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Patch panels are passive connecting devices that make it possible to establish communication between a group of individual components. A typical one will include port locations or jacks where cords and wires can be plugged into the device. It is often used to network several computers by connecting them through the panel, which is in turn connected to the server driving the local area network.
There are a number of designs for the patch panel. One common design is as a mounted hardware unit that can be secured into place in a wiring closet or a switch room. In this scenario, the panel is generally located near the primary and secondary servers that power the network. Connections from desktops and docking stations, as well as from fax machines or telephones run into it and then connect with the servers.
A second design resembles a simple power strip. Along the body of the panel is a series of jacks or other receptacles that allow various pieces of equipment to connect with the panel. Once the equipment is connected via the panel, it is possible to execute tasks at one workstation and have the task completed at a different station. For example, the desktop may create a document for faxing, send it directly to the fax machine using the local area network and have the fax dial the fax number, establish the connection, and transmit the document.
The value of a patch panel is that the device makes it possible to connect multiple pieces of equipment to a server or a hub even if there are not enough connections found on the server proper. Since all the components are plugged into the panel, there is only the need to establish one connection between the panel and the server. When it is mounted or otherwise placed where it is easy to connect and disconnect components, the process of upgrading wiring or equipment becomes less difficult, as there is no need to remove the server from racks or trays to get at the connections.
While a patch panel is usually intended for office use, there is no reason why it cannot be used to create a network in the home as well. By designating one computer in the home as the server or main computer, the panel can serve as the hub to connect all other computers into the network. As with the office applications, using one to connect three or more computers at home can make changing out or replacing equipment much less of a headache.