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Issue of July 2006 

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Connectivity: today and tomorrow

Over the years, we have seen a shift from networking to internetworking and now to converged networks. So where is technology headed? Anand C Mehta, GM, International Business, D-Link India, gives his take on the technology of today and tomorrow.

From the late 1980s onwards, we have constantly seen technology that is current becoming extinct. Today, ArcNet, Token Ring, 1 Mbps Ethernet, Ethernet bridges, fibre FDDI concentrators, hubs and Cat 3 are extinct, while ATM-155 Mbps, Cat 5, 10 Mbps Ethernet, Fibre ST Connectors and serial port printers are worse than extinct.

The shared vs. switched devices concept is taught more to demonstrate the history and evolution of networking than as alternative network option. So what is new on the connectivity front?

Today’s connections

On the active component front, the present shift is towards 10/100/1,000 Mbps Ethernet for desktops and the wiring closet. A combination of gigabit and 10G is the default choice for backbone and server links.

On the passive SCS component side, the shift is towards the popular cat 5e, future-proof cat 6, and fibre via SC/MTRJ/LC connectors. Single and multimode fibre are both used today for various applications.

Most backbone networks and server links today work at gigabit speed, and some are already moving towards 10G speeds. We today have 10G on copper as well as OM3 fibre.

The techno-savvy corporate is going in for 802.11g-based Wi-Fi, Gigabit Ethernet, 10G backbone, 1G copper to the desktop, Cat 6, intelligent SCS, and fibre. India finally has broadband—in excess of a million deployments in the first true year of domestic broadband.

Wi-Fi had moved from 802.11b to 802.11g with 802.11n/i announced. WiMax is also available today. Wi-Mobile, which would be Wi-Max with mobility, is still a year off. While WLAN and gigabit L3 are in vogue on the desktop front, 10G backbones take up the other end of the network. Today’s laptops, PCs and main boards ship with 10/100/1000 LAN as default.

Structured cabling

Today, structured cabling is a definitely a necessity, unlike earlier. One just can’t get the benefits of today’s technology without SCS; besides, it brings out burning issues on the management and security front.

We today still find that horizontal cabling mainly deploys copper cat 5e and cat 6 since the desktops in an office can generally be located within a range of 90 metres from the server room, thus negating the requirement for fibre. Fibre deployment in horizontal cabling makes sense only for network links running at 10G speeds or long haul.

At today’s cost levels, Giga switches are economical for desktops provided the networks are unmanaged, but things get costly with managed networks where 10/100 is the de facto standard for the desktop, and gigabit/10G is used mainly for connectivity between servers or as uplink between switch groups.

We have seen structured cabling come a long way from cat 3 of the early 1990s to cat 5 by 2000. Cat 5e, today’s most prevalent standard followed, and cat 6 thereafter in 2003. In 2007 Cat 6 should take over as the largest SCS standard.

Cat 5e as we know it today has evolved to support gigabit speeds, extending the life of cat 5e though cat 6 was available. 10G copper distances are sufficient for the wiring closet.

For 10G to the desktop, fibre seems to be the best bet by 2010. In reality the Passive SCS has always been a step ahead of the active networking products.

Fibre-rich networks

Fibre is mainly used in the gigabit backbones of today’s networks. The new gigabit/10G over copper throws up the option of using purely copper on the backbone core/wiring closet, and leaving fibre for the medium and long haul beyond 100 metres. Gigabit cat 5e or cat 6 are today wired by default, and enabled for very dense networks on the same floor level.

Fibre is used if multiple floors have to be connected indoors, or if two or more campus buildings have to be connected. For data networks multimode fibre of both 62.5 micron and 50 micron are used.

Fibre is used on both backbone and horizontal cabling segments. There are some specific fibres like the OM3 which give greater distance coverage at 10G speeds. Copper is a very expensive short-distance option for this speed. 10G networks are being driven by demanding applications like voice, video and data on the same converged network, enabling video on demand, online events, etc.

