Working museum gets a hybrid LAN

Located in the center of the peaceful town of Sturbridge, MA, rests Old Sturbridge Village (osv), an outdoor museum that presents the story of everyday life in a rural New England town during the 1830s. For more than 400,000 visitors a year, osv`s historically costumed staff members demonstrate the life and work of early 19th-century Americans.

Jun 1st, 1999
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Composite fiber cable spans indoors and outdoors, and two centuries as well.

Dan Valcour / SpecTran Communication Fiber Technologies Inc.

Located in the center of the peaceful town of Sturbridge, MA, rests Old Sturbridge Village (osv), an outdoor museum that presents the story of everyday life in a rural New England town during the 1830s. For more than 400,000 visitors a year, osv`s historically costumed staff members demonstrate the life and work of early 19th-century Americans.

Despite the bucolic surroundings, the museum`s management faces the same difficult decisions as any other contemporary business. Two years ago, the museum`s information systems department recognized a need to upgrade the site`s data-communications networks to improve their ability to transmit and exchange data. The primary challenges were to use existing equipment whenever possible to build the network cost-effectively and to do the job without disturbing the integrity of the historic environment.

At the start of the project, three small local area networks (lans) existed at osv--in the administration office and at two other locations around the museum`s campus. Some of the departments, such as personnel and research, had implemented their own networks for improved intra-office communications, but the lans could not share information. osv wanted a network that would link all departments and offer plenty of bandwidth for future applications.

The new integrated lan would serve several purposes. First, it would bring all departments online, allowing offices and personnel--even those located on opposite sides of the campus--to communicate more easily. Thus, the museum gift shop could easily transfer sales information to the finance department. Second, the single network would provide access to important databases containing information about ticket sales, special events, and even the museum`s historical collections. osv foresaw a time when the network would permit online registration for visitors and direct access to historical collection data for researchers around the world.

Network design

osv`s administration realized that the existing lans gave it a head start on reaching its goal. The museum`s greatest challenge, according to Paul Wykes, the organization`s vice president for finance and information services, was designing the new network and selecting the transmission medium. "We knew where we wanted to go," says Wykes. "We needed to decide the best way to get there."

Wykes worked with Joe Rourke, president of Alternative Telecommunications Inc. (Monson, MA), to help the museum "get there." In his first meeting at the museum, Rourke was pleased to find that osv had given a great deal of forethought to its infrastructure, which would go a long way to helping solve the challenges. "Basically, osv had three separate lans using Novell 3.12 file servers, with Windows 95 running on the clients," he explains. "But the servers couldn`t talk to each other. Sixteen sites needed to be linked together."

Rourke learned that some of the buildings were wired with Category 5 copper cable running to Hewlett-Packard 10-megabit-per-second hubs. But when he looked at the site blueprint, he quickly realized that optical fiber, not copper, was the transmission medium of choice for the new lan, especially because the museum hoped to upgrade its network to 100-Mbit/sec speeds in the future.

"We were looking at some pretty long runs, up to about 1 kilometer [3200 feet]," says Rourke. "When you`re running 100 Mbits/sec over copper, you only get about 100 meters [318 feet] from hub to hub. But with fiber, you can go up to 2 km [6561.6 feet]."

Another point in fiber`s favor was the fact that osv also needed to upgrade its telephone network, Wykes notes. "Out here, lightning storms can be pretty severe," he says. "We`ve taken some big lightning hits over the years and fried some 100-pair copper cable. Fiber doesn`t conduct electricity like copper does, so it`s much less susceptible to lightning strikes. A fiber-based lan would also allow us to protect and futureproof osv`s phone lines at the same time we laid the data-communications lines."

Finally, adds Wykes, installing fiber cable instead of copper would provide osv with plenty of bandwidth for future applications. "In the not-too-distant future, we can foresee videoconferencing for research purposes and offering multimedia information services for our visitors," says Wykes. "We wanted the new lan to have that capability. Our attitude was, let`s do it once and do it right."

Hybrid cable from the hub

To meet all these important objectives, the museum`s administrators opted to design and install a fiber-optic network that would link 16 different buildings over approximately 175 acres. The team selected a hybrid cable from General Photonics (Dayville, CT). The loose-tube, gel-filled cable contains both multimode and singlemode fiber--manufactured by SpecTran Communication Fiber Technologies Inc. (Sturbridge)--within a single jacket. The multimode fiber is for data communications for the new lan, and the singlemode fiber for future data applications and telecommunications use.

The composite cable is designed to perform from -40oF to +176oF. This temperature range was sufficient even for cold New England winters, especially since the cable would be buried in conduits for most of its length. It also features a gel-filled core that keeps out water, an important consideration in the open-air, four-season environment.

Here again, foresight paid dividends for the installation team, led by Rourke. "About 20 years ago, the museum put in an infrastructure that had twice as much conduit as it needed at the time," Rourke points out. "It`s 4-inch conduit, so there`s plenty of room for the fiber cable."

The installation uses a star topology, with the fiber cable radiating out from the central switch located in the basement of the museum`s personnel office. As with most of the museum`s structures, this is no ordinary office building, but a centuries-old farmhouse that was chosen as the hub primarily because it is close to the center of the site. Within its basement, next to authentic brick chimneys, sits a modern communications closet with a rack holding the full panoply of hardware, including a 16-port 350T 10/100 switch from Baystack, Cabletron tpfot-2 transceivers, and an uninterruptible power supply from American Power Conversion. Rourke used a General Photonics fan-out kit to take the raw fiber into a fiber-optic patch panel, where it is connected to a transceiver and then through to the switch.

The new equipment could be connected directly to the Ethernet switch. When the museum decides to upgrade to 100-Mbit/sec Fast Ethernet, it won`t have to replace its basic infrastructure but instead can replace just the peripheral electronics such as hubs and network interface cards.

To save time and maximize its labor resources, osv measured out each run and specified for General Photonics the lengths to cut the 10 reels, ranging from 210 meters (688 feet) to 980 meters (3218 feet) for the longest run, from the central hub to the museum`s education building. "We could have used fiber in shorter lengths and run it to some intermediate sites and then spliced it," says Rourke. "But that means more hardware and a lot more time troubleshooting if you lose a link. So we went with a little more fiber."

Livestock and other challenges

Taking advantage of an existing infrastructure of conduits, cabling, and network hardware, the osv/Alternative Telecommunications team designed and installed the new fiber-based network in about six months.

The team went to great lengths to avoid disturbing the authenticity of the site, even for such details as manhole covers. Since they didn`t exist in the 1830s, all the manholes were covered with dirt and grass to be invisible to visitors.

Of course, as with any installation, this job was not without its anxious moments. Some of the most hair-raising incidents of the cable-laying part of the project, which took six weeks, came on the day when Rourke`s team was pulling fiber through conduit running underneath a covered bridge. With such long lengths, Rourke`s small team had to occasionally lay out lengths of valuable fiber cable across the road, where it ran the risk of being stepped on by guests or resident work animals.

"Wouldn`t you know that on the day the cable was lying out in the open, 1200 school children were visiting the museum using that bridge on the way from the center village to the education building," Rourke recalls. "We had to hold a length of cable up in the air for them to walk under for what seemed like an eternity."

Then came the oxen, Henry and Edward, from the museum farm, yoked together and each weighing half a ton. With a turning radius usually seen in tractor-trailers, the beasts barely avoided trampling on the cable lying by the road.

"It was a near-miss," says Rourke with a laugh, "but we figured if we could survive a scare like that, the rest of the job would go well. And it did."

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By burying the conduit and even the manhole covers at Old Sturbridge Village, the installation team was able to install the fiber-based network campuswide without disturbing the authentic environment of the historic outdoor museum.

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Joe Rourke of Alternative Telecommunications Inc. (Monson, MA) completes the installation of the cabling closet at the network`s hub, located in the basement of Old Sturbridge Village`s personnel building.

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With the new network in place, personnel in the museum`s education department can share data with colleagues in 16 other buildings across the site.

Dan Valcour is premises-market development manager for SpecTran Communication Fiber Technologies Inc. (Sturbridge, MA).

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