Fiber-to-the-desktop: Fact or fiction?

Tomorrow's applications and increasing demand for network performance are the real compelling reasons for LAN managers to use fiber in the horizontal.

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Tomorrow's applications and increasing demand for network performance are the real compelling reasons for LAN managers to use fiber in the horizontal.

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To date, fiber-to-the-desktop has not met the expectations that many of us in the optical networking industry have been predicting. With continuing advances in copper cabling and the widespread adoption of Gigabit Ethernet over copper in the LAN, and even to the desktop, one might argue there is absolutely no need to ever run fiber in the horizontal. Is this idea fact or folly?

The fact is, copper still rules the LAN hands down, but fiber is gaining steadily due to growing demand for bandwidth and new applications, according to a recent study on structured cabling systems from FTM Consulting. "The LAN fiber nodes will increase from 2.6% to 6.0% between 2002 and 2006," predicts FTM's Frank Murawski. "This small gain is the first phase of a gradual move into fiber-to-the-desk as application needs increase, and finally during the 2007 to 2012 period, fiber cabling systems shipments will bypass UTP."

From a manufacturer's perspective, the biggest obstacles for wider deployment of fiber in the horizontal today are LAN managers' comfort level with copper and the entrenched perception that fiber costs more than copper. Fiction aside, the key to any successful networking project is making sure to factor in the total cost of ownership over the productive life of the plant. When all is said and done, one should have installed a physical layer that can take anything you throw at it, today and in the future. The long-term benefits and the virtually limitless bandwidth of fiber will more than offset the short-term, bottom-line pinch felt in removing the old plant and installing fiber cable, patch panels, wall jacks, switches, network interface cards, and media converters.

For an increasing number of forward-thinking organizations, fiber is the only way to go because of its ability to support the growing demands on network traffic. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Washington D.C. recently completed a total overhaul of its structured cabling system, and now runs fiber to 1,300 users, with 100Base-FX media converters at the workstation. "Our old cabling infrastructure was based on Category 3 specifications," says Mario Barroga, IT operations manager. "As a backbone technology, it was insufficient to support the amount of data traffic that can be generated by the simplest of user requests on today's technology platforms. This effort will upgrade the current cabling plant to a 62.5-µm fiber-optic infrastructure to support future requirements for multimedia, video, voice, and other data-intensive network traffic," Barroga states.

Like NARA, many organizations use media converters instead of all-fiber networks to save cost and extend the productive life of existing copper-based switches and NICs. While the installed cost of multimode fiber is now even with UTP, the cost of the electronics continues to be the largest expense. To keep costs at bay, modular chassis-based converters are installed in the telecommunications room. For converting at the desktop, a plethora of options is available, ranging from simple standalone converters to models that are integrated into wall jacks, and even converters that install right inside the PC. To further aid the migration to fiber-to-the-desk, some manufacturers offer unique 10/100 autosensing converters that can connect 10Base-T to fiber today, and 100Base-TX to fiber tomorrow-using the same converter.

Making fiber-to-the-desk a reality is an evolving process. Today, media converters, the 100Base-SX standard, small-form-factor fiber connectors, and dropping prices of electronics are all helping move this process along. But tomorrow's applications and increasing demand for performance are the compelling reasons to use fiber in the horizontal.

Whether one will "take the plunge" now or later, installing fiber in the horizontal is the only way to guarantee that structured cabling can keep up with the growth in traffic, run 10-gigabit data rates, and even handle the whiz-bang applications of the future. And that's a fact.

Jukka Rissanen is director of marketing for IMC Networks ( in Foothill Ranch, CA. He can be reached via e-mail at

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