Implementing an Intermediate Distribution Frame (IDF) Maintaining It

Image of a server IDF with network cables inserted in the switches and a blurred digital display panel underneath with numbers 225 and 032 displayed.
What tops having an IDF? Having a tidy IDF!

An Intermediate Distribution Frame (IDF) can handle telecommunications within your company. For example, you can use IDFs to connect telecommunications equipment like office phones to local telephone exchanges and the MDF. In essence, it’s an intermediary that allows you to silo and scale telecommunications according to your business needs. 

In this article, I’ll explain what an IDF is. I’ll also show you its use cases, and what to consider when setting it up. Finally, I’ll discuss the maintenance of an IDF. Let’s start first with what an IDF is. 

What Is an Intermediate Distribution Frame (IDF)?

The IDF is a rack-mounted cable distribution solution. It routes telecommunications between end-users and the main distribution frame (MDF). The MDF is a centralized distribution frame that manages telecommunications between the business and the outside world. That means the MDF is a termination point from which all telecommunication connections originate. 

You need IDFs for the logical distribution and control of telecommunication systems. This includes provisioning: 

  • Telephone exchange services 
  • Customer-premise equipment 
  • Wide area networks (WANs)
  • Local area networks (LANs) 

Most networks for larger businesses use multiple wiring closets or distribution points to reflect business logic or security needs. In other words, they silo users, teams, or divisions. To meet network demand between these locations, you should also use a backbone cable. This is a heavy-duty, unshielded twisted pair (UTP), fiber, or Gigabit Ethernet cable that connects between infrastructure closets. The MDF utilizes a backbone cable to connect wiring closets or IDFs from a centralized location. 

Now that you know what an IDF is, let’s discuss its benefits when used in  LAN and WAN network configurations.

 A schematic of a multi-tier network comprising a MDF-IDF configuration. IDFs in this example are distributed across the floors of a businesses building. Each IDF serves only end users on the same floor as the IDF closet.
Multiple wiring closets working together to service a business’s network needs.

IDF Benefits in LAN and WAN Configurations

You can implement IDF in different network configurations. In WAN and LAN environments, IDF manages different types of devices like: 

  • Backup systems, including NAS and other physical media solutions.  
  • Network infrastructure devices, including switches, hubs, and routers.
  • Network connections, including fiber optic, coaxial, and ethernet I/O.

The diagram below shows an example of IDF deployment to help you understand how IDF works in a WAN and LAN configuration.

Example network containing IDF infrastructure in LAN and WAN configuration.
IDF in WAN and LAN configuration.

As you can see in the diagram, divisions, teams, and clients are siloed thanks to IDFs. That includes local routers, printers, and other devices. This helps reduce bad actor attack vectors and malware spread once present inside an organization.

The MDF often contains the switch panel, router, and server that connects to the WAN, internet, and external cloud storage.

The IDFs are in a LAN in the diagram because cables can’t reach the entire organization. IDFs have to be placed throughout to support the clients in the enterprise.

What to Consider When Setting up Your IDF

If you’re going to set up an IDF, you have to make a strategy. Your plan needs to be pragmatic and scalable while mitigating cross-container security risks. Below are 3 steps that can help you plan out your IDF solution.

Step 1: Choose a Location

Choosing the correct location for your IDF will affect your network’s performance. For example, you may choose to use a low-cost ethernet connection between IDFs. However, if the distance between nodes is too large, latency will impact signal quality, and you’ll need to add relays. 

In general, the higher the cable’s CAT is, the shorter the distance it can support due to signal loss. You could decide to use more cables to offset data losses that are rated at a lower CAT. Yet, this scenario would demand more cable and hardware to support this arrangement. Similar connections, such as fiber, suffer from similar trade-offs. 

In existing buildings, the installation places are already decided for you. That means you have to work backward as you know the distances and the performance you require. In new, under-construction buildings, you have the luxury of choosing where to add your infrastructure closets. Ideally, you’ll want a central location with equally spaced hardware. This will be easier to plan, and it’ll also be more efficient overall for data requests and network traffic. 

Step 2. Assess Your Power Requirements

If your enterprise sites are large enough, you’ll need to consider if your power source can handle the power demand. Any changes may also be costly because you have to hire an electrician to rewire all the circuits. As mentioned prior, the distances between nodes will impact the power required. 

Reduce excessive hardware by carefully planning locations and connection technology used for your infrastructure. You’ll also need to consider how easy it is to replace failed power supplies or fans. We’ll take a look at this along with redundancy a little later in this article. 

Step 3. Assess Your Cooling Requirements

You should keep your network equipment cool to prevent overheating or excessive electrical draw. A typical operating temperature for network infrastructure  is between 65 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Obviously, the lower the temperature allowed by the hardware, the better network performance you’ll achieve. 

You can accomplish this through many different solutions, including HVAC ducted and ductless technology, heat exchangers, and oil immersion technology. Often, you’ll have to select the solution based on the price of the cooling technology and your physical/environmental constraints. For instance, most HVAC can be excessively noisy and take up room that simply isn’t available. 

Your workers may also need to access IDF closets regularly. To this end, do you need sealed racks to keep temperatures and noise between workers and hardware amicable? In essence, this means workers won’t wilt in high temperatures and suffer from excessive noise.  

