Survey explores users installed base and future plans

Copper still dominates in the horizontal, but users` plans call for fiber to surpass copper in network backbones before long.

Dec 1st, 1999
Th Cim64364 41

Copper still dominates in the horizontal, but users` plans call for fiber to surpass copper in network backbones before long.

Catherine Varmazis

Patrick McLaughlin

In August, Cabling Installation & Maintenance surveyed end users of structured cabling systems about their current infrastructures and what they plan to install in future upgrades. We`ll look at their responses, but first a word about the methodology used to conduct the survey.

We retained the services of Readex, a market-research firm based in Stillwater, MN. Starting with the end-user portion of CI&M`s circulation list, Readex randomly selected 2000 names from end users across the United States. This list was then reviewed by our editors to eliminate duplication. Our questionnaire was mailed to 1000 of the end users from the screened list, and 476--about 48%--returned usable questionnaires.

To ensure that respondents were the specific type of end users we wished to survey, we used the first question in the questionnaire as a final screen. That question reads: "Do you manage, maintain, repair, troubleshoot, or otherwise have responsibility for a telecommunications and/or data-communications network at a corporation, organization, or agency?" Eighty-two percent responded that they did, and they completed the questionnaire.

According to Readex, because of the survey`s high response rate, we can predict with a 95% confidence level that the responses are representative of the end-user community, with a 4.8% margin of error.

End-user profile

Sixty-eight percent of the respondents are involved in the design, integration, installation, management, and maintenance of their organizations` networks or cabling plant, or in project or engineering management relating to their network.

Sixteen percent identified themselves as being in corporate management, and 7% in facilities management. This is a reflection of the fact that our survey included smaller as well as Fortune 500 companies, and in many mid- to small-size organizations, it is not unusual for individuals to have a broader range of responsibilities than in larger firms with a more rigid hierarchy.

All kinds of organizations are represented in the responses. The largest single segment, at 23%, is the government or military, followed closely by educational organizations at 19%. However, a wide array of commercial enterprises, from healthcare and banking to transportation and real estate companies, accounts for 55% of the responses.

The installed base

Asked whether their local area network (LAN) consists of a single-building premises network or a campus-type network--that is, multiple buildings linked by customer-owned outside plant--75% of respondents told us that their facilities consist of campus networks, while only 24% indicated that they consist of premises networks. The fact that most end users are responsible for outside plant as well as premises LANs reflects the scope and complexity of most corporate networks today, as well as the broad range of responsibilities and the expertise of users who design, install, manage, or maintain such networks.

The size of our respondents` LANs varies tremendously. While 23% of users report that their LAN consists of 200 or fewer cable drops, 20% tell us they are responsible for 5000 or more drops. The median--or typical--network includes 800 cable drops, according to our survey.

Asked about the current composition of their organization`s network backbone, users informed us that copper cable--unshielded twisted-pair (UTP), shielded twisted-pair (STP), or screen twisted-pair (ScTP)--and fiber-optic cable are installed in about equal percentages in their campus or building backbones: 67% copper and 65% optical fiber. (Percentages may exceed 100 because some respondents checked more than one choice.) Coaxial cable is present in just 10% of users` network backbones, and wireless in just 5%. Not surprisingly, of those users who have some kind of twisted-pair in their backbone, 76% have Category 5, with Category 3 coming in at a distant 21% and Enhanced Category 5 (5E) at 8%.

Copper cable makes an even stronger showing in the horizontal, with UTP, STP, or ScTP installed in 92% of users` horizontal infrastructure. Optical fiber, by contrast, appears in only 21% of current horizontal infrastructure, while coaxial comes in at 7% and wireless a mere 2%. Eighty-two percent of users whose horizontal cabling includes copper report it as being Category 5, with Category 5E installed in 14% of horizontal runs.

Plans for future

More than one in four end-user networks were being upgraded or installed at the time the survey took place. An additional 18% of end users plan to upgrade their systems sometime in the next year--9% in the next six months and another 9% sometime in the seven- to 12-month range. Another 20% estimate they will upgrade sometime between one and two years from now.

