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Issue of December 2003 
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How India Inc. wires up

Network engineers speak passionately about CAT 6, real-time cable management, 10GbE and Ethernet over SDH. But, with the exception of a few organizations that installed new cabling recently, these new cabling technologies are yet to arrive in most Indian enterprises. by Brian Pereira

Enterprises, particularly in the Financial sector, spend several crore rupees on IT infrastructure, annually. This investment goes towards 'big-iron' servers, storage systems, PCs & peripherals, networking components, software, data security, and disaster recovery & planning. Cabling systems tie in all this expensive gear and serves as a carrier for those all-important packets of data, voice and video. So when it comes to cabling, enterprises shouldn't compromise just to save costs. There have been numerous advances in cabling technology, and the latest products are available in the country (see next story). But have Indian enterprises upgraded its cabling infrastructure with the latest and the best? Let's take a look.

Cabling choices

Broadly, the choices boil down to copper or fiber. Copper is the most widely used medium for Horizontal and Vertical network cabling requirements, and accounts for 70 percent of the Rs 200 crore cable solutions sales market. The remaining 30 percent is for fiber.

A Horizontal cabling installation consists of cables that extend from the server room/data center to each node on the LAN. Vertical cabling (also known as Backbone cabling) provides interconnections between wiring closets; wiring closets and the POP; and between buildings that are part of the same LAN.

Fiber is used for connecting distant locations (as in optical metropolitan networks/MANs), or for campus-wide LANs (more on fiber in the enterprise later).

Unshielded Twisted Pair (UTP) cable is the medium of choice for most horizontal installations, and the current flavors are CAT 5, CAT 5e (enhanced CAT 5), and CAT 6.

CAT 6, 5e or 5?

The CAT 6 standard was ratified in June 2002. Enterprises usually favor CAT 6 for new cabling installations. Since CAT 6 supports Gigabit Ethernet (1,000 Mbps) and frequencies up to 250 MHz, it provides more headroom for future bandwidth requirements.

The CAT 6 standard also offers a couple of technical enhancements over its predecessors. Take Balance for instance. Balance refers to the ability of the cabling system to cancel out ambient (common mode) noise picked up from the environment.

But despite all the enhancements in the new standard, not everyone is rushing out to deploy CAT 6 yet; its adoption in Indian enterprises has been steadily growing, so far.

An industry spokesperson says large enterprises with upwards of 1000 nodes are more likely to deploy CAT 6. Smaller businesses are satisfied with their existing CAT5/5e cabling systems, and are not too concerned about issues like bandwidth intensive applications and 'futureproofing.'

The primary reason for this is that the cost differential between CAT 6 and CAT 5/5e is 25 - 30 percent. Also, many organizations feel that CAT 5/5e suffices for current applications and does not warrant a move to CAT 6 yet.

"We do not feel the need to move to CAT 6 right now," said Arun Gupta, Senior Director, Business Technology, Pfizer Limited. "Almost 99 percent of users need bandwidth for messaging and the current setup is adequate for that. Applications like browsing and multimedia need a lot of bandwidth. Otherwise, traditional applications like ERP and CRM are not bandwidth intensive."

Pfizer has a switched Ethernet network with 300 users. It deployed CAT 5 (100 Mbps) for horizontal cabling and opted for 1000BaseT for vertical cabling. Fiber is used at the factory level.

A senior network engineer from a large publishing house had something similar to say. "The applications in our organization that require the most bandwidth are image file transfer and browsing. But we somehow manage with the existing CAT 5 cabling," he said.

Satish Pendse, Head-Information Technology, Kuoni Travel (India), whose organization uses CAT 5 cabling said, "CAT 6 is not yet being widely deployed in India. CAT 5 is still used even for new installations."

Evidently, those who have already deployed CAT 5 or CAT 5e are in no hurry to 'rip and replace.' They will upgrade to CAT 6 only, to put it in their words, "if it addresses the business requirement."

CAT 5e is also capable of gigabit Ethernet. "Not surprisingly, a good 80 percent of networks across the country are using CAT 5e for horizontal distribution," says C T Tan, SE Asia Manager, The Siemon Company.

CAT 6 compliant products (like jacks, patch cords, and test equipment) entered the market at least two years before this standard was ratified, yet CAT 6 technology is still a little futuristic for many.

Anand C Mehta, Marketing Manager (India & SAARC) D-Link India feels CAT 6 would be a prevalent standard only in the year 2005, and until then CAT 5e would be the popular choice for structured cabling systems.

K K Shetty, Country Manager-Networking, Tyco Electronics Corporation India is optimistic about CAT 6. "It is the media of choice in the horizontal. More than 70 percent shipments in the high-end markets are on CAT 6 UTP," he said.

Now let's evaluate the other cabling option—Fiber.

