A patch panel is a device or unit featuring a number of jacks, usually of the same or similar type, for the use of connecting and routing circuits for monitoring, interconnecting, and testing circuits in a convenient, flexible manner. Patch panels are commonly used in computer networking, recording studios, and radio and television.
The term patch came from early use in telephony and radio studios, where extra equipment kept on standby could be temporarily substituted for failed devices. This reconnection was done via patch cords and patch panels, like the jack fields of cord-type telephone switchboards.
A patch panel in a local area network (LAN) is a mounted hardware assembly that contains ports that are used to connect and manage incoming and outgoing LAN cables. A patch panel provides a way to keep large numbers of cables organized, enabling flexible connectivity into network hardware located in a data center or an access or wiring closet.
Dedicated switching equipment can be an alternative to patch bays in some applications. Switches can make routing as easy as pushing a button, and can provide other benefits over patch bays, including routing a signal to any number of destinations simultaneously. However, switching equipment that can emulate the capabilities of a given patch bay is much more expensive. For example, an S-Video matrix routing switcher with the same capability (8×8) as a 16-point S-Video patch panel (8 patch cables connects 8 inputs and 8 outputs) may cost ten times more, though it would probably have more capabilities.
Like patch panels, switching equipment for nearly any type of signal is available, including analog and digital video and audio, as well as RF (cable TV), MIDI, telephone, networking and electrical. There are various types of switches for audio and video, from simple selector switches to sophisticated production switchers. However, emulating or exceeding the capabilities of audio or video patch panels requires specialized devices like crossbar switches.
Switching equipment may be electronic, mechanical, or electro-mechanical. Some switcher hardware can be controlled via computer or other external devices. Some have automated or pre-programmed operational capabilities. There are also software switcher applications used to route signals and control data within a “pure digital” computer environment.