In all, 64%--nearly two out of three end users--will upgrade sometime in the next two years. The rapidity with which these users are upgrading their cabling plants is an indication of how quickly the structured cabling marketplace is moving. With upgrades happening so frequently, the actual life of an installed structured cabling system is brief. Few of these systems push their warranty time frames near the limit.

More than half of all users will implement a traditional high-speed backbone with crossconnects. Also noteworthy is that 12% definitely plan to implement a fiber-to-the-desk configuration. Additionally, 29%--nearly one user in three--is unsure of the physical layout that will be used in the next installation. That uncertainty opens the door to the possibility that more than 12% of users will run fiber in the horizontal.

Finally, wireless technology does not appear to be making much headway in LANs. Only 2% could firmly say they plan to use a wireless setup. However, 29% are again undecided, and how that 29% ultimately gets divided is certainly of interest.

Numbers showing the media types that users plan to put into their network backbones indicate that fiber-optic cable will remain a popular choice: More than three out of five will put fiber into their backbones.

Only 38% of end users are sure they`ll use copper cable in their next upgrade or new installation. And the 19% who say they are undecided opens up the possibility for fiber to really run away in this category, or it could give copper the chance to nearly match fiber in backbone deployment.

Among those who plan to use copper cabling in their system backbones, Category 5 remains the most popular choice, at 51%. However, Category 5E at 15% and Category 6 at 13% rank nearly equally. It is also interesting that Category 6 and Category 7, when combined, account for 21% of planned copper usage, outpacing Category 5E as a twisted-pair medium of choice for network backbones.

Moving from the backbone to horizontal cabling, respondents indicate that copper is still the most popular choice, with nearly seven in 10 users planning to put it in their horizontal runs. However, a significant 23% will put fiber into the horizontal. Again, the "undecided" category plays a role. Essentially, one in every five end-user organizations is undecided about the media type or types it will put into its horizontal runs during its next cabling project.

Focusing in on those who specifically indicated they will use copper cabling--this time in the horizontal--Category 5 again is the leader, at 48%. However, as was the case with copper cabling in the backbone, Category 6, at 20%, nearly matches Category 5E, at 22%, and Category 6 (20%) and Category 7 (9%), when taken together, outpace Category 5E. Also similar to the backbone numbers, the "undecided" factor, at 2%, is virtually nonexistent. When end users make up their minds to use copper cable, they know the performance they want.

Which protocols will run over these installed cabling systems? By and large, it`s Ethernet. Combining 10-megabit-per-second Ethernet (21%), 100-Mbit/sec Fast Ethernet (34%), and Gigabit Ethernet (23%) accounts for nearly 80% of the end-user population. Again, the number of end users who haven`t made up their minds--12%--is worth noting.

Other findings

In addition to asking end users about their current and planned network infrastructures, we also asked if they considered it important that their installation be performed by certified or registered cabling installers. An overwhelming majority--66%--responded "yes." This clear preference for credentials reflects the maturation of the structured cabling industry as well as the complexity of the technology and the speed with which it keeps changing. End users clearly need the assurance that their infrastructure is being installed by competent professionals, as evidenced by some kind of industry-recognized certification.

Asked to specify which kind of registration or certification they prefer, 48% of end users rated installer certification by system manufacturers the most preferred credential--rating it equally with BICSI registration, twice as high as certification by the Association of Cabling Professionals, and much higher even than state licensing, which is preferred by 21% of respondents.

In a similar vein, we asked users whether their organization prefers to use a single vendor`s end-to-end cabling solution. We were surprised by their response: 50% of them said they do, indeed, prefer end-to-end solutions from a single manufacturer. Admittedly, this figure represents just half of the responses, but seen in the context of "open systems" --the Holy Grail of the industry`s standards-making bodies--that 50% response is astonishing. It likely signifies more than a preference for the ease of one-stop shopping. Given the increasing complexity of standards and systems, as well as their associated testing solutions, half of the end users obviously prefer to play it safe by installing a single-vendor solution.

Our research also incorporated information on product selection and what drives that selection. We asked end users which pieces of test equipment they use in maintaining their cabling plants and networks. Leading the list, at 77%, was the handheld LAN cable tester. The fact that nearly 80% of end users make use of this tool after a plant is installed suggests that there is a significant amount of in-house maintenance, troubleshooting, and moves, adds, and changes taking place.

The relatively recent incorporation of a fiber-optic testing capability into these testers may have boosted their popularity. Recalling earlier data that showed about one in four users plans to put fiber in the horizontal, the ability to test fiber-optic cabling will help ensure these testers remain useful tools for end-user organizations.

Other numbers here also suggest that maintenance and troubleshooting are typically in-house items. For instance, 73% of user organizations put tone generators and probes to use, while more than half--53%--use butt test sets. Two in three use a multimeter.

The network protocol analyzer is also fairly popular, as more than half of end-user organizations put them to use in maintaining their networks.

Crucial criteria

We asked end users to rank the importance of product characteristics, or criteria, in a purchasing decision. The two highest-ranking criteria are performance and reliability, with 90% and 87% of end users ranking them, respectively, very important. Standards compliance ranks next, with 72% of end users saying that characteristic is very important in a product. A standards-compliant product apparently provides reassurance to an end user that the product will perform at a certain level. We know that performance is important based on that 90% figure.

Only one in three users considers the existence of a warranty to be very important. This provides further evidence that the churn rate for cabling systems is well short of the 10-, 15-, or 20-year warranties that some of these systems carry.

The other part of the decision-making process we examined has to do with personnel. We asked end users, who has the most impact in the planning and carrying out of structured cabling system installations? While 71% of users consider the network manager "very important" in the decision-making process, 54% consider the cable-plant manager very important, the executives in an end-user organization are viewed as important by only 25% of those users. Outside cabling consultants received 10% of end users` "very important" vote, and outside cabling contractors got 9%. Product manufacturers and product distributors each received less than 10%.

Based on our data, we can infer the profile of the typical end user. The typical end-user organization upgrades its cabling plant frequently--has a project going on now or is very likely in the planning stages for one. Part of that soon-to-come upgrade will incorporate the adoption of high-speed protocols, like Gigabit Ethernet or 100-Mbit/sec Fast Ethernet. Currently, the user has confidence in Category 5 systems, probably because that is still the highest-performing standardized cabling system. However, the user is looking closely at emerging cabling standards--including those for Category 5E, 6, and 7--and will adopt these systems with more confidence once they are officially ratified. Finally, end users consider themselves more important in planning and making decisions regarding cabling-system installation and upgrade projects than any other individual involved in the process.

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In the campus or building backbone, optical fiber and copper cable are neck-and-neck, with 67% of end users reporting that their backbone includes some kind of copper cable and 65% reporting that it includes optical fiber. In this and subsequent figures, percentages exceed 100 if respondents checked more than one response.

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Copper cable still dominates horizontal-distribution cabling. In our survey, 92% of end users said they have some kind of copper cable installed from the telecommunications closet to the desktop, while 21% said their LANs have optical fiber in the horizontal.

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Optical fiber will surpass copper cable in the backbone within the next few years. For new installations or upgrades, 61% of users plan to install fiber-optic cable, while 38% plan to install some kind of copper cable.

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Among users who plan to install twisted-pair copper cable in their campus or building backbones, Category 5 will still dominate, at 51%. However, Category 5E and 6 combined will account for 28% of twisted-pair installed.

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For their next major upgrade or installation, 69% of end users plan to use copper cable in the horizontal, compared to 23% who plan to use optical fiber.

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Of those users who plan to use twisted-pair cable in the horizontal, 48% plan to use Category 5, while planned Category 5E and 6 usage combined is 42%.

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In a surprising finding, 50% of end users surveyed said they prefer to work with a single manufacturer`s end-to-end structured cabling system.

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