapted it to their needs. It was a mess, the ceilings and walls crowded with multiple phone systems, several types of networks, and security alarms. Fortunately, we were given lots of latitude, and with no one looking over our shoulder, we gutted the ceilings and ran all new Cat5 and phone lines.

But wait, there's more

Things were going well until upper management dropped a bomb on us: It wanted us to not only get the new location ready to go, but it wanted us to set up several PCs and a networked time clock in a remote warehouse. The fleet manager was to be deployed there, to print bills of lading and to receive goods from that building.

I took a trip to the location and measured off the distance from the office building to the warehouse. The structures stood 350 feet apart, not including the distance the wire would travel inside the buildings. Back then our budget would not support a wireless data transmission system that could handle our projected load. Fiber appeared to be our only solution.

We still had the contact information of the building's prior owner, who said not to worry because he had buried conduit between the facilities. He claimed he was a building contractor and planned ahead for such scenarios. I felt a bit relieved and made an appointment to meet him at the location the next week.

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