No matter what cooling you decide on, ensure you also think about the solution’s maintenance. In essence, HVACs need regular cleaning and access. In addition, heat exchangers may need a refrigerant intermittently added. Oil solutions will also need replacing over time as the oil breaks down or evaporates.

You now have all the information you need on the things to consider when planning an IDF implementation. Now I’ll explain how to maintain your IDF.

How to Maintain Your IDF

Your IDF is ready for use! I wish you many days of prosperity with your newly-installed IDF. That’s why you should seek to keep it running over the long term. After all, if the IDF fails, so does the majority of your IT infrastructure. 

Let’s dive into the ways to maintain and secure your IDF and keep angry users at bay. 

1. Implement Security 

Your IDF is an essential part of your business. It holds a lot of your essential network equipment. If a break-in occurs, most of your organization could be damaged by a system-down event. In another break-in scenario, a bad actor could easily hack the organization from this security green zone. This is because the IDF won’t have as much protection as an externally facing computer. For instance, USB sockets may be open, while public kiosks will have them blocked off and not physically accessible to the public. 

To optimize security for your IDF, follow these 3 best practices:

  1. Keep your IDF locked and maintain the record of individuals who have key access.
  2. Install security cameras around your IDF to monitor unauthorized persons or employee entry and activities.
  3. Create a security log to monitor IDF access.

2. Avoid Outages with a UPS 

If your company faces an unexpected power outage, your IDF will also fail. Since you can’t always predict and avoid power cuts, you should try to remedy this situation with a backup plan. 

Manage power outages with uninterruptible power supply (UPS) units. This technology is essentially a battery that you add between your power source and equipment. The battery size required will depend on peak and continuous power draw. It’ll also depend on the operational up-time it provides. A UPS solution is often designed to work only for a few hours. This is because the power should be restored before the UPS battery is fully depleted. 

If you expect longer power outages, you may wish to use a UPS battery-diesel generator hybrid solution. As with any risk, this is all about the likelihood of a down-event. If your company calculates the risk, you may find out that longer power outages, although rarer, could still be detrimental. At that, you’ll have to determine if the losses would be greater than the cost of a UPS solution. You’ll also justify the outlay and maintenance of a UPS solution.    

3. Avoid Outages with Scheduled Checks and Maintenance

You should regularly check the state of equipment, and make sure to inspect wiring and connections. You should always schedule this maintenance check,  and include coolant, power, and checking backup and fail-over measures. If you notice any issues, you should repair or replace the equipment. 

In many cases, hardware failure is associated with wear or fatigue from use. Most hardware will also have specifications stating the hardware’s ‘mean-time-before-failure’ (MTBF). Use this to predict hardware failure and plan to replace it before that time. 

4. Avoid Outages with Redundancy Strategies

Finally, consider using a redundant hardware approach and built-in automatic fail-over switching or live-switching. This can mean running parallel switches and routers that distribute traffic. If one device fails, the system reroutes and optimizes traffic automatically. Some systems also notify you by email or SMS that a failure has occurred. You can also use RAID harddrive configurations or mirrored servers that switch over to production automatically in a system down event. 

Congratulations! You’ve now completed your IDF 101 training.

The Bottom Line

An IDF is an integral part of a business’ telecommunication network. It handles routing traffic from one local or remote device to another. Most importantly, it’s also suitable for both LAN and WAN configurations and can scale according to your business needs. In addition, to run your IDE effectively, you need to optimize power, cooling, and an effective maintenance strategy. To this end, you should correctly maintain your IDF, so you can help keep your telecommunications running smoothly and efficiently.

Still, have more questions about the IDF? Check out the FAQ and Resources sections below!


What is the difference between an IDF and MDF?

The main distribution frame (MDF) is the main computer room for servers, hubs, routers, DSL, etc. In contrast, an intermediate distribution frame (IDF) is found in remote locations to connect siloed teams or divisions  with the network.

What do I need to consider when planning an IDF room?

When planning an Intermediate Distribution Frame (IDF) space, you need to consider cooling and environmental conditions. This includes optimizing the operating temperature and noise. This is particularly true if workers will spend time within the room as they’ll require consideration during the planning stage.  

What is the purpose of an Intermediate Distribution Frame (IDF)?

IDFs are a convenient and effective way to connect different organizational silos and manage security between silos. You’ll see these in both Wide Area Network (WAN) and Local Area Network (LAN) configurations. 

How can I use patch panels in a network?

A patch panel allows devices to be connected and disconnected quickly. This makes them useful for troubleshooting connections. In a network, you often see a switch connected to the patch panel above or below it. This is called the horizontal cross-connect (HCC). You’ll also find it in the intermediate distribution frame (IDF) closet.

What is the difference between an Intermediate Distribution Frame (IDF) and the Main Distribution Frame (MDF)?

MDF is a centralized node for the telecommunication network within a business. It also acts as the main I/O for internet traffic and WAN connectivity between enterprise sites. In addition, you can use IDFs to split-up network traffic in your organization into logical silos. What’s more, this is useful to achieve better inter-division security and reduce data leaks or bad actor malware propagation. 


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