A patch panel in a local area network (LAN) is a mounted hardware assembly that contains ports used to connect and manage incoming and outgoing LAN cables. Patch panels are also referred to as patch bays, patch fields or jack fields and are also commonly used in radio and television.
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Enterprise patch panels
Patch panel ports are configured to accommodate Ethernet cables in an enterprise network. In an enterprise network, a patch panel serves as a sort of static switchboard, using cables to interconnect network computers within a LAN and to outside lines including the internet or other wide area networks (WANs). Patch panels can also be used to interconnect and manage fiber optic cables.
A patch panel uses patch cords, a sort of jumper cable, to create each interconnection. Circuits can also be rearranged by plugging and unplugging respective patch cords. Enterprises and other organizations often place patch panels in a wiring closet, a small room where networking and other electrical connections are made.
Patch panels are usually attached to network racks, either above or below network switches and take up 1U or 1.75 inches of space. Patch cords connect the ports in the patch panel to ports in the network switch, which creates permanent port connections to the switch that won't be interrupted during moves, adds and changes (MACs).
Types of patch panels
Patch panels can be based on the number of ports they contain, with 48-port, 24-port and 12-port panels among the most common. Patch panels are also designed for specific cable specifications like Cat 5E, Cat 6, Cat 6A and Cat 7 cables. There are specific patch panels for unshielded twisted pair (UTP) and shielded twisted pair cables.
Patch panels vs. switches
A patch panel performs no other function except for acting as a connector. A network switch connects clients within a network to enable them to access the internet, share data and perform other functions. Switching equipment can be used as an alternative to patch panels in some cases and may have advantages in terms of routing signals to a number of destinations at the same time. Switching equipment that simulates the capabilities of patch panels can be more expensive than patch panel units, however.