A firsthand account of Creighton University's deployment of blown optical fiber.
Led by its president, the Rev. John P. Schlegel, S.J., Creighton University (Omaha, NE) is committed to providing a cutting-edge learning and living environment. For more than a decade, it has consistently ranked at or near the top of the list of Midwestern universities, according to U.S. News & World Report magazine. In a recent convocation address, the Rev. Schlegel stated that Creighton's goal is to seamlessly integrate technology into the learning environment to benefit the 6,500 students enrolled in nine schools and colleges, including medicine, dentistry, and law.
In support of this goal, Creighton is among the first academic institutions in the nation to implement the Blolite blown optical-fiber system (www.blolite.net). It is also one of the first in the nation to install blown fiber into residence halls, and the first to use the system's maximum density of 12 optical fibers per tube.
"This highly advanced infrastructure economically accommodates ever-changing network demands to continually deliver the latest information technology to students, faculty, and staff," says Rick Brokofsky, Creighton's director of telecommunications. Creighton plans to install more than 90 miles of fiber.
The concept behind this blown fiber system involves installing a network of empty tubes called Microduct. Optical fiber is then blown into the tubes, as required by immediate or future network demands. Driven by the need to remain technologically competitive while challenged with IT funding, schools and universities can benefit from a blown fiber network's design flexibility and "pay-as-you-grow" features. That is why Creighton's Brokofsky finds it the optimum solution.
In the Blolite system, available from General Cable/ NextGen Fiber Optics (Highland Heights, KY; www.generalcable.com), Microduct tubes are available in 5- and 8-mm sizes and rated as plenum, riser, or outside plant (OSP). Sections of Microduct are joined together with push-fit connectors and installed throughout the campus to extend pathways to each network destination.
Once the tubes are in place, a two-person crew (one at each end) uses specialized equipment that delivers compressed air to propel as many as 12 optical fibers through each tube. The fiber is available in 50 - and 62.5-µm multimode, as well as singlemode. Only the amount of fiber that the network requires at the initial installation is blown into the tubes, while spare tubes remain empty to accommodate future growth.
Although fiscal limitations can often impede initial spending, a blown fiber network infrastructure should be considered a long-term investment and designed to support network requirements for many decades. Because the information-carrying capacity of optical-fiber cabling is robust, a blown fiber system will support Creighton for decades.
"For maximum cost-effectiveness as we remodel or build new campus buildings, we have to strive to make them technologically sound for a minimum of 30 years," Brokofsky notes.
For Creighton, the infrastructure's built-in adaptability and capacity provides complete design control, now and in the future. Because the rate of technological change is increasing, and network capacity is essential to enhanced learning, teaching, and campus communication, a flexible network design that allows for simple, cost-effective growth is key to Creighton's future. "We recognize that having this means to implement future fiber cable will allow Creighton to adapt to changing information technology and remain an elite academic facility that continues to attract students," says Brokofsky.
Creighton is upgrading its network infrastructure to a true star configuration, with the center of the star located in the lower level of the Reinert Alumni Memorial Library in the heart of the main campus. "Like many universities, we had a mixture of cabling with daisy chaining between buildings rather than everything tying back to a star configuration," explains Brokofsky. "We initially installed 12 strands of conventional fiber to various locations, but we've used up a lot of that fiber capacity over the past 10 years to connect additional buildings and support increased bandwidth requirements."
When campus expansion called for the construction of the new Hixson Lied Science Building, Brokofsky specified the Blolite system. To connect the new building to the campus network, 44 strands of 50-µm multimode and four strands of singlemode fiber were blown from the star center to the Hixson Lied main cross-connect.
"We also installed spare tubes throughout, including one to every lab, office, and classroom," Brokofsky continues. Creighton's recently renovated Rigge Science Center and Criss Medical School are also connected to the network via several spare and populated tubes and nearly 70,000 feet of blown fiber.
The concept of the Blolite blown fiber system involves sending as many as 12 fibers into a preinstalled network of tubes.
Following completion of the science complex, Creighton adopted a new network standard of including at least one tube to every room. "Different variations will be implemented according to use in each area, but at least one outlet in every classroom, office, and laboratory will have a spare tube for future fiber connectivity," says Brokofsky. "Our minimum standard to the 'pillow' for new or renovated residence life areas consists of three Category 6 cables, one coaxial connection for cable TV, and one Microduct tube."
Three new multi-bedroom residence halls for junior and senior students are connected to the network with blown fiber, and include one empty tube to every "pillow" as part of the new standard. "We're implementing an infrastructure that allows technology at Creighton to continually evolve and grow," says Brokofsky. Another 58,400 feet of singlemode fiber will connect more new residence halls currently under construction.
Information technology improves and strengthens all aspects of the academic environment, and as computing applications become central to student life, enhanced teaching, better research, and improved administration operations, all universities will continually require improved technology, network uptime, and increased bandwidth. The process of planning a campus network, therefore, requires participation of all stakeholders and a funding strategy that covers continual network growth.
The blown-fiber system is a financially strategic approach that provides the university with built-in network capacity. Brokofsky says he used future cost savings to justify Creighton's investment in the Blolite system.
Future network requirements are difficult to determine, and Brokofsky says that choosing a blown fiber system has put an end to the uncertainty of how many and what type of fiber to install. By allowing the university to install only the fiber needed today and add fiber to spare tubes in the future, blown fiber avoids the cost, time, and guesswork associated with installing dark fiber. Additionally, having the tube-pathway infrastructure in place will mean minimal disruption to the campus' physical environment during moves, adds, and changes.
While blowing at most eight fibers per tube was common practice at the time of initial installation, Brokofsky blew 12 fibers into populated tubes to maximize cost-effectiveness. Creighton is the first academic facility in the United States to blow 12 fibers into the Blolite Microduct tubes. Brokofsky says that using the system to its maximum density will allow IT flexibility in managing such infrastructure needs as computer, television, and telephone systems.
A concept to grow on
In the days ahead, Creighton University plans to deploy blown fiber for its entire data network. Spare tubes will provide a means of expanding the campus network, ensuring student access to information and resources, and positioning the university for continued success. "Over the next three to five years, we will blow fiber to a majority of our buildings and add spare tubes throughout the campus in preparation for whatever the future may bring," says Brokofsky. An upcoming eastward expansion of the campus will include 28 Microduct tubes and more than 250,000 feet of singlemode fiber for several buildings and a new soccer arena.
In addition, programs like medicine and dentistry involve research-based application access to remote devices at high speed, the movement of large-scale files, and videoconferencing. "We're performing significant amounts of imaging here, like sending X-rays and EKGs over the network, and the growth in these types of applications is enormous," says Brokofsky. "We're ready to increase bandwidth and go to 10 Gig whenever these applications call for it." In addition to data, Creighton's fiber network serves cable TV, remote telephone switches, environmental controls, CCTV, door access systems, and a student debit card system.
While bringing fiber-to-the-desk will not transpire at Creighton for awhile, Brokofsky knows that technology is changing quickly and that sufficient bandwidth is key to the evolution and improvement of every university initiative.
"Our sciences and medical schools may see fiber to the desk sooner than we think, and with the tubes in place, we're ready for it," he says. "We know copper's usefulness hasn't come to an end by any means; however, with an infrastructure that easily supports future fiber, we have positioned ourselves for when that time comes."
Brian A. Young is vice president for information technology at Creighton University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org