Fiber in the enterprise

We are aware of the promise that fiber as a transmission medium offers. Besides the warp-speed boost in transfer rates, this medium is immune to electromagnetic interference, making for error-free transmission. But everyone acknowledges that fiber for horizontal cabling is economically unviable. Currently, fiber is used in campus networks, for bridging LANs between buildings, or within the same building.

D S Nagendra, Country Sales Manager, Krone said, "The use of fiber has increased tremendously over the last two years. This is attributed to the increase in the campus connectivity. Educational institutes, defence, manufacturing and goverment verticals have contributed to this trend."

According to M C Muthanna, National Sales Manager Molex India, enterprises have so far been using both multimode and single-mode cable, depending on the network requirements.

"Many campus networks have deployed a hybrid cable consisting of a combination of multimode and single-mode cable. The intention is to use multimode for current network needs. Later, when network bandwidth requirement increases and the cost of the single-mode electronics drops, the single-mode cable can be put to use immediately without any re-cabling. This is a way of scaling the overall network investment by investing in cabling upfront, and scaling the cost of the network electronics," says Muthanna.

Fiber can also be used in the backbone, especially to overcome the distance limitation of copper. However, fiber on the backbone (in WANs) is an expensive proposition for most enterprises. Rather than deploy fiber backbones, enterprises today opt for VPNs, leased lines, ISDN, and VSAT interconnects from independent service providers. In anticipation of better QoS (quality of service) at lower cost, enterprises are likely to lease fiber infrastructure from providers (who have set up nationwide fiber backbones) in future.

GIGABIT ETHERNET

Bandwidth intensive applications such as VoIP, desktop video conferencing, CAD/CAM and the like are prompting organizations to upgrade cabling and network infrastructure for gigabit transmission speeds. Since IP/Ethernet networks are widespread here, the natural choice is 1000BaseT or Gigabit Ethernet.

1000BaseT uses all four pairs of the cable and each pair transmits and receives at the same time.

Though CAT 5e facilitates Gigabit Ethernet a better choice is CAT 6 as it offers more headroom for future bandwidth increment. Besides the cabling aspect, organizations preparing for gigabit networking also need to look at other networking components like NICs (network interface cards), hubs and switches.

"Gigabit Ethernet is at a matured stage in India and is implemented at establishments of all sizes. For businesses dealing with large software exports, BPO, and IT-enabled services, the need for good networked office infrastructure is essential. Gigabit is proven technology on many hardware and software platforms," said Satish Pendse of Kuoni Travel (India).

The Gigabit Ethernet standard has now evolved to 10 Gigabit Ethernet (10GbE). In fact, this standard was ratified as IEEE 802.3ae on optical fiber, in June 2002. The Ethernet Task Force is still working on defining a standard for copper, and this is likely to be ratified only in 2006.

Since the technology is relatively new it will first be deployed in the backbone. Moreover, fiber rather than copper, is likely to be the cabling medium of choice for 10GbE.

"10GbE may first be deployed in campus backbones. Unless 1GbE is first deployed in large scale at the desktop, 10GbE may not see application in the building riser backbones," said K K Shetty of Tyco Electronics Corporation India.

Shetty said the best way to prepare for 10GbE is to deploy single-mode or hybrid (some single-mode and some multimode) fibers in the campus backbones.

'Wireless' Threat?

At the rate at which wireless networks within the enterprise are proliferating (at a global level) one can't help but wonder if wireless networking poses a threat to cabling.

Cabling solutions vendors dismiss the thought saying there are many technical and performance differences between wired and wireless networking systems (see Table: Key differences between wired and wireless networking systems). Also, each offers unique benefits and characteristics. The general consensus is that wireless would complement wired for many more years.

"The difference in network speed supported by cable and wireless networks is huge. So it would be quite difficult to manage (completely) wireless networks," said

C T Tan of The Siemon Company. "The security on the network and bandwidth/speed supported by these wireless networks would be a bottleneck for a large network implementation."

K K Shetty of Tyco Electronics Corporation India said, "Wi-Fi is certainly not a threat to structured cabling. Wi-Fi will drive network access for users outside the office and in selected areas like conference rooms, canteens etc. Within the office, cabling will still be the media of choice for servers, as well as high-end workstations. For reasons like bandwidth, cost, security, flexibility of access etc, both the media will co-exist and evolve as well."

Cabling decisions

Regardless of all the developments taking place in the world of networking, cabling systems are going to be around for a while. An organization going in for cabling solutions has a couple of choices (discussed in the next story).

When choosing a solution keep in mind the following:

  • Scalability: What applications will you use on the network, immediately and in future? What are the bandwidth requirements for these? Can the cabling system scale up to address future requirements?
  • Planning: The range and layout of your network should be chalked out in advance so that you can plan optimal cable layouts.
  • Flexibility: How flexible is the cabling system to adds, moves or changes? Later, you may want to relocate network nodes.
  • Cost: Don't skimp on cabling costs just because you have spent heavily on other aspects of the infrastructure (like storage, servers or switches).

Brian Pereira can be reached at brianp@networkmagazineindia.com

 
     
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