When UTP is ready for 10-Gig, who else will be?

By now, you are probably aware that the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE—ieee.org) is taking a serious look at the feasibility of running 10-Gigabit Ethernet traffic over twisted-pair cabling.

May 1st, 2003

By now, you are probably aware that the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE—ieee.org) is taking a serious look at the feasibility of running 10-Gigabit Ethernet traffic over twisted-pair cabling. Our monthly columnist, Donna Ballast, RCDD, first let us know about it in December ("The industry's starting to buzz: 10-Gigabit Ethernet over UTP?," December 2002, page 12). Then last month, senior editor Brian Milligan went into depth from a marketplace standpoint on the prospects for such technology ("Copper weighs in as choice for 10-Gigabit Ethernet," April 2003, page 27).

We have more coverage planned. Chris DiMinico, a veteran industry engineer and longtime participant in both IEEE and Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA—tiaonline.org) standards-setting groups, is researching some of the issues surrounding field-installed cable that surely will spawn a plethora of discussion and debate. He'll report on these issues in an article we're scheduling for our August issue.

A group that is emerging as a vocal source of information on the 10-Gig-over-UTP issue is the Category 6 Consortium. Currently, the IEEE is considering several twisted-pair technologies—not just Category 6—as possible media for 10-Gigabit Ethernet. Members of the Category 6 Consortium, as you might imagine by hearing the group's name, are lobbying for Category 6 cabling to be the choice. The group is an entity of TIA, with the purpose of promoting the adoption of Category 6 cabling.

The first time I saw the Category 6 Consortium in a public forum was at the BICSI Winter Conference held in January. Consortium members delivered a panel presentation and took questions from the audience. It was during that presentation that I first heard the expression "additional testing" used in reference to 10-Gigabit capability. I fully expect that, in the coming months, research will show that additional testing and qualification of Category 6 systems will indeed be necessary if there is to be any assurance of handling 10-Gig.

So, if I make three assumptions...

  1. The IEEE will determine that it is worthwhile to pursue a 10-Gig-over-UTP specification;
  2. Category 6 will be the UTP technology targeted for that level of performance;
  3. Ensuring 10-Gig performance will require performance parameters not already written into the Cat 6 standard;

...and if those three assumptions do in fact come to fruition, then the TIA has been here before.

It doesn't take a long memory to recall that among the IEEE's original objectives for 1-Gigabit Ethernet (1,000Base-T) was that it run over the installed base of UTP cabling—Category 5. They came pretty close to achieving that objective, but the installed base had to undergo some additional testing to prove it was up to the task. That additional testing was specified in the form of the TIA's Telecommunications Systems Bulletin, TSB-95. Following that, the TIA published its full-blown Category 5e specifications to define a "from-scratch" infrastructure capable of handling 1-Gigabit Ethernet transmission.

Move ahead to Category 6. The specifications were almost five years in the making—the TIA first discussed the topic in August 1997 and the standard was finalized in June 2002. Sounds like a long time for a standard to become a reality, and it was. But to understand the full picture, please know that the Category 6 project was a second priority for the TIA's TR-42.7 Committee until March 2001. Among the projects that took precedence over Category 6 were TSB-95 and the Category 5e specifications.

From late 1999 through 2000, the TIA's TR-42 Committee took a beating from many in the industry for the time it took to finalize the Category 5e specifications. Let's hope that if history repeats itself (and I believe it will), and additional testing of installed Category 6 systems is necessary to ensure 10-Gig capability, the lessons learned from the development of TSB-95 and the Category 5e specifications will translate to efficient and timely production of those testing specs. The buyers and users of Category 6 systems deserve nothing less.

Patrick McLaughlin
Chief Editor
patrick@pennwell.com

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