Switching and net connectivity

Managed switches are a default for large enterprises, while for environments like those in India unmanaged is the norm. Unmanaged switches earlier saw mass deployments across BFSI, but even these are being upgraded. A minimum port count of 24 ports is seen as standard for the SMB. As I write this, chassis with 100-200 ports or stand-alone 48 ports are being deployed across the BPO industry.

Gigabit switches are really popular now, and the craze today is not for Layer 3 Switches (even as Layer 4 to 7 Switches are being talked about) but for components with high backbone bandwidth. The backbone fabric, non-blocking architecture, and packet handing efficiency are more relevant to a network functioning better than all the other functions put together. The backbone battle right now is between gigabit and 10G.

Wi-Fi is no longer a new technology; several iterations later, issues of speed, range, bandwidth and (most importantly) security are being sorted out.

On the Internet connectivity side, the Internet leased line, routers and RAS price drops have made VPN a value-for-money option. For fixed data connectivity 256 Kbps is the least acceptable bandwidth—a far cry from the scene a few years back.

With the hype surrounding BPO and call centres, IPLCs are connecting India with the world. Internet bandwidth is today talked about in terms of 1 Mbps or more almost by default. In fact, there is already a situation of overcapacity in terms of bandwidth availability.

The mobile user can choose between CDMA and 3G GSM Edge and GPRS-enabled access for his laptop, phone Internet or e-mail experience. Dial-up access has given way to ADSL2+ Broadband. SOHOs/SMBs can stay in touch using ADSL as their only Internet link, do away with the local loop solution, and load balance a couple of ADSL2+ links for reliability. With outdoor Wi-Fi one does away with campus fibre since the various building blocks are linked using wireless outdoors.

To unwire or not

So is the network choice to be WLAN or SCS? Well, it is a combination of both. While the evolving WLAN standards give one flexibility and speeds up to 54 Mbps (IEEE 802.11g) or 108 Mbps (IEEE 802.11n), stable standard SCS networks last for many years, comfortably offering 10 times higher speeds.

The distance/range of a WLAN network varies, and depends on the environment such as the number and type of walls; SCS networks have a fixed cable-type dependent range. WLAN networks are very fast to deploy but not as secure as SCS. There is just no comparison in security terms between a wire that goes to a specific user and signals broadcasts across as free-to-air between two Wi-Fi nodes.

Both have their advantages and can be deployed accordingly. For example, if one wishes to deploy soon and feels that the network would soon change or if the premises are rented or if one simply wishes to hide the cables, in, say, the CEO’s cabin, then one may go in for WLAN, while one may choose SCS for better performing, long-term, stable and secure networks.

Is Gigabit at the desktop needed today? The answer is yes. Considering the trend in HDD pricing, a PC could in 2007 possibly have a terabyte HDD for less than Rs 5,000. Then a node with Gigabit access at the desktop and 10G at the backhaul could use the resources of another computer almost as if it were a local resource; the faster the network links, the closer one would come to real-time resource access.

On a different note, today we avoid copying all the contents of a DVD onto an HDD. This will change with the advent of better memory storage devices and faster network access. Gigabit network component prices have dropped significantly, so now is a good time to deploy this technology.

In the near future

Broadband technology has moved on from cable to DSL and ETTH (Ethernet to the home). ETTH, FTTH (Fibre to the home) and EoVDSL (Ethernet over very high bit rate Digital Subscriber Line) are being deployed across metropolitan area networks.

VoIP calls have exceeded traditional calls worldwide, and we are seeing VoIP-based IPPBX, FXO & FXS gateways and IP phones replace the traditional EPABX, trunk and station cards as well as digital phones. SIP Video Phones with H.264 and MPEG 4 support will drive many applications in 2007/8.

What do you adopt?

For the real user, the near future will see faster access across LAN & WAN with lesser investment. To the EDP/MIS manager it will mean many sleepless nights over which technology he should adopt at a given point of time to avoid immediate obsolescence.

My suggestion? Forget the brands, forget cheaper products, and go in for 10/100/1,000 Mbps active products at the desktop, gigabit copper wiring closet, and 10G fibre backbones with passive cat 6 SCS and fibre backbones. On the Wi-Fi front go in for IEEE 802.11g today and buy laptops with built-in Wi-Fi.

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