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Issue of December 2003 
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Network Cabling: New possibilities

Along with enterprise hardware and software, companies should also upgrade its existing cabling infrastructure. A look at the current and future cabling possibilities for networks in an enterprise. by Soutiman Das Gupta

New enterprise applications come into the market and are purchased by companies after careful evaluation. These applications are patched, monitored, managed, periodically updated, upgraded, and finally discarded for a newer application that promises better features and easier use.

Network gear like switches, servers, and routers are upgraded once every few years. And hardware components like RAM, hard disks, and motherboards are upgraded/replaced quite often.

But there's a component in your network, which is very vital, yet not even considered for upgrades and updates that often. At best, it's given a passing thought when it comes to holistic network upgradation.

We're talking about the component called Network Cables, more commonly referred to as Structured Cabling.

Let's ask ourselves, do we actually consider modifying our cable needs as often as we think about software and network gear? The answer is 'no'.

Not really ignorance, upgrade them

But at this juncture it's important to understand that the negative response does not necessarily indicate ignorance on the CTO's part. It truly means that we trust our cabling infrastructure so much, and expect it to perform so faithfully, that we give it a miss when it comes to planning network upgrades.

But is it fair to expect these passive components that work faithfully, hidden behind walls, and the backs of server cabinets to keep performing for years on end without a peep or complaint? Especially since LAN speeds are increasing, the number of network devices in an organization has increased, and the number of nodes and user workstations has increased.

The answer is 'no' again. If the LAN speeds have increased from 10 Mbps to 100 Mbps or perhaps to 1 Gbps, new database and application servers have been installed, and new personnel have joined—so the network cabling must also be upgraded.

Is that a trend?

Thankfully, the network cabling industry is not prone to trends and whims as in the enterprise applications arena. Meaning, companies don't purchase cabling infrastructure simply because competition has done it, or the CTO's peers have recommended it. Decisions are usually very informed and prudent.

Industry buzz about CAT 6 cabling began a few years ago, but Indian enterprises have been rather careful to invest into the technology (see the next story for a report). Issues like ratification, cost of procurement, lack of applications that need high transfer speeds have acted as deterrents.

Most Indian enterprises have a cabling infrastructure that supports current needs. But what happens when the need outgrows the infrastructure tomorrow? Upgrading or changing a cabling system is costly, time-consuming, and disruptive. An exercise all companies want to avoid as much as possible.

Driving cabling needs

A number of developments in the Indian enterprise may change the way companies feel about their cabling infrastructure. Some of these are:

Converged networks: Even until five years ago, enterprises built their networks to only handle corporate data communications. The networks were built to efficiently handle data traffic like ERP, internal messaging, and database access. But new and exciting technologies have gained widespread approval and use since then. The Ethernet networks (and related protocols & standards like TCP/IP) have evolved over the years and can now carry voice and video along with the usual data packets.

The idea that the existing network infrastructure can carry compressed voice (VoIP) and video signals (video conferencing) is very exciting. But can the existing 10BaseT cabling infrastructure built to handle 10 Mbps traffic handle the load? It surely needs to be upgraded to a more robust state.

Gigabit Ethernet: The days of 10 Mbps LANs are a thing of the past. Although 100 Mbps is enough for the current needs of many Indian offices, one can't argue that it's a ripe time to phase it out for a more efficient and speedy infrastructure. After all, LANs can now function at Gigabit Ethernet (GbE) speeds, theoretically 10 times faster than Fast Ethernet LANs.

But even CAT 5e cabling, built to handle 100 Mbps Ethernet transfer can buckle under the weight of a GbE transfer. This is because 1 Gbps transmission utilizes the entire bandwidth of the cable, leaving no room for overhead transmission, vital for error correction and checking.

New enterprise applications: From the single application server and a lone print server in the corner of the building somewhere, enterprise LANs have come a long way with applications infrastructure.

LANs now have to support ERP servers, databases, other enterprise applications like network management and CRM; a number of printers, large files shared with peers, bandwidth-intensive media programs, remote users logging in and pulling out information, and anti-virus and security software sniffing and doing rounds of the network. These functions require a lot of bandwidth and thus a very strong backbone infrastructure.

Organizational growth: Companies grow along with increase in business. New locations are added and new personnel are inducted. And along with these developments comes the need to introduce new workstations and supported infrastructure. The existing cabling backbone needs to be upgraded to support the new demands of the network.

At the horizon

Let's now take a look at developments in the cabling industry and what to expect in the next few quarters.

Category 6 cables will gain popularity and be used extensively in the area of horizontal cabling. Optical Fiber Cable (OFC) will gain acceptance in backbone networks and campus area networks. And this combination of the two types of cabling styles will work in a complementarily fashion.

Companies will demand modular backbone and horizontal cabling infrastructure. This makes it easier to upgrade and maintain.

The growth of GbE in the backbone will be a large reason why companies will move to a better cabling infrastructure. GbE to the desktop will slowly proliferate and will drive the need for better structured cabling.

Telecom service providers will push value-added services to the customer to stay in competition. And 10 GbE over copper in a MAN, a not-so-distant reality can be transmitted over twisted pair copper media (10GbaseT). These will aid the demand for structured cabling.

Wireless penetration

Wired and WLAN technologies actually compliment each other rather than compete. Since wired infrastructures are able to support higher speeds than wireless, Wi-Fi has yet to catch on in the Indian industry. The popular Wi-Fi technology is 802.11b, which offers 11 Mbps bandwidth. A common practice in offices is to offer network access to executives who have laptops. Some companies have provided hand-held computers to their sales forces. But Wi-Fi technology has rarely been used as a serious access method among corporate.

Number of WLAN standards like 802.11a, 802.11g, 802.11i, and 802.11e are waiting in the wings. These technologies offer new features (such as enhanced security) and higher bandwidth transmission. But it remains to be seen whether companies will be willing to invest large sums of money for the sake of slightly incremental performance.

However, the use of VSAT as a WAN technology is very common, especially in remote areas of the nation which do not have telephone exchanges.

Fiber

The use of OFC in an enterprise has also yet to catch on among Indian enterprises. Although many telecom service providers and ISPs have laid a fiber last mile, OFC is still not very prevalent among companies in other verticals.

Cost seems to be the inhibiting factor here.

However OFC in the backbone is slowly being deployed in organizations with large campuses and even in educational institute campuses. The OFC is used as backbone cabling, to connect different floors and buildings of a campus. And the horizontal cabling is on UTP. The fiber and UTP cabling co-exists and converges at the switch with a fiber port.

Get ready for 10 GbE

According to 'Technology Forecast' by the PriceWaterhouse-Coopers Technology Centre, the amount of traffic carried over the Internet is doubling every 100 days. This means that within the next two years, the total volume of data carried over the world's telecommunications infrastructure will exceed that of voice.

10 GbE, the replacement technology for GbE, may find a home in the enterprise data center, for functions like mirroring and replicating data, server clusters, and as a low-latency, high-speed backplane for blade servers where it may present an alternative to InfiniBand. SANs may also start using 10 GbE as an alternative to Fiber Channel with the help of the iSCSI protocol.

10 GbE can travel very long distances, upto 24 miles over single-mode OFC, and thus is a very good choice for MANs and LAN connectivity to remote locations. However multi-mode fiber is the most future-proof choice. It will require Category 7 cables for transmission.

Soutiman Das Gupta can be reached at soutimand@networkmagazineindia.com

Cable management
A carefully installed network cabling infrastructure according to specifications, does not spell the end of a cabling project. It actually marks a continuous process of maintaining and managing the system. Sign your cabling partner on with an AMC at the end of the project.

It's also a good idea to use a tried and tested Cable Management Software (CMS) to make your job easier. This can reduce cost of network outage and help in disaster recovery. A good CMS can quickly identify the lost resources, replace or re-route the connections to other facilities.

 